Urban Renewal and the Fitz Henry Lane House

Cape Ann Museum

Today, more than 150 years after artist Fitz Henry Lane's death, the house he built on Duncan’s Point in Gloucester remains standing. Its survival is no coincidence. As Urban Renewal came to the city, civic leaders sprung to action.

Aerial photograph of Fitz Henry Lane House before Urban Renewal demolished surrounding area (1950) by Unknown photographerCape Ann Museum

As the nationwide Urban Renewal program swept the United States in the 1950s, Gloucester's participation in this federally funded project shifted away from an original plan of revitalizing the more heavily populated inland neighborhoods to restoring portions of its coast. More eloquently dubbed "The Waterfront Project," the City began efforts to remove dilapidated buildings on the water side of Rogers Street. Despite being primarily a commercial zone, 30 families called this neighborhood home and were re-located. The original goal of the project was not to build luxury apartments or parks as many communities planned, but rather to combat unemployment and blight and restore a commercial fishing district.

Fitz Henry Lane House, Ivy Court (1957) by Myrtle CameronCape Ann Museum

The 1950s & 60s also saw renewed interest in the maritime artist, Fitz Henry Lane. The house at the top of Duncan's Point, which the artist built in 1849/50 and lived in until his death in 1865, happened to be in the middle of the proposed demolition zone and became the center of a city-wide debate. Civic leaders questioned whether the house should be preserved, how it should be used, and by whom.

Letter from the Civic Art Committee to the Municipal Council - page 1 (1961-05-12) by Civic Art CommitteeCape Ann Museum

As early as 1958, it was clear that the Lane House was in the path of bulldozers and concerned community members began a campaign to save at least this one building on the waterfront. The initial committee, The Civic Art Committee, was comprised of local leaders like Alfred Mansfield Brooks and Walker Hancock, who would continue to champion the House for the next decade.

Letter from the Civic Art Committee to the Municipal Council - page 2 (1961-05-12) by Civic Art CommitteeCape Ann Museum

While a small group of citizens continued plans for the Lane House, for the remainder of 1961 and 1962 the City's focus shifted back to the broader $3 million project, administered by the Gloucester Housing Authority, of acquiring all land and buildings within the renewal area.

Lane House in the midst of Urban Renewal (1965-06) by Barbara ErkkilaCape Ann Museum

"What to do with famous landmark?"

wrote Paul Kenyon in an October 1964 issue of the "Gloucester Daily Times" implying that efforts from the previous years had been successful and the House was to remain standing as those around it fell. By this point in the Waterfront Project, plans shifted from solely focusing on reestablishing places of employment in the area to also including a waterfront park with a walkway from Main Street. 

Lane House in the midst of Urban Renewal Project (1965/1966) by Unknown photographerCape Ann Museum

One of the first disputes regarding the use of the surviving Lane House occurred between two business owners, George McKinnon and Peter Cahill, who had purchased the House before the Urban Renewal plan went into effect and the title reverted back to the City's ownership. In 1965, the Gloucester Daily Times was the conduit for this public discussion on whether the men should be given back the title and if they could in turn be allowed to go forward with their original plan for the House: a restaurant and tavern.

Lane House in the midst of surrounding demolition (1965-06) by Barbara ErkkilaCape Ann Museum

"The Stone Jug" after Urban Renewal demolition of surrounding buildings (1965-06-05) by Barbara ErkkilaCape Ann Museum

Upon returning to Gloucester in 1965, poet Charles Olson, through frequent letters to the Times' editor, became a vocal opponent of Urban Renewal, calling it "renewing without reviewing." The Housing Authority's 1963 plan dedicated over a dozen pages to relocation services for individuals and businesses that experienced displacement due to the project. While this plan did allocate money for assisting in services and moving fees, any differences in expenses accrued were left to individuals. As one resident stated, "Where we live now is where we can afford."

Letter to Gloucester City Council from C.A.H.A. withdrawing offer to purchase FHL House - page 1 (1965-12-27) by Cape Ann Historical AssociationCape Ann Museum

In late 1965, less than half a year after the surrounding buildings had been razed, the question of an occupant for the house continued. Due to the concern raised in this public letter, the Cape Ann Museum, then the Cape Ann Historical Association (CAHA), withdrew its proposal to purchase, occupy, and be caretaker of the Lane House.

