Don’t get me wrong, we still have a long way to go when it comes to historic preservation; but I’ve been here for over a quarter of a century and events have developed so quickly that I’d thought I’d share some memories of the good ‘ole days.
There was a time when the Historical Commission had no power whatsoever. They would sit in a little room and hope upon hope that someone would notice them. And since most of them were just volunteer citizens, they would only have a vague understanding of the principles or if they did – who were they going to tell who cared? The few contractors who appeared would smirk and wonder why they even had to bother to show up and explain themselves.
There was a time when the denial of the Newburyport Historic District was standard fare. Even at the rare times admission was made, The Daily News claimed and has claimed for years that the National Register is simply an honorarium, much like getting a silver star in first grade for good behavior. It had little value and little significance. The most they would acknowledge was the Market Square Historic District does exist and was vaguely enforced by the NRA simply because they had to. The dark sider Mayors’ Lavender and Moak couldn’t wait to see the restrictions lifted in 2005.
And what of the Planning Office? The staff there were just as ignorant as the applicants. They had a copy of the National Register on the shelf but someone had failed to realize the lists had been printed on two sides and so more than a third of the streets weren’t even available. They did bother to put up sample houses on the website implying that only those buildings, many of them grand, were only the ones to be considered in the historic district.
And of the original list in the archive room of the Newburyport Public Library? Regularly, it would simply disappear as one developer after another would get nervous enough that someone ‘might’ go looking. Some time later, it would then re-appear mysteriously as if it had never gone missing. Rumors were often spread that many who took the documents were actually Library staff assisting a friend or relative in exploiting the historic architecture.
The banks and the realtors didn’t want the district to be known and the building inspector, regularly, simply disregarded their historic status even though special provisions are included in the building code for structures over 75 years old that are ‘contributing’ to the National Register historic district.
When anyone would appear before the Planning Board, or the ZBA concerning the historic nature of these buildings; first they would be met with puzzled looks, or try to deny that the National Register even existed and then when faced with the facts they would proceed to brush it aside as irrelevant.
In those days, there was no Preservation Trust, and the bankers and developers had long ago infiltrated the historical society making them impotent. Even when the ‘Trust came into existence, they were so timid, that all anyone had to say was, “Boo” and they’d burst into tears!
BUT LOOK HOW FAR WE’VE COME!
We now have average citizens learning about the Newburyport Historic District. We have not only a Preservation Trust but they have a professional website that far outshines www.ppreservationist.com. We have the city now seizing the National Register “list” from the dark dungeon of obscurity and seeking to make it available for every citizen and developer online and at City Hall. The Planning Board, the ZBA and a host of ‘demo lawyers’ are well aware that now confident, well-seasoned negotiators from the Trust will confront them at every opportunity. The Historical Commission, armed with the demolition delay ordinance and soon with powerful consulting influence will be felt in the halls of City Hall and at each of the volunteer boards when necessary.
And of course, the historic preservationists flexed their political muscle at the recent elections and while others were occupied with the Waterfront issue, swept their people into office. (to join those already on their side)
It’s a new ballgame now. We still need to influence the new zoning, infuse the new Master Plan, stress heritage tourism and seek ways to increase the protection of our historic architecture and buildings.
But the point is, this is no time to even doubt or get discouraged; it’s rather a time to get excited and redouble our efforts.
The headwinds of many citizens’ efforts are pushing all of us forward!