My wife and I went off to Newport, Rhode Island to enjoy some time to ourselves. Travelling there with all the preserved mansions and the vibrant downtown in mind; I assumed they had historic preservation well in hand and appreciated its economic value.
As we began to visit some of the mind-blowing mansions along Bellevue Avenue, I began to hear from the tour guides about an epic battle that had occurred rather recently. A developer wanted to teardown two of the iconic mansions to put in a shopping center! Through the aggressive efforts of the local preservation societies (there are two*); one of the mansions was successfully saved but the other was demolished.
As I heard this, I was surrounded by tourists from all over the world; I couldn’t believe that someone could be so stupid as to sacrifice the very thing that was attracting not only the well-healed but people from all economic levels – all to see a national treasure in this famous seaport.
Later, after seeing the Breakers and several other mansions; we were very thirsty so we returned to downtown Newport and we pulled into one of two downtown shopping centers. I parked my car and ran over to the storefront that indicated a deli and was stopped in my tracks. It was not only empty, it was boarded up. No matter, I spotted a Rite Aid pharmacy in the same facility – I’ll run over there – walking across the hard tarmac, my jaw dropped. It was empty too!
We were getting mighty thirsty so I ran over to the ice cream place located near the empty pharmacy to get at least some water – it was closed too!!!!!
Desperately, I ran into the last place, A Stop and Shop. It wasn’t looking too healthy and was rather skimpy in stock – it looked like it was in trouble too!
Now keep in mind, across the street from the shopping center was an historic mansion. Another shopping center was also located cattycorner on Bellevue Avenue (Where all the mansions are) and was also having difficulties.
And it hit me that someone’s vanity, someone’s conceit with too much money available had insisted on these stupid, poorly-planned shopping centers. Worse, they had somehow convinced a finance company, perhaps even a bank; to provide them the underwriting.
So apparently, idiocy based on a predisposed bias, fueled by ego empowered a foolish opportunity that not only didn’t work out, but great harm was done to an historic asset and to the city.
I have seen developers right here in Newburyport who have insisted on building downtown or in the historic district who don’t want to continue the historic theme of our city and get upset when someone reminds them that our architecture based on the Federalist past is what is bringing in the dough.
I have seen the cinder-block theme on Liberty Street built by the aesthetically challenged (and foolishly financed by a clueless loan officer) and the later weak attempts to at least fix the exteriors.
And unfortunately sometimes nothing can be done as the city is victimized with mistakes in the past…like the Sullivan Building.
But those who are clueless keep showing up** and causing us to lose money by damaging the money-making views and removing our historic, authentic buildings.
The vain are everywhere!
* The Newport Restoration Foundation which is more like our Newburyport Preservation Trust and the Preservation Society of Newport County that largely deals with the mega “cottages” of the gilded age.
** A ranch house on top of the historic Bracket Heel Building ruining our city’s views from High and State, 42 Merrimac Street which refuses to put historic brick into its addition and 40 Merrimac Street – the current design, that even Mass Historic, filled with horror, was forced to step in and try to stop (a stubborn attempt to obliterate the view down Green Street with a large glass structure).