Mary Chick remembers the gifts her elegant, elderly neighbor would bring back from Jamaica: straw sandals one year; a jumper another. Her grand piano that was so polished and clean — like a mirror — that she didn’t dare touch it. The meticulous way she kept her gardens and home; her warm smile and sophisticated, yet gentle, style.
When prominent Newbury resident, philanthropist, and conservationist Florence Evans Bushee died in 1975, the memories didn’t pass with her.
And, nearly 40 years after her death, they remain, and have become even more poignant with the loss of her last physical vestige: her beloved, longtime homestead on Newman Road, near the town’s historic Lower Green on Route 1A. The green marks the site of Newbury’s first settlers in 1635.
Now, the frames of two massive homes wrapped in green plastic rise behind the tiny Lower Green Schoolhouse that has stood since 1877, an incongruous meeting of old and new that has shaken those who have worked to preserve the town’s historic charm.
Late last month, most of the former Bushee property, including its stately 1812 main house and a large barn, was bulldozed by current owner Barry Coscia of Bushee Real Estate Trust. One horse barn is all that remains of the once grand, sprawling property.
“I was horrified, absolutely horrified,” said Chick, who grew up on Newman Road and still lives there, and was Bushee’s closest neighbor.
The razing came as a shock to a town that has been so dedicated to conservation and open space, and that recently permanently protected a 4-acre parcel known as Newman Farm Meadow, which buffers the Lower Green and sits close to the former Bushee estate. It led to an impromptu memorial on a frigid, late-January afternoon, and also has many now calling for the adoption of a demolition delay bylaw, which would temporarily halt the destruction or reconstruction of a historical home meeting certain structural and age thresholds. Such bylaws exist in several nearby towns, including Amesbury, Andover, Danvers, and Peabody, according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
“That was a beautiful, well-built house,” said Chick. “Not just from a memory point of view, but from a conservation point of view, that just isn’t the way to deal with historic homes.”
“There was absolutely no reason to tear it down,” agreed Adele Pollis, who owns the adjacent 1790 Plummer-Humphreys house.
Now, going forward, the fate of the property is an enigma, as Coscia has been silent, and did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the former owner, Dr. Saddruddin Hemani of Newburyport, or Chris Drelich of the town’s historical commission.
“It’s a great mystery as to what’s happening,” said Joanie Purinton, a conservation advocate and real estate agent who at one time had the listing for the property. “People in town are very curious.”
According to the Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds, Coscia purchased the 6-acre property for $2.15 million from Hemani on Dec. 18. Most of the structures on the land were wiped out within a month.
The deed includes a subdivision plan dated Oct. 17, 2007 that established three house lots on a cul-de-sac called Florence Bushee Lane.
During the memorial service, which drew dozens of people, the property was cordoned off with police tape and guarded by two officers.
Many noted irony in the chain of events: that Bushee, who was so dedicated to conservation throughout her 90-plus years, lost her home in such a rash manner to the wrecking ball.
Born in 1881 in Everett, Bushee was the daughter of Florence Fowler and wealthy banker Wilmot Roby Evans. In 1907, her father purchased Newman Farm; upon his death in 1925, Bushee took over ownership, establishing Oldtown Hill Stables, where she raised prize horses and crops. The original house built by the Newman family, who were among the town’s first settlers, was a twin-chimney Colonial with 13 rooms and eight fireplaces, according to a report from the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
In her 50-plus years in Newbury, Bushee dedicated herself to preservation. She helped renovate the circa-1728 Seddon Tavern and circa-1715 Dole-Little House, and, over time, donated more than 200 acres to the Trustees of Reservations to create Old Town Hill, a 3-mile network of trails near her home on Newman Road.
The Florence Evans Bushee Foundation continues to provide annual scholarships to students from Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, and West Newbury.
Many described her as modest, quiet, unselfish, and not one to brag about her philanthropic efforts.
“She was not doing it all for ego; she truly cared about this community,” said Pollis. “She obviously believed in future generations.”
Although she never had children of her own, she adored them, Chick said, and understood, despite the fact that she was a lover of fine things, “that children needed to be children.”
Many now mourn the fate of her former property. “It’s a tragedy . . . that’s an overwrought word, but it’s a great loss to what has been targeted as a scenic byway in our town,” said Purinton.
But despite what has been lost, members of the community are grateful they have been able to make some conservation strides, such as the $500,000 purchase that buffered the Lower Green.
“We wish we could’ve raised more money, but that simply was not possible,” said Edward Becker, executive director of the Essex County Greenbelt Association, which worked with the Save the Lower Green group to secure that property. “The core backdrop to the lower green has been conserved.”
Still, Newbury residents are ever more wary that their town’s pastoral quality is slowly eroding.
“This town is one of the earliest settlements, and it’s maintained that character for an awfully long time,” said Pollis. “It would really be a shame if [the historic properties] all got torn down and there was nothing left of Newbury’s history.”