Astonishing Ishmael in N.B.

The Whaling National Historical Park, in New Bedford. (nationalparks.org)

The Whaling National Historical Park, in New Bedford. (nationalparks.org)

Traveling with my son Billy to New Bedford today, eager to check out the new addition to its famous Whaling museum, here is my column from 1997 about the Whaling City. The aquarium proposed for N.B. has not yet been built, but Route 18 as it skirts downtown along the waterfront has been “boulevardized.” That’s another thing I want to check out on this trip. Meanwhile, here’s New Bedford from almost two decades ago:

***

Astonish Ishmael all over again
November 20, 1997

If I had been astonished at first catching a glimpse of so outlandish an individual as Queequeg circulating among the polite society of a civilized town, that astonishment soon departed upon taking my first daylight stroll through the streets of New Bedford.

– Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (1851).

***

CALL ME MELODRAMATIC, but my own astonishment on my second visit to the streets of New Bedford was hardly less than Ishmael’s. He was amazed that Queequeg was not so out of place in a town where “actual cannibals stand chatting at streetcorners.” My own astonishment was of an altogether different order. Let me explain.

My first visit was confined to the main downtown thoroughfare, Purchase Street, a street of forlorn elegance similar to Westminster Street in Providence. I parked, made a purchase at a drugstore, and left the Whaling City without further exploration.

Last year, I returned with time on my hands. Little had changed on Purchase, but soon enough, and only two blocks to the east, I happened upon an historic district of surpassing loveliness. Its Federal and Greek Revival buildings were Melville’s streetscape. “Nowhere in all America,” he has Ishmael opine, “will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.”

Consider the streets themselves. They are cobbled, lined with trees and period lampposts, with sidewalks paved in a kaleidoscopic array of granite and brick. They are so lovingly infused with quality workmanship as to take your breath away. They are matched here only by the sidewalks and driveways of several old houses on or near Benefit Street.

At the time, I marveled at my ignorance of this treasure 28 miles from my address of 13 years (Benefit Street). In search of someone to bear witness to my astonishment, I marched into the visitors’ center in an old bank on Williams Street, where I found Antone Souza Jr., director of WHALE (the Waterfront Historic Area League). He listened patiently, and I promised to return soon with pen in hand.

I returned on Tuesday (which, I must admit, qualifies as “soon” only on Captain Ahab’s calendar). With Providence resident and New Bedford native Larry Novick as my guide, I saw much more of the city this time. And then we met Tony Souza for an eye-popping tour of its historic district.

Since my last visit, the National Parks Service has anointed the district as the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, a designation that should catalyze the continued preservation and restoration of its 14 delightful blocks of maritime heritage.

Frankly, however, if it were to remain completely unimproved, frozen in amber as it is now, it would still be worth visiting. It is that beautiful and – with its history, its famous Whaling Museum and its shops – that fascinating. In fact, it is so precisely because New Bedford refused to follow advice, offered in a 1966 column by New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, that it “undertake no artificial reconstruction of the past and . . . make no copies of buildings that no longer exist.”

Huxtable preferred the mishmash of old and new exemplified, then, by the pathbreaking 1959 plan for College Hill, here in Providence. That plan was the first to allow preservation’s nose under the tent of “urban removal.” Benefit Street’s fame was secured, however, only because the city had sense enough, finally, to boot the modern from the tent, preserving wholly what the 1959 plan would have ravaged.

New Bedford has tried, with much success, to do likewise, and even now erects buildings that Huxtable would decry as “copies” that create an “artificial” environment. In fact, New Bedford merely rediscovered traditional architectural principles suppressed throughout much of this century by the modernists.

The big exception to that in New Bedford is, of course, Route 18, which in the ’70s ripped a path between the historic district and the waterfront. Tony Souza described a plan to boulevardize the highway, as Newport plans to do with America’s Cup Avenue.

New Bedford has done a considerable, nay, an astonishing amount with minimal cash. Going big-time, however, it now has proposed to build an aquarium of astonishing proportions in an old power plant on its waterfront. But the $97 million investment, mostly private, will be worthwhile only if the lessons of quality workmanship and traditional design, which have succeeded so well in the historic district, are applied to both the Route 18 rehab and the aquarium complex.

In short, by making its historic district’s beauty the rule rather than the exception, the Whaling City should strive to astonish Ishmael all over again.

* * *

Copyright © 1997. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_570051

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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