BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT — George H. Lawler Jr., a major figure in city government for close to five decades who played a key role in the downtown’s preservation and renewal, died yesterday morning at his home at 22 Woodland St. He was 85.
Lawler served as mayor from 1964-67, and was as a city councilor for numerous terms, 1954-1963 and 1988-1991.
Though in failing health due to respiratory ills and other problems, he had continued to be active in municipal affairs in recent months. He is currently listed as chairman of the Board of Water Commissioners and took an active interest in events within the city.
He is remembered as a mayor who helped save the downtown from demolition in the 1960s, and veteran leaders here say he put the city on a track to stress preservation in its redevelopment.
“George really gave of himself when it came to helping the city,” said former Mayor Byron Matthews, a friend, associate and neighbor for decades. “I was on the council when he was mayor, and then he was city clerk for several of my terms as mayor.
“He should be given credit for preserving the downtown. He also helped to develop the industrial park, and he did many other good things. We were fortunate to have him here.”
The son of a Newburyport police officer, Lawler served as a special police officer for several years before winning his first term on the City Council in 1954.
He remained on the City Council until he took the mayor’s office in 1964. After two terms as mayor in City Hall, he worked for the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority until 1971. From 1971 to 1987, he was city clerk here. Lawler continued his activity in civic life after leaving that position, serving on the City Council again after leaving the clerk’s office.
The Newburyport native is remembered as a mayor who made an effort to preserve buildings in the downtown. Following Mayor Al Zabriskie, he pushed for preservation rather than demolition.
In the early ’60s, a tentative plan called for tearing down almost the entire historic downtown and replacing it with a strip mall and parking lots. It was the standard model of urban renewal at the time, a path that many cities had followed.
Lawler was a key factor in developing an alternative to such a scenario.
In an interview in 2007, he recalled, “Parking was a big deal then, and some original plans to improve the boarded-up downtown buildings called for structures to be torn down and replaced by parking lots. The bulldozers were going to come, and everything was going to go.
“But there were people in town who wanted to save some of the buildings and when such a (demolition) model was shown around in 1964, some people started saying ‘wait a minute.’”
Lawler met with a delegation of residents interested in historic preservation, including banker John Pramberg, architect Edmund Burke and local cardiologist Dr. Robert Wilkins.
The story goes that Lawler was willing to listen to new ideas for the downtown, and he proceeded to forward a resolution to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority asking it to give consideration to developers who wanted to restore buildings instead of demolishing them. He also refused to sign a document that would have allowed for the widespread demolition of downtown buildings.
His resolution impressed officials at the federal Department Housing and Urban Development, who controlled funding for much redevelopment in the state.
Lawler also saw to it that Wilkins was named to the NRA board. Wilkins’ preservation-minded voice made an impact on the NRA’s direction, and helped fuel the downtown restoration that took place in the 1970s.
In part because Lawler was willing to listen to options proposed by new voices, the minds of Newburyporters began to favor preservation, according to news reports of the day.
Although some buildings came down, many more were saved and the city’s preservation-based urban renewal plan took a new direction which was to win regional and national awards.
Beginning in 1968, after Lawler left the mayor’s office, a plan focusing on preservation would move forward under a new mayor, Byron Matthews.
But Lawler is remembered as a transitional figure who helped stop the bulldozers and start residents thinking about its historical architecture.
In a Daily News account about downtown development written in 2007, Mary Wilkins Haslinger, daughter of Dr. Wilkins, stated, “If George hadn’t written that resolution that asked the NRA to consider preserving the old buildings instead of tearing them all down, everything could be gone now.”
Lawler was also a key figure in the creation of the Newburyport Area Industrial Development Corp., and for the development of Yankee Homecoming.
Erford Fowler, a friend and a former city councilor who served with Lawler on the Board of Water Commissioners in recent years, said, “He did a lot for this city, and not all of his contributions have been recognized.
“He was a leader of Yankee Homecoming for many years, and when it came to city activities, he was always willing to help. Many city councilors called on him for advice; he was knowledgeable and had a wonderful memory.”
Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, a friend who also served on the City Council with Lawler years ago, said, “George did a lot for the city, and was especially supportive of police and fire. Perhaps that is because his father was shot in the line of duty during a robbery (but survived).
“He loved government and enjoyed helping out in any way in the city.”
Lawler was the father of four children, and six grandchildren. He had been widowed for several decades.
Matthews called Lawler a real friend.
“We graduated Newburyport High School together in 1946, and over the years went to many reunions together.
“I remember the night when I defeated him for mayor years ago, he came over to my house at about 2 a.m. It was a clean campaign, and we just talked about politics, the city and we caught up on things. He left at about 4 a.m.
“George and I were good friends. I will miss him; we all will miss him.”
Arrangements are being handled by the Twomey-LeBlanc Funeral Home. Details were incomplete at press time.