The stately 10,000-square-foot red brick mansion at 38 S. Sixth St. in New Bedford is a shell of its former self.
On the outside, scaffolding flanks the Federal-Greek Revival and plywood remains on what were the home’s 64 windows.
The interior is a maze of wooden frameworks and staircases, giving few clues about what it will look like when it is completed in November.
Standing on the ground floor, construction superintendent Phil Pereira points to the charred beams of the John Howland Jr. house.
“They’re like this all the way up all the way into the roof,” he says.
The initial damage caused by a three-alarm January 2005 fire has been compounded over the years by exposure to the elements and neglect, and there is little left of the building’s interior but studs and flooring. F&S Enterprises Inc., a Rhode Island company, bought the home after the fire in 2005 and stripped it of its architectural details, including the mantelpieces.
In fact, so much had been stripped that the house was on the verge of collapse, says Patrick Sullivan, the city’s director of Planning, Housing and Community Development. The city, together with the Attorney General’s office, in 2008 started pressuring the owner to make repairs or sell.
“It was stripped, that’s true,” says Michael Galasso, of nonprofit developer The Resources Inc. (TRI). “When we got involved, everything was gone from the interior — no plumbing, no doors.”
F&S applied for demolition in April 2010, but the city’s Historical Commission voted 5-0 that December that the building was architecturally significant and preferably preserved.
The Waterfront Historic Area League bought the home in 2010 for $237,000. WHALE stabilized the property, including a new roof, putting back the original roofline seen in historic photos.
Over the years, TRI, WHALE and architect Christopher “Kit” Wise have worked on plans and have pieced together the $2.9 million it will take to restore life to the Howland house. D.F. Pray has been hired as general contractor.
The Howland house is making a comeback as seven apartments — two market rate and five affordable housing; two units are custom designed for the physically handicapped and the deaf, Pereira says.
The home will be divided into four floors: the first three floors will feature two two-bedroom apartments; the fourth floor will be a three-bedroom unit. Each apartment will be about 1,100 square feet.
The target date for completion is just before Thanksgiving.
“It’s obviously such an amazing building, and its two sister buildings are there. If that (the fire damaged house) wasn’t there, it would be a huge hole in the fabric of the neighborhood,” said Teri Bernert, executive director of WHALE.
“The historic integrity of that neighborhood is intact. You don’t see new construction and the quality of the building designs is incredible.”
The historic 1834 mansion is one of three built in the neighborhood by the Howland family, in their bid to disassociate themselves with the “pernicious influences” of the other whaling families who had been converting to Unitarians or Episcopalians. Howlands, however, remained stout Quakers, says local historian Peggi Medeiros. John Howland Jr. partnered with his brother, James, in J&J Howland Merchants on Middle Street. He was one of 15 original trustees of the New Bedford Institution for Savings.
As rare as the Howland houses are, Medeiros says there is an stunning resemblance between them and the so-called “Three Bricks” on upper Main Street in Nantucket. There, the houses are tightly side by side and the ones in New Bedford are separated and one is across the street. But the facades of the Nantucket houses are impressively similar to the ones in New Bedford.
“Some people think that they were all built by the same person,” Medeiros says.
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