I recently attended the book launch event for John K. Bullard's memoir, Hometown at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. During his remarks, Mr. Bullard read an excerpt from his book about the disastrous gas explosion that destroyed several buildings in our historic district during the brutal winter of 1977.
He described the damage done to the Selmar Eggers Building at 10 William Street - a building that once stood on the current entrance plaza to the Whaling Museum. After the explosion, it was subsequently moved and reconfigured through Bullard's efforts with WHALE and a private developer. Together, they created the complex we now refer to as 1 Johnny Cake Hill.
Who was Selmar Eggers?
Selmar Eggers was a gun and locksmith whose first place of business appears in the 1871 City Directory as 36 N. Water Street. Our shop, The Drawing Room’s first New Bedford address was 36 N. Water Street, which today is part of Tia Maria’s restaurant expansion. Eggers also purchased four square rods of land on William Street on July 16, 1862. Ten years later, in August of 1872, Eggers moved into the newly constructed building at 10 William St, which is across the street from our shop’s new home. The Eggers family remained in business at this location for forty years. Many other businesses would eventually occupy the building until the fateful morning of January 18, 1977 when an historic gas explosion extensively damaged it. If you look carefully in the photo below, you will find the gable roof leaning against the side of the building.
A Building on the Move
The Eggers building was moved to the corner of Union St. and Johnny Cake Hill (1 Johnny Cake Hill), and restored through the efforts of WHALE and a private developer. In the late 1970s, an addition was added to the rear of the building creating a complex of multiple business units.
Over the last 50 years the building passed from owner to owner and over time fell into disrepair. Water infiltration, failing windows and aging mechanical systems took their toll on this complex.
The challenge with preservation is that it does not end. Buildings age and deteriorate much like our bodies, yet buildings remain for generations, simultaneously a testament to a time gone by and our current time.
One of the things that drew me to New Bedford was the love and care that had been put into creating and maintaining the historic district by many people, organizations and administrations. I personally refer to all of them as my Mavericks for their courage and foresight. They rolled the dice, believed in themselves and most importantly they believed in New Bedford.
As an architect, preservation has always been at the heart of my work. Over the last year, I have been honored to be part of the next restoration of the Eggers building complex.
While researching the Selmar Eggers Building, I was delighted to learn about our parallel moves from N. Water and William Street. The heart of the historic district was so special to Eggers then - as it is to so many of us now. It was once the place where whaling captains and global merchants strolled after sailing into New Bedford harbor centuries ago. Now it’s where the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park draw audiences from all over the world. This is the place where I want to continue to focus my preservation efforts. The current renovation work at 1 Johnny Cake Hill seeks to echo the resiliency of this building’s history and architecture and the experience buildings create to define a neighborhood in the now.
This is how we found the Selmar Eggers building in the late 2010's/early 2020's. Not bad from afar, but open closer inspection we knew we'd find problems, including rotting wood sills, deteriorated steel angles, clogged downspouts, and antiquated furnaces.
Jeff Siegler, a Pittsburgh-based consultant, often speaks about the importance of pride in a community and reminds us that the best marketing for a downtown is in how well it maintains its historic buildings. Through a partnership that is invested and believes in New Bedford, the renovation and restoration you now see occuring is an example of how we envision historic downtown New Bedford for the next generations ahead of us: vibrant, maintained, well-utilized, and loved.
This type of work does not happen alone, nor does it happen in a vacuum. We are particularly thankful to our general contractor, New Bedford-based Pimental Contractors, and their subcontractors. With thought and understanding of the longevity of building materials, we have worked together to create design solutions that address the historic character of the building while recognizing the durability of low maintenance materials.
We are also thankful to the Mitchell administration that made available Enhanced Facade Improvement funding as part of New Bedford's AARPA funding allotment whose funding benefitted an existing tenant, The Cozy Crib. These business women remained open during the construction and we are thankful that they have not only remained as tenants, but also expanded into the first floor unit in addition to the second floor unit.
The renovation work continues and the exterior facade improvements will be near completion by the end of this summer. Stay tuned for more exciting developments as we share more about the restoration of the giant tea kettle (deemed a historic object!) and the additional businesses that will soon occupy the space.
Until then, join us on Saturday, July 22 from 1pm to 4pm when we host former Mayor John K. Bullard for a book reading and signing in The Drawing Room, 22 William St. If you are lucky, you may hear him read about the Eggers Building. It reminds us about what a community can do when it comes together to restore the city it loves, building by building.
Yours in art & architecture,