New Bedford Nonprofit Rescues 1834 City House

Nonprofit Rescues 1834 House
By Margaret Foster | Preservation: Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

In any other city, a charred, 176-year-old mansion with gaping holes in the roof might have been demolished. But not in New Bedford, Mass., where the mayor and a nonprofit preservation organization joined forces to save a historic reminder of the town’s whaling past.
In 2005, fire broke out in the 1834 John Howland Jr. House, a Federal/Greek Revival mansion built by a local family that made a fortune in the whaling business. Rhode Island-based F & S Enterprises bought the severely damaged house (long used as an apartment building) at auction, and last November applied for a permit to tear it down.
Hoping to save the building, New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang encouraged F & S to sell the structure to the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE). By April, the league had managed to raise $237,000—all of its staff members personally chipped in—and purchase the house. The City of New Bedford also contributed $50,000 toward the purchase price. “We knew we had to act,” says Lisa Bergson, executive director of WHALE, founded in 1962. “We felt strongly that the house was at such great risk that the only real way to save the building was to acquire it. … There aren’t many of these grand brick mansions in New Bedford.” “The John Howland Jr. House is too important to lose,” Mayor Lang said in a statement. “Demolition of this historic property was not acceptable, and my administration has been working on saving it for well over a year.
I am so pleased that WHALE has stepped in to purchase the house and save it from demolition.” Now the real work begins. The City of New Bedford has pledged $75,000 toward stabilization, but WHALE must come up with another $200,000; after the house is stable, Bergson says, the nonprofit will seek a buyer who can sensitively restore the house. ASAP Engineering, a structural engineering firm located in Middleboro, Mass., has already assessed the building.
Next month, workers will install a new roof that resembles the original. Bergson is confident that her group can raise the required funds. “People recognize that these are special places, and they’re what make New Bedford special. People see feel and touch the buildings that WHALE has transformed and saved every day,” she says. “New Bedford would look like a very different place if it wasn’t for WHALE.”
Apr. 29, 2010
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