WHALE was founded in 1962 during a time in our nation’s history when city centers were in decline and their buildings decaying. The Federal Government’s solution was Urban Renewal, a program of demolition and clearance of blighted areas to make way for new construction they hoped would follow.
A group of visionaries in New Bedford, however, saw in the city’s deteriorated waterfront area quality structures built during the city’s whaling and textile manufacturing heyday . . . the bones of a thriving city and the embodiments of New Bedford’s rich and diverse heritage. They set about working to save them and to breathe new life into what, 32 years later, became the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. They acquired buildings, renovated and repurposed them. They rescued others that were slated for demolition, moving them to fill in vacant lots in the district. They also saved properties that now rank among the city’s most treasured cultural resources: the 1834 Rotch-Jones-Duff House and the Zeiterion Theater.
Today, the rescue and transformation of New Bedford’s historic waterfront area and downtown is nationally recognized. And, today, that area that was once in deep decay is now home to a multitude of historic and cultural attractions, to two universities, to a diversity of retail operations and eateries, to office workers and, in recent years, to hundreds of residents who have chosen to live downtown. It has been reborn. And, it is contributing mightily to the city’s economy and vitality.
WHALE is taking its preservation message and toolbox to adjacent neighborhoods. In recent years, WHALE has turned its attention to an area of 19th century houses around a small park known as Washington Square. By initiating neighborhood planning, offering grants and preservation expertise for exterior rehabilitation, and saving some key properties through acquisition, WHALE has helped reverse the decline of properties in this area.
For fifty years, WHALE has been making a big difference in this small city. New Bedford today is a more appealing place to live, to work, and to visit than in 1962 when WHALE began. By rescuing and renovating 50+ historic properties, advocating vigorously for preservation of many more, and sharing stories of New Bedford’s past, WHALE has inspired pride in residents and helped transform New Bedford for the better, for everyone.
WHALE’s projects have also had a big impact on New Bedford’s economy. Just since 2001, WHALE’s projects have contributed $2.5 million in tax revenue to the City. Those properties are currently valued at more than $12 million; without WHALE, they may have had zero value. Indeed, investment in New Bedford’s historic properties just over 5 years from 2005 totaled more than $136 million, bringing over 500 construction jobs and 640 permanent jobs to the city. And, each year the National Historical Park attracts thousands of new visitors and they’re spending millions of dollars while they’re here.
In December 2012, WHALE’s Board of Directors initiated a strategic planning process to chart a course for WHALE’s next half-century. The result is an ambitious new plan for growth . . . a plan to accelerate the pace of historic preservation in New Bedford, using all available tools, sharing our expertise widely, forming partnerships with others, and engaging many more people in the work of historic preservation, all in order to get much more done, much more quickly.
WHALE’s annual budget has ranged from $225,000 to $390,000 over the past 5 years. In addition, the organization maintains a revolving fund for preservation real estate projects. WHALE has a full-time staff of two, which is augmented by volunteers and interns. WHALE’s Board of Directors is comprised of between 15 and 21 leaders in the Greater New Bedford community. With adoption of its new strategic plan, WHALE is looking to grow organizationally and to dramatically expand the pace of historic preservation activity in New Bedford in the next 5 years.
New Bedford is the hub city of Massachusetts’ South Coast, a place renowned for its abundant architectural and historical treasures, diverse neighborhoods, burgeoning arts community, and seaport heritage. Situated on Buzzards Bay, New Bedford offers easy access to sandy beaches and a host of water sports.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated New Bedford one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2011. That same year, Richard Florida reported that New Bedford ranks among the ten American cities with the most extensive artistic communities.
New Bedford offers stunning architecture, including thousands of properties in 16 National Register Historic Districts and six National Historic Landmarks, including the Nathan and Polly Johnson House which tells the story of the Underground Railroad and Frederick Douglass in New Bedford. Many of New Bedford’s buildings were built during the city’s heyday as the whaling capital of the world and during later decades as a major center of textile manufacturing. Its historic downtown, defined by cobblestone streets, period gas lamps and authentic 19th and 20th century architecture, is buzzing with an assortment of cafes, bistros, specialty shops, and artisan galleries. The city’s beautiful parks—including one designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and a Civil War-era fort—offer breathtaking views of Buzzards Bay and its miles of inviting sandy beaches. New Bedford’s authentic working waterfront beckons with an easy “dock walk” that lets visitors take in its bustling commercial and recreational fishing scene from up close.
Easily accessible cultural and recreational experiences abound. The city boasts a dynamic performing arts center, a symphony orchestra, art museum and galleries, a world renowned whaling museum located in the city’s Whaling National Historical Park, and a robust schedule of festivals, including a celebration of the working waterfront and the largest Portuguese Festival in the world. In addition, it is home to several institutions of higher learning.