By Jack Spillane
Some buildings work there way so deeply into the heart of a community that even fire and demolition evidently can’t take them away.
So city officials and the New Bedford preservation community gathered Thursday to break ground to rebuild the “Queen Anne house” at One Washington Square.
Each year in this city, vacant urban lots where historic houses once stood, pop up like so many missing teeth in the mouth of an increasingly unbridled vagrant. But the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) has said that the demise of this iconic building, at least, will not stand.
New Bedford will not accept this most egregious of assaults on its birthright from the textile and whaling days that once made it great.
The arson fire at One Washington Square on an icy night in January 2008 was a punch in the chest to everyone who has ever loved the great Victorian-era residences of New Bedford.
This once grand doll house-like structure stood on a triangle as one headed up a hill into the heart of the city. And though it had been decaying and abandoned for decades before it finally burned, its presence in the city had always remained a votive light to what New Bedford had once been, and many hoped could be again.
Even years after it’s tri-colored 19th century colors had been blandly white-washed, and it’s wrap-around porch had sunk further into itself each year, the beauty of the Queen Anne house remained undeniable, a beacon of architectural intricacy that cried “Grand! Grand!” as you drove up County Street.
It was Massachusetts’ sluggish laws governing the government’s right to take abandoned property that helped kill the Queen Anne house, which has sometimes been called the George D. Swift House, and which dates back to 1855 or 1881, depending on whose records are correct.
Adding to the house’s fatal diagnosis was a failure, for decades, by City Hall to foreclose troubled properties in a timely manner. It was a lack of understanding, I’d say, of the consequences of ignoring the inner city as the city’s best and brightest fled to the West and far North Ends in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
The demise of this mansion of artistic detail was all the more tragic because it took place just as WHALE was ready to sign a purchase-and- sales agreement aimed at restoring it.
Delinquent minors torched the Queen Anne; who knows if they were made to pay for their personal little assault on New Bedford. Their story, like so many other anti-social juvenile attacks in New Bedford, have already been lost to history just years after it took place. It’s only the latest report card on the breakdown of accountability in 21st century urban America.
So WHALE is now determined to rebuild this inspiring structure in a manner that will take pains to follow every detail necessary to allow it to fully meet national preservation standards.
At the groundbreaking, Mayor Scott Lang thanked WHALE for having the vision to understand that a well-rebuilt mansion in 100 years will once again be the same kind of iconic landmark it had once been.
I had originally been more than skeptical that a replica of the Queen Anne could work when so many historic houses in the same near South End neighborhood cry out for actual restoration: A startling Victorian triple-decker at 5 Tallman Lane comes particularly to mind.
But the Queen Anne house was such an architectural achievement, and the naked triangle where it once stood is so integral to the reconstruction of Washington Square — where another missing tooth now stands on the south side of the square (the spot where the Frates Funeral Home stood before it also burned) — that it’s hard to see anything ever restoring this neighborhood but the mansion itself.
Mayor Scott Lang said Thursday that even this late in his administration he still hopes the city can find a way to save the rapidly disappearing historic residences of the inner city.
Lang and WHALE have both talked about the need for a historic preservation trust. That is a way that banks, or other successful New Bedford businesses, could contribute to the emergency preservation of the endangered housing stock that is integral to attracting young professionals to the city, integral to keeping New Bedford from becoming another Detroit with blocks and blocks of empty inner-city streets.
Some towns have achieved consistent historic preservation through the modest tax surcharge of the Community Preservation Act, up until now a political non-starter in economically challenged urban communities like New Bedford.
Mayor-elect Jon Mitchell, a WHALE member, has some interesting ideas about making the inner-city self-sufficient. He’s going to take a look at a preservation fund and also at university incentives that were used in inner-city Philadelphia to provide financial incentives to encourage faculty members to live in the city.
Long-term, improving the city school system will attract the kind of professional class that want to live in historic neighborhoods, he said.
It’s all an uphill battle when it comes to historic preservation inside the core of urban communities.
But WHALE has recently saved the John Howland house on South Sixth Street and has plans for the commercial Victorian at the corner of County and Allen streets.
It’s one building at a time.
But at least the Queen Anne house will not go the way of so many structures in a neighborhood that even now still overflows with historic character.
At least the biggest missing tooth in Washington Square will be filled.
November 13, 2011 12:00 AM
By Jack Spillane