Waterfront Historic Area League marks 50 years of saving a city's legacy

By Steve Urbon
Source: The Standard Times
The year 1962 gave birth to two local organizations: the New Bedford Redevelopment Authority and the Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE (WHALE).
The Redevelopment Authority’s mission was to bring the city into the mainstream of “urban renewal,” the movement that swept aside the remnants of the nation’s crumbling industrial cities to start fresh.
WHALE, meanwhile, arose from several years of discussions between the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, which runs the Whaling Museum, the city planner, and a committee of prominent citizens who thought that urban renewal threatened to erase the city’s legacy.
WHALE became official when it was incorporated in 1962, electing George C. Perkins as president, Peter S. Grinnell as first vice president, Stephen C.L. Delano as second vice president, Richard Paull as clerk, and C. Gardner Akin as treasurer. There were four more directors: Charles Broughton, City Planner Richard Wengraf, James S. Healy and Maurice Downey.
The authority and WHALE would soon intertwine. Broadly speaking, the job of the former was to eliminate urban blight. The mission of the latter: to say “no, there’s a better way.” Fortunately for WHALE, the city planner was an ally early on, helping bridge the gap.
In other cities, where there was no one to say “no,” urban renewal ran rampant, leveling whole neighborhoods, displacing communities, and often enough building nothing new in what came to be derisively called “urban removal.”
But WHALE said “no” often enough that today, its proudest accomplishments have created the framework of the Whaling National Historical Park.
When one looks around what was once called the “ten acre” district downtown, it may be difficult to imagine that Route 18, connecting the South End with I-195, was originally planned to run straight through Second Street, taking out the Customs House, the Benjamin Rodman House, and the court/bank building that today houses the national park’s visitors center.
Yet to many minds in the 1960s and 1970s, this was not such a bad thing. America was on the move. Urban centers were full of decaying old buildings from an era gone by. Interstate highways were knitting the nation together. And we were in a Cold War race for space.
On the ground, the thing to do was to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Historic preservation was barely practiced.
But in New Bedford in the late 1950s, some saw what was coming, and became concerned. In the words of the late Sarah Delano, one of the most prominent figures in WHALE history, “If you bulldoze your heritage, you become just anywhere.”
A small group of people led by the late attorney and historian George Perkins, began to explore the idea of redeveloping the waterfront district while keeping its businesses running, not turning the place into an outdoor museum but preserving its character and its place in history.
John Bullard, the former mayor and one-time WHALE director, said that the group did not intend to create friction. “Part of WHALE’s DNA was that we’re not going to be some kind of knee-jerk obstructionists, but that we would work with the Redevelopment Authority and City Hall,” Bullard said.
In that spirit, WHALE joined with the city in finding funding for what was to be known as the Orange Book, a master plan for historic preservation in the district.
“It was the most sophisticated urban renewal plan I’ve ever seen,” said Bullard. “It issued standards of rehabilitation for 70 buildings.”
The idea was to encourage owners to keep up to a minimum standard. “If you don’t, we will use eminent domain and we will bring it up to standard,” Bullard said.
“It would have been magnificent. Every single building would have been restored perfectly,” Bullard said. “The problem was when they did the economic study, in only seven cases out of 70 would it have made sense to invest the money.”
“If people operated rationally, all but seven would have changed ownership,” Bullard said. “The physical structures would have been preserved but the social structure wouldn’t.”
While that conundrum was being resolved, urban renewal was indeed taking place, Bullard said. Dozens of blocks south of downtown were cleared away for the South Terminal project, aimed at building new industry and supporting fishing.
Next came the North Terminal up to I-195: again, flattened.
The waterfront district was next on the list, but riots in the West End in 1970 diverted the Redevelopment Authority’s attention to the blight in that part of the city. “So the Redevelopment Authority destroys the West End,” Bullard observed.
Meanwhile, the federal government was changing direction on urban renewal. Such things as the Model Cities program were jettisoned and the Nixon administration began issuing community development block grants so communities could make their own decisions about priorities.
New Bedford was heavily dependent on federal aid and got a disproportionate amount of block grant money, around $10 million a year for several years.
At first a skeptic of WHALE’s mission, then-Mayor John A. Markey came around eventually, took a political gamble, and invested the princely sum of $1.3 million in block grant funds in restoring the waterfront district, which at its low point was the worst neighborhood in the city.
Bullard said that the utility companies were all encouraged to upgrade their equipment as it was all being placed underground and the streets were being paved with stones. They responded, investing more than $1 million, Bullard said.
WHALE, meanwhile continued down the road of rescuing old buildings, and relocating them out of the way of Route 18 construction whenever possible.
It wasn’t always possible. The Rotch Counting House at Centre and Front streets was targeted by WHALE, but while it was looking for money and awaiting a restraining order, the Redevelopment Authority razed the building hours before the order could take effect.
“In the dead of night, the Redevelopment Authority went in and demolished it,” George Perkins told Spinner Publication authors Marsha McCabe and Joseph Thomas for their 1995 book, “Not Just Anywhere.”
Yet WHALE would score many victories while managing to avoid a failure that could have meant the end of WHALE at any point. Bullard recalls sitting with the WHALE board in the sun porch of the Wamsutta Club, with Sarah Delano’s boundless optimism leading them to make decisions that seemed impossible but somehow always resolved themselves. At times, the board members pledged their personal wealth to keep WHALE going.
The result is a lengthy list of properties that live on, some familiar, some less so: Rodman Candleworks, Rotch-Jones Duff House and Museum, the Old Bank on William Street, the Grinnell Mansion, the Corson Block, the Zeiterion Theater.
Route 18’s damage was limited by having it sweep around the district, closer to the waterfront itself, but still cutting it off from the rest of the district and wiping away whaling era buildings. At least Second Street was saved.
Antoinette Downing, a famed expert in historic preservation from Providence and the person who in a visit here changed Mayor Markey’s mind, many years later told Spinner, “What happened there was the most interesting process I’ve ever watched in my while life. New Bedford saved more of its architectural past and made it work perhaps better than any other city in the U.S.”
With much of the work complete within the original district, WHALE is reaching out to save properties in other neighborhoods, and developing renewal place within those neighborhoods with the participation of residents, said WHALE’s current director, Lisa Bergson.
The reconstruction of the Queen Anne mansion at One Washington Square in the South End is under way following the fire that destroyed the original several years ago. Enough documentation exists for the building, including measured drawings, to faithfully reproduce the home according to national preservation standards, Bergson said.
Once again, it will become the anchor for the neighborhood, a distinctive landmark — and not just anywhere.
June 03, 2012 12:00 AM
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