The Architects of Newburyport: William Graves Perry

William Graves PerryThere is but one building in the city that has his architectural stamp on it – the American Yacht Club building and the interior has never been fully finished!       And yet, this architect had more to do about restoring our entire city that all the Bullfinch’s, Currier’s , Dodge’s, Mill’s and Sargent’s combined.

William Graves Perry was born November 8, 1883 in Boston, Massachusetts and raised in Newburyport. He was a descendent of an old Newburyport seafaring family.  He actually was raised in the beautiful 47 High Street home that now bears his name partially.  It was his exposure to our rich history that so greatly influenced his later life.     Later, he ended up owning the house and used the building and the gardens as his ‘laboratory’ for his greater work’s accomplishments.     

Perry graduated from Harvard in 1905, received his first degree in architecture from MIT in 1907, and another from Paris’ L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1913. He taught architecture at Harvard from 1915-1916.   In 1922 he founded the firm of Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn. Their firm continues to be known for university and commercial buildings, including several on the Harvard campus and Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library.

In 1968, Perry, who was then living in North Andover at the time, not only helped turn the tide away from demolition, but also sent in a sealed bid for the renovation of the Custom House (which they won), with his junior partner Conover Fitch.

They had gone in separate cars and Mr. Perry suffered a heart attack in the vehicle. Fortunately, he was rushed to the hospital and recovered quickly. Even with that emergency, William Perry was determined that the Custom House be restored.

With more urging from Dr. Wilkins, Ruth and Edmond Burke and Hack Pramberg and the Historical Society; the famed architect of Colonial Williamsburg’s restoration submitted a plan for the downtown. Using a three-dimensional plan for Newburyport, its display was the single biggest persuader for historic restoration in the City.

This was the final crown in his long and illustrious career in that he had a part in saving the Newburyport of his youth.

But the story as to how he became involved with John D. Rockefeller is also an amazing tale.

You can read it online in amazing detail here, but let me summarize it briefly.

To set the stage, there were few people in the early twentieth century devoted to historic preservation. When a house was restored, it was often what was ‘thought’ to be appropriate for a certain age which would then be integrated into the building. A good example is the House of Seven Gables. Many of its restored features had no basis in fact but were more of what modern concepts of colonial era architecture and design were and also indicated fictional depictions in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books.

After the fresh outrage due to the destruction of the Penn Central Station in New York, the national mood began to shift into preservation and it was keenly felt by major economic and political leaders at the time.

On a duck hunting trip to Aiken, South Carolina; Mr. Perry due to some peculiar circumstances met Reverend Dr. William Archer Rutherford Goodwin who was working at the William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. Their chance encounter ended up fueling in Perry an interest in history and the architecture that was left in the ancient colonial city. Most of it was in derelict condition but the ideas of restoring and bringing back this ‘lost’ city was the dream of Dr. Goodwin.

Unbeknownst to Perry, Mr. Goodwin had approached a Phi Beta Kappa Member (The Fraternity traced its origins back to Williamsburg), the powerful John D. Rockefeller who after much correspondence and persuasion was convinced to invest in restoring the old capitol of Virginia. But he requested that Mr. Goodwin keep his identity secret.

Thus, when Mr. Goodwin approached William Perry, it was more Perry’s love of historic architecture than any financial compensation. The architect agreed to submit plans for the restoration of one of the most prominent buildings, the Wren House. (Designed by Christopher Wren, the man behind St. Paul’s Cathedral and a host of prominent landmarks in England and London.)

He agreed to travel to Rockefeller’s building in New York but did not make the connection. He was not even allowed toRockerfeller Bldg present his designs in person but was told that Dr. Goodwin was going to show them to a ‘benefactor’. Even then, the architect didn’t know it was Rockerfeller until months later when his plans were approved and full authority to proceed was granted.

When he began the work, though a likable and social man, he encountered other parties who had their own ideas as to restoration. It was Perry’s insistence on authenticity and his intense desire to find historical data to reinforce his approach that began to set a pattern that would be replicated around the country. He enlisted his good friend from Ipswich, Arthur Shurcliffe who had worked on Crane’s Estate and Sturbridge Village to create a powerful blend of landscaping, building and street designs that were as authentic as possible for the time period of Colonial Williamsburg.

Many of the principles enshrined in the National Park Service’s Standards of Historic Preservation first were expounded by pioneer practices instituted and made popular by William Graves Perry.

His firm meticulously oversaw the creation of Williamsburg, Virginia until an in-house architectural department was created and took over in 1953 within the colonial preservation foundation.

He even tried to get Rockefeller to do the same type of restoration on Newburyport but the great expense of Williamsburg and its intricate workings so filled the great Capitalist that he felt he had his hands full in Virginia and turned down the idea.

Perry, after seeing his beloved city saved, passed away April 4th, 1975 in Boston.

It is ironic that not only was he a powerful influence for historic preservation in Newburyport but he was actually the father of the Guidelines that are being proposed under the local historic district ordinance.      If he was alive today, he would be very proud indeed to find that his concepts enshrined in the Department of Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation have come home to roost in his beloved city!

-P. Preservationist

This entry was posted in Architecture, History, Local Historic Districts (LHD), Preservation, Preservation History, Restoration. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Architects of Newburyport: William Graves Perry

  1. Tom says:

    Perry was the architect for St. Paul’s Church (1922-23).

  2. That is truly great to know!

  3. Amanda Frank says:

    If one were to have some old, painted renderings of Mr. Perry’s, do you have any advice as to whom to sell them or donate them to?

    • indyjerry77 says:

      Dear Amanda,

      MOST DEFINITELY donate them to the Historical Society of Old Newbury or you could try the Custom House Maritime Museum. Both were heavily influenced by Mr. Perry. He and his house and gardens are crucial historical elements that would be of interest to the HSON and he actually along with his partner worked on the restoration of the Custom House!

      You could also declare a price and if the board of either organization considers it of great importance, may offer an amount.

      As much as the Custom House is on the hot burner right now, they don’t have the deep pockets of the well-established Historical Society.

      It’s, of course, up to you what to do!

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