By Dan McDonald
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is undertaking its largest expansion in more than a decade, converting what used to be storage space into about 2,000 square-feet of museum gallery.
The project, which is part of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society’s nearly $4 million investment in the Johnny Cake Hill block in 2009 and 2010, is estimated to cost about $350,000, said James Russell, the museum’s president.
Russell expects the space to display local fine and decorative art for at least the next few years.
“You’ll see less of a concentration on whaling materials and artifacts. It will concentrate more on the art that is produced in the area,” he said.
Russell hopes the project will boost tourism and foot traffic in the downtown.
The gallery will allow the museum to exhibit more of its collection at one time than at any other point in its 107-year history, according to a museum statement.
It will be the largest expansion of exhibition space since the completion of the Jacobs Family Gallery in 2000.
A ribbon-cutting is scheduled for June 26. Saturday, the museum unveiled its plans to the public through a late morning press conference in what will become a future gallery.
Previously the space was used for “deep storage,” and housed racks of antique furniture, said Arthur Motta, the museum’s director for marketing and communications.
Before that, said Motta, the space served as the curator’s offices in the 1950s and 1960s.
The renovation work is not yet complete, as luminaries mingled in the museum Saturday, patches of spackle pocked the room, some bits of wood trim were missing, while scaffolding hugged one wall and painting materials and a pile of scrap wood lined another.
Motta is excited about the project’s implications.
The site drips with history and as Motta points out, the rehabilitation will accentuate some of the building’s past glory.
The space stands on a swath of land that was part of William Rotch Jr.’s garden more than two centuries ago. He deeded the land to the Bedford Bank in 1803, which was the first bank of Old Dartmouth, according to the museum’s press release.
A maritime economic paralysis caused by the War of 1812 prompted the federal government to re-organize the bank. The National Bank of Commerce emerged. That bank was liquidated in 1898 and the next year the New England Cotton Yard Company bought the property.
In 1906, Henry Huttleston Rogers, a Fairhaven philanthropist, bought the property.
He donated it to the then-fledgling Old Dartmouth Historical Society for the Whaling Museum and a library of local history.
The project will keep and restore many of the building’s classic touches. This means a solid mahogany herringbone floor, wainscoting wall, and a marble fireplace in the “docents room,” which will have some exhibit space and could possibly be used as a sort of meeting room, said Motta.
The larger room of the expansion will also be revitalized. One part marble floor, one mahogany floor, the room also boasts a cast iron fireplace, said Motta. All of those features will be restored.
“You can tell by the design where the bank tellers were,” said Motta pointing to the wooden portion of the floor.
A Water Street entrance to the museum will re-open for the first time in years as part of the project. Crews will replace some marble both on the inside and outside of that entrance, said Motta.
Dignitaries had no shortage of praise for the museum Saturday.
State Rep. Robert M. Koczera, D-New Bedford called it the “keystone of the downtown.”
“It keeps New Bedford on the map,” he said.
The museum’s board, said Mayor Scott W. Lang, “looked the recession in the eyes,” and wisely decided the only way to continue was “to plow forward,” with sound investment plans.
Bufftree Building Company, a city-based company, is overseeing the project.
The project is funded through grants from the New York Community Foundation and the Wattles Family Trust.
April 25, 2010 12:00 AM
By Dan McDonald