As an historic preservationist in Newburyport, there has been one single thing that has greatly disturbed me.
The total ignoring of the National Register of Historic Places’ Newburyport Historic District(NHD).
Several years back, when developers would try to demolish historic homes or renovate them to the degree that you would hardly recognized them as such; the zoning board would go over the applications. This was before the Demolition Delay Ordinance was enacted. A whole lot of things would be considered but the historic nature of the home was not even on the table.
The Planning Board and the Planning Office would often consider projects in the City with hardly any mention of the District’s presence. Even the Historical Commission for years blatantly refused to acknowledge the significance of the Register and many members would make statements showing their total ignorance. The Building Department has always discounted the importance of the NHD and is counting TO THIS DAY on the vast majority of citizens being ignorant of its significance.
The Preservation Trust and the Historical Society of Old Newbury have both been guilty of ignoring the unity of the ‘District’. They had an opportunity to support signage (one of the first things you put into place when you grant a huge area like the NHD) and to right an injustice since 1984; and the board refused to recognized the central importance. Even the board and the leadership did not recognize the central role.
The Newburyport Daily News has for years held the ‘BIG LIE’ that the National Register status is strictly, “ceremonial” and “symbolic” but rarely of any impact on Newburyport.
Even recently, when the historical commission, planning board, planning office and zoning board came together for a workshop on how to deal with Section 6(c) zoning, there was hardly any mention of its powerful impact. Everyone was happy and the meeting was harmonious but the National Register NHD which was sitting big as life in the room was totally ignored.
It is our unique, majestic jumbling of 18th and 19th century architecture that puts us heads and shoulders above all other Cities in New England.
AND WE TREAT IT WITH SCORN!
Our current Massachusetts Building Code gives special treatment and special exemptions for historic buildings and other buildings that ‘contribute’ to the historic district. In other words, our building department should not treat our City as business as usual. It requires specialized treatment. And presently, we are not getting that special treatment. We keep inviting developers into our City that only want to demolish so they can replace the buildings with code-compliant structures. And we have very little on the books to stop them.
City Planning is supposed to encompass the importance of a single unit called the Newburyport Historic District. The Planning Office is trying to ignore the NHD – why else would they hide the Master Plan on the website which encourages development of this district and the eventual adoption of a local historic district ordinance? Why else would we take in a Planning Director who has no real experience in adopting one? The idea of a unified block of historic housing to be treated in a special way is something they scorn!
Preservation easements and National Landmark Status are all dependent on the homes being previously established as being on the National Register. Tax credits are available for individual homeowners who seek easements. Business owners and especially landlords can get state and federal tax credits up to 20% for their National Register property. It costs a lot of money and time to seek Register status. It’s automatic for most everyone in the NHD. And most treat this ‘gift’ with scorn!
Our heritage tourism depends on the City as a ‘whole’. If we segment and decimate our historic neighborhoods for short-term benefit; we may end up very spiffy and sharp looking but the very heart of our City will be gone. We have no Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building as our symbol. Our entire historic City is what draws in the visitors.
If we walk away from the value of our assets, our ‘star’ will fade.
In the next section, I will talk further of the importance of this much-maligned 800 lb Gorilla.