And yes, he was the last of the big Power Mayors, and yes, he oversaw and guided the transformation of the City from a rundown industrial mill town to the affluent and beautiful community it is today; but mention is not made of his greatest achievement.
To do that, you have to avoid revisionist history and realize that we had a long line of Mayors who were involved in the urban renewal process. Back then, urban renewal had a strict definition. You sent in the bulldozers, leveled everything and put in ‘modern’ infrastructure to replace it. Newburyport was not an island and the entire nation was being ‘urban renewed’ which meant NEW, NEWER and NEWEST.
Graf, Zabriskie, Lawler and [Byron] Matthews represented a driving desire to help Newburyport. But it was the ‘thing to do’ in those days to call in the machines and even men like George Lawler had a tough time trying to buck conventional thought. Byron Matthews has not been a great friend of historic preservation but he was never a dull-witted, stupid politician. He took the public outcry and began to use Urban Renewal as an historic preservation tool – THE FIRST IN THE NATION. But, it was Dick Sullivan who embraced it without reservations.
Under his administration, he oversaw the Newburyport Historic District being put under the National Register of Historic Places. This was no small task. It required huge amounts of photographing, surveying and the enormous task of researching EVERY HOUSE. City money was invested into research consultants and in the nomination effort.
And why was this enormous task made? So parts if not all of this historic district could be eventually put under a local historic district ordinance. Since the NRA controlled the Downtown at the time, the main thrust was to get High Street put under the LHD.
At that time, most of the City still was composed of the Dark Siders and the old guard who under long poverty had no sympathy toward such restrictions on their renovations and it failed.
But the demographics have changed. We have a great number of people who have moved in who have upgraded and turned our city into the regional envy. And this new group understands that all that investment needs to be protected now that we are a BOOM TOWN. And this new group has watched exploiters come in with little interest to protect this treasured asset (750+ according to Mass Historic and the National Architectural Trust) demolishing, gutting and stripping away any sign of history.
We need to honor him by renewing our desire to finish his unfinished work.
PS. Though hardly relevant to local politics, Dick Sullivan (As well as Byron Matthews) were Republicans. Keep that in mind for those who want to put the word Democrat next to Historic Preservation!