A storm threatened to lash the Whaling Museum in New Bedford yesterday, violent enough in prospect to counsel against a trip there with family. But today we went, or at least Billy and I did. Last week, despite dulcet weather equal to that of today, I missed the dedication of the latest addition to the museum. I discussed the proposed design of the addition on my Journal blog almost exactly two years ago under the headline “Addition (Shudder!) to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.” I wrote:
A colleague in the Journal’s newsroom has sent me word that the Whaling Museum, in New Bedford, Mass., would soon have a new wing added. This of course sent a shudder up my spine – a new wing! My worst fear is predictable to readers of this blog. So you can imagine how pleased, which is to say surprised, I was to click on the [museum] link and see this pleasantly modest addition in a traditional style that will fit right into the historic streetscapes of the Whaling City’s alluring downtown. The design is by the Mount Vernon Group, of Wakefield, Mass.
The Wattles Jacobs Education Center’s grounds are incomplete but the new building already looks at home amid the bustle of the Whaling Museum’s block. It fits into the Whaling City’s historic district not quite like a well-worn glove – though it will achieve that status in due course. Certainly the garden of HVAC equipment that occupies half of the new center’s front yard will be disguised, or moved, and surely neither the existing gravel pit nor a parking lot will be the fate of the other half.
The two sides of the addition have different personalities. The side facing but set back from Johnny Cake Hill Street has the entry, and the genteel manners of an early 19th Century Federal mansion, with a fancy Doric portico and the red bow of a dedicatory ribbon still affixed beneath its cornice. Above it rises an attic story, with another ornate cornice, set into the building’s steep gabled roof. The “rear,” facing North Water Street, dons an early 20th century neoclassical face – base, shaft and capital – spare, but with a twist. This is the rusticated stone, placed unconventionally in the middle (the second and third floors) rather than at the ground floor, which in this case is smooth white masonry. The small windows of a fourth story partly mask from below a fifth story, fronted by the balcony of the Harbor View Terrace, a gallery and event space for guests and visitors.
A casual observer might not notice that both façades sheath a single building. And a casual observer is also unlikely to cock a snook at the new addition’s styles being “older” than the modernist style of the main museum entrance and the modernist brick building to the right of the North Water Street façade. A more expert observer, perhaps an architectural historian, if he were to display attitude about that, would merely be exposing the lesser sophistication of his “of our time” bunkum.
Billy and I left the museum with much more still to see in the future. We saw the world’s largest whaling ship (in the museum’s cupola’d Bourne Building) and then left to view the Whaling National Historic Park. Both are worth and will get their own post here, upcoming shortly, mostly photographic. And we – or at least one of us – left with a great smile of admiration for and joy in the Whaling Museum’s recently exercised disdain for orthodoxy regarding new buildings in historic districts, and its embrace of historical revival as an equally valid but much more beautiful aesthetic strategy for moving the museum and New Bedford into the future.