Posted May 19, 2017 at 5:30 PM
NEW BEDFORD — The New Bedford Port Society made some history Friday as it officially opened the like-new Seamen’s Bethel and Mariners’ Home on Johnny Cake Hill.
It has taken about $3 million and a few years, but the 1832 Bethel has been brought back from the brink of destruction thanks to heroic preservation and fundraising efforts.
Port Society President Fred Toomey celebrated the project that has married two historic buildings to modern technologies, “integral modern technology.” That means cleverly concealed air-conditioning in the Bethel, LED lights everywhere, a gleaming wooden elevator lobby and atrium at the rear of the buildings, and modern windows that meet strict building codes.
For Toomey, the ribbon-cutting frees him from a grueling schedule of meetings, fundraisers and project supervision.
About 100 attended Friday’s ceremony, which featured WHALE Director Teri Bernert, Mayor Jon Mitchell and state Sen. Mark Montigny. The audience included city councilors, Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro, state Rep. Robert Koczera and former Mayor John Bullard, the former head of WHALE, the Waterfront Historic Area League.
Bernert said it’s gratifying to look out the second-floor windows of the WHALE office in the Mariners’ Home and see the results of this restoration campaign.
The special guest was Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She sang the praises of projects such as this, which preserved a building, the Bethel, that is of tremendous cultural importance not just to the city but to the nation.
“You are so fortunate to have a piece of American history right here,” she said. It was her second visit in two days; on Thursday she showed Gov. Charlie Baker the city to impress on him the importance of preserving such significant buildings and to announce a $150,000 grant to add to the existing grant of $440,000.
The grant pushes the project close to, if not past, the fundraising goals.
Bruce Oliveira, Port Society development chair and assistant treasurer, was applauded for the fundraisers. Mitchell noted that the “’fishing industry has stepped up big time.”
Mitchell called the Bethel “the temple of our history. If one place had to be preserved, one building, pick this one,” he said.
Montigny touched on some of the same themes, crediting the late Sarah Delano and Bullard for guiding WHALE to block the wrecking ball and preventing the city to become “just anywhere.”
The Bethel and Mariners’ Home “are part of the core history of this city,” Montigny said. “These two buildings needed to be saved.”
Walker observed that were it not for whaling, Herman Melville would be without a story to tell in “Moby-Dick.”
The Bethel and Mariners’ Home are open during the Whaling Museum’s regular hours. Admission is free with the Whaling Museum admission. Admission without the museum’s ticket has been free, but a small donation is welcomed. The Bethel being a church, it cannot sell tickets but can accept donations.
Follow Steve Urbon on Twitter @SteveUrbonSCT.
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