Letter to Gloucester City Council from C.A.H.A. withdrawing offer to purchase FHL House - page 2 (1965-12-27) by Cape Ann Historical AssociationCape Ann Museum

Meeting notes of group of citizens seeking to preserve the Fitz Henry Lane House - page 1 (1966-01-24) by MJOCape Ann Museum

CAHA's withdrawal of their offer to purchase the house did not mean that the society, as well as many other local historical based institutions, were not deeply invested in what would become of the house. One month after the previous letter was written, these meeting notes read as a brainstorming session of local cultural institutions searching for the most civically beneficial solution for a historical landmark.

Meeting notes of group of citizens seeking to preserve the Fitz Henry Lane House - page 2 (1966-01-24) by MJOCape Ann Museum

Meeting notes of group of citizens seeking to preserve the Fitz Henry Lane House - page 3 (1966-01-24) by MJOCape Ann Museum

Meeting notes of group of citizens seeking to preserve the Fitz Henry Lane House - page 4 (1966-01-24) by MJOCape Ann Museum

Meeting notes of group of citizens seeking to preserve the Fitz Henry Lane House - page 5 (1966-01-24) by MJOCape Ann Museum

Aerial view of Duncan's Point following demolition of buildings to Urban Renewal (1966-05-08) by John FieldsCape Ann Museum

In May 1966, two years after Paul Kenyon wrote his editorial asking what could be done with the Lane House, he wrote that the House, now alone on the hill, "looks like a miniature castle, with its granite block wall, five-gabled roof and prominent situation overlooking Gloucester Harbor." He goes on to share the work of the recently established Committee for Preservation, whose goal it was to assure the House's public use for the community.

Aerial view of Duncan's Point following demolition of buildings to Urban Renewal (1966-05-08) by John FieldsCape Ann Museum

Fitz Henry Lane House during Urban Renewal (1966-05) by John FieldsCape Ann Museum

Fitz Henry Lane House from Duncan Street after surrounding demolition (1966) by Unknown photographerCape Ann Museum

Report of the Committee for Preserving the Fitz Hugh Lane House - page 1 (1967-07-18) by Committee for Preserving the Fitz Hugh Lane HouseCape Ann Museum

Recalling Olson's "renewing without reviewing," this document shows the Committee for Preserving the Lane House pivoting from its recent success of saving the house from the first round of demolition to preserving the remaining physical structure and placing a tenant inside. Despite this progress, the fear remained that if funds were not secured to execute the preservation, the Lane House might still face destruction.

Report of the Committee for Preserving the Fitz Hugh Lane House - page 2 (1967-07-18) by Committee for Preserving the Fitz Hugh Lane HouseCape Ann Museum

Letter from Robert F. Brown to Hon. William H. Bates seeking information on restoration funding. (1967-01-04) by Robert F. BrownCape Ann Museum

Correspondence from this time period show members of the Committee reaching out to Massachusetts congressmen in an attempt to better understand the funding that is granted to the city for such work. At the time a trustee of CAHA, Robert Brown undoubtedly had knowledge of historic houses and the work needed to preserve them.

Resolution of the Gloucester City Council re: Fitz Hugh Lane House (1968-04-10) by Gloucester City CouncilCape Ann Museum

On April 4, 1968, the fight to protect the Fitz Henry Lane House from demolition was officially and legally over. Addressed to the administrator of the Urban Renewal Project, John W. Sheedy of the Gloucester Housing Authority, the city writes: "The City Council at its regular meeting held on April 4, 1968, voted unanimously to adopt the following motion: That the Gloucester Housing Authority be requested to proceed with the restoration of the Fitz Hugh Lane House in conjunction with the City of Gloucester Historical Commission who will be the ultimate conservator for the City of Gloucester."

Letter to the Editor from Hyde Cox (1968/1969) by Gloucester Daily TimesCape Ann Museum

The years following the City's resolution to save the House were filled with conflicting narratives and plans. This letter to the editor from Hyde Cox, then president of Cape Ann Historical Association, corrects an article in Yankee Magazine stating that CAHA would be using the House as a "depository" for Lane's works. Instead, Cox reiterates the excitement around a soon to be completed new wing of the Museum. For the next few years, the two main story lines were: who would own and care for the House and who would rent and occupy the House if the owner had no use for all three floors, which was the expectation.

