Dr. Robert Wilkins is given tremendous credit in being the leader for the restoration of Newburyport. That alone would secure his fame, but I think the greatest thing he did was invite an old Newburyporter, William G. Perry to offer a design plan for our Downtown.
But it almost didn’t happen!
In 1968, Perry, who was 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 to 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.
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.
Therefore, the historic home at 47 High Street in Newburyport represents a movement that has spawned countless thousands of historic districts, restored homes and an entire mindset that has created economic wealth through restoration and enriched our nation with irreplaceable cultural treasures.
1851 Plan of Newburyport, Mass H. McIntire
1851-1871 City Directories
1872 Map of the City of Newburyport, Mass. D.G. Beers and Co.
A. Hale, Old Newburyport Houses, Boston, 1912.
J. J. Currier, History of Newburyport 1764-1905, Vol. I and II, reprint, Newburyport, 1977.
J. M. Howells, The Architectural Heritage of the Merrimack, New York 194I.
Assessor’s Records 1890-1980
R. Cheney, History of Merrimack River Shipbuilding, Newburyport, 1964.
Newburyport, 2011, City of Newburyport Vision Appraisal Online Records.
Newburyport Historic District, www.newburyporthistoricdistrict.org, Historic Survey of the National Register of Historic Places, 1984.
A. Osgood “Recollection of Temple Street”, Historical Society of Ould Newbury.
Great Gardens of High Street, June, 2004, The Historical Society of Old Newbury, celebrating the 25th anniversary Garden Tour.
Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949 by Charles B. Hosmer Jr. (University Press of Virginia, 1981). Volume 1, pages 11-73; Volume II, pages 959-987.
“Architects of Colonial Williamsburg,” by Edward A. Chappell, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina Press), pages 59-61.
“Notes on The Architecture” by William G. Perry, Architectural Record, December 1935, Volume 78, Number 6, pages 363-377. This special issue contains articles by Fiske Kimball and Arthur A. Shurcliff and others relating to the Williamsburg Restoration.
“The Mystery Story of Williamsburg,” an interview with William G. Perry, Boston Globe, June 2, 1963, page A7.
Scribner Historic Buildings Series, Historic Buildings of Massachusetts, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1976.
Boston Sunday Herald, July 21, 1963.