Letter to Dorn McGrath discussing PL89-665 (National Preservation Act) (1969) by Gloucester Historical CommissionCape Ann Museum

The next step for the Housing Authority and Historical Commission was to secure federal funding to preserve the House. The easiest path toward that outcome was to apply to the recently pass law, P.L. 89-655 (The Preservation Act of 1966). This undated letter (most likely sent very late in 1968 or very early in 1969) to Dorn McGrath of the History and Urban Development Department in D.C. outlines the City's progress on the House to that point and their request for funding. After a relatively quick turnaround, the Fitz Henry Lane House was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 1, 1970.

Letter citing recently completed architecture plans for renovation (1971-05-10) by Gloucester Housing AuthorityCape Ann Museum

This letter and the following architecture plan shows that all involved parties were eager to begin work on restoring the Fitz Henry Lane House to its former glory. An architect was chosen, John Radford Abbott, based on his recent work at Sturbridge Village, who quickly drafted a plan for restoring the structure and exterior of the House.

Portion of architectural plan for renovation of Fitz Henry Lane House (1970-08-25) by John Radfor AbbotCape Ann Museum

Letter confirming receipt of architecture plans for Fitz Henry Lane House renovations (1971-05-12) by Gloucester Historical CommissionCape Ann Museum

Despite the exterior architecture plans being quickly approved, work on the interior was continually delayed as the Commission had hoped a future tenant would have a say in its design and execution. For the next three years, the leading candidate was the Chamber of Commerce, but due to leadership turnover and other priorities, they were unable at the time to commit to occupying the House.

Proposal from the Gloucester Art Museum and Gallery to occupy the Lane House - page 1 (1976-04-22) by Gloucester City CouncilCape Ann Museum

Letters such as this perfectly illustrate the status of the Lane House during the 1970s. By 1976, a search for a permanent tenant was a decade old, and no one seemed able to secure the rights. This proposal by the Gloucester Art Museum and Gallery was one of the more convincing and well thought out proposals. Others from this time period came from: a security company, artist studios, a photography committee, Charles Olson's library, the Conservation Commission, the City's Health Department, and many more.

Proposal from the Gloucester Art Museum and Gallery to occupy the Lane House - page 2 (1976-04-22) by Gloucester Art Museum and GalleryCape Ann Museum

Handwritten letter from Walker Hancock regarding use of Fitz Henry Lane House (1976) by Walker HancockCape Ann Museum

This undated letter by sculptor Walker Hancock of the Historical Commission, seemingly in response to the previous proposal by the Gloucester Art Museum and Gallery, shows why, despite his natural desire to see the building used by artist, he, and the rest of the Committee, had reservations, "I do not feel that this building, which is public property should be turned over to any private group on a permanent basis."

Letter from the Gloucester Tourist Commission to the Gloucester Historical Commission (1977-04-01) by Pat Earl, Chair of the Gloucester Tourist CommissionCape Ann Museum

Almost two decades after a group of interested community members joined together to discuss and create a plan to save the Fitz Henry Lane House from the destruction of Urban Renewal, a tenant was finally granted permission to occupy the building. Although this would not end up being permanent, the Tourist Commission, under Chair, Pat Earl, soon opened the Gloucester Visitor's Center on the ground floor and began working with others to see how the remaining floors would be best utilized. Thus closing an important and active chapter in the House's history. Despite the time and effort that went into finally securing a tenant, the importance of saving and preserving this historic landmark is a testament to the people of Gloucester and their appreciation for its art and history. 

Lane House and Duca Statue (1997-09) by John FieldsCape Ann Museum

Today, the Fitz Henry Lane House still sits alone on the top of the hill but is now accompanied by a sculpture of Lane looking out to sea. This memorial sculpture is the work of Alfred Duca and was installed on Duncan's Point on August 30, 1997.

Statue of the artist Fitz Henry Lane by Al Duca (1997-09) by John FieldsCape Ann Museum

To learn more about this era of the Fitz Henry Lane House and Urban Renewal, visit the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Gloucester City Archives also holds detailed records of the events outlined in this exhibit.

Credits: Story

The exhibition 'Urban Renewal and the Fitz Henry Lane House' was organized by the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Items in this exhibit are from the Fitz Henry Lane House Architecture Collection, Box D26, Folder 8, and the photographs are from the Digital Photo Archives under cited sources.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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