April 15, 2024

WHALE: A Beacon of Preservation and Progress in New Bedford

The Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE (WHALE) is the 2023 recipient of the Trustees’ Award for Organizational Excellence, which recognizes a nonprofit organization, large or small, that has demonstrated sustained and superlative achievement in historic preservation.

In New Bedford, Massachusetts, an organization whose name recalls the city’s famed whaling past stands as a beacon of preservation and progress: the Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE, or WHALE. Established in 1962 when urban renewal imperiled entire neighborhoods, WHALE has since facilitated the completion of more than 72 projects. In 2022 alone, WHALE brought more than $20 million into the New Bedford economy.

As the sole entity nationwide to wield the dual mantles of a Community Development Corporation (CDC) and a nonprofit steward of preservation, WHALE embodies the seamless integration of tradition and innovation. From breathing new life into architectural treasures to nurturing affordable housing and cultural hubs, WHALE’s impact on New Bedford is far-reaching.

The following Q&A is with WHALE’s Board President Diana Henry and Executive Director Erin D.A. Miranda. Learn more about the full slate of 2023 awardees here.

Black and white historic photo of a house being moved by the nonprofit organization WHALE.

photo by: WHALE

Caleb Spooner House build c.1806, moved by WHALE to make way for Route 18.

What led to the formation of WHALE?

The catalyst for the formation of WHALE was urban renewal. There was a small group of members who formed the organization and wanted to save some of the properties that were ready to be demolished because of Route 18. Those houses were saved, they were moved, and many of them still exist in the district today. That was actually the beginning of WHALE in 1962.

One of WHALE's achievements is becoming a CDC. Can you elaborate on the merits of this transition?

It's amazing that we're the only organization in the country that is both a CDC and a nonprofit historic preservation organization. Becoming a CDC allowed us to take on more projects in low- and middle-income communities and allowed more access to resources, funding, and collaboration with a wider array of partners. Over the past six years, WHALE has leveraged over $15 million in funds to complete 11 historic preservation projects that create affordable and transitional housing, cultural venues and commercial spaces for women and minority owned small businesses to serve all residents of New Bedford.

In 2022, WHALE’s projects injected $20 million into the New Bedford economy. What are some of the most rewarding aspects of witnessing the transformative power of your preservation work?

Simply stating the amazing track record of WHALE'S projects is rewarding: 72 projects over six decades. But to see people actively utilizing the places and buildings that WHALE has saved and invested in really makes it worthwhile. It's rewarding to see the result of a lot of hard work and dedication being appreciated and actively utilized because our work is not just about historic preservation, it's also about community. With each restoration we're contributing to a new history of New Bedford and a new narrative for the city. And restoring historic buildings and landmarks is an investment in a stronger community that residents can take pride in and have hope for its future.

A group of people, the staff of WHALE, standing in front of a building under construction.

photo by: WHALE

WHALE staff outside the Co-Creative Center during construction.

A woman standing outside a building with green trim. This structure is the Co-Creative Center.

photo by: WHALE

The Co-Creative Center, a co-working and event space for people to meet and do their work.

WHALE has boldly undertaken historic restorations without partners because a building is derelict and can meet a community need. Can you share an example of this in relation to the Co-Creative Center?

Sometimes you realize the “they” in the phrase "they should do something about that" is you, and WHALE obviously saw the need for the restoration of these untouched and deteriorating historic buildings that were a hole in our downtown historic district. Realizing that they likely wouldn't survive another winter, WHALE took on the project as owner and developer. Now this formerly abandoned block has been transformed into a collaborative retail, living, and art space that includes a gallery, education, and makerspace in the heart of our downtown historic district.

The “Places that Matter" Greenprinting project, which maps out noteworthy cultural assets that will guide WHALE’s future work, is another remarkable effort. How important was community engagement for this project?

Engaging with community for the Places That Matter program is core to this project. It's a tremendous and innovative opportunity, not only for WHALE, but also for the city of New Bedford. New Bedford is more than just its downtown—and though that's where WHALE's work began—we have shifted focus to work in other neighborhoods across the city. Through a lot of direct work, WHALE has been building connections across the city. There were a lot of nominations that came from individuals and community groups that were identifying places in their neighborhoods that mattered to them. It's our hope that these connections that WHALE has begun to make can be built upon for deeper engagement and involvement with a wider array of community partners all across the city.

A man walking into the Hillman Firehouse with its red doors and brick exterior. The image is focused on the door.

photo by: WHALE

Entry door of the Hillman Firehouse constructed in 1892. WHALE is working with the City to adapt the building for affordable apartments and workforce housing.

What are the funding sources and strategies that have supported your projects?

WHALE’s earliest projects were primarily supported by private donations and investments by individuals who believed in the mission of the organization and that if you bulldoze your heritage, you become “just anywhere.” When local citizens are willing to donate to save endangered historic resources, that sends a message to other funders and elected officials.

WHALE eventually employed other funding sources to make these projects happen, utilizing foundation grants, local, federal, and state funds, and an array of programs like our state historic tax credit program, community Preservation Act dollars, and more in achievement of its mission. The types of work that WHALE does require a lot of creativity, and every option available is up for consideration. The Massachusetts Community Investment Tax Credit program allows WHALE supporters who donate $1,000 or above to receive a state historic tax credit, which benefits our mission-based work and our supporters and donors.

What are WHALE's aspirations for the future? How do you envision the organization's continued role in preserving New Bedford's cultural and historic treasures?

The organization has such a rich history and has always been a creative innovator when it comes to restoring and revitalizing historic resources for new generations. It's really been witnessed to the evolution of the historic preservation movement, and in turn, it has grown and changed with the times. Our core mission of fostering historic preservation and the continued use of our city's architectural heritage to enhance community and economic vitality will remain our organization's North Star.

But as we look to a new chapter for the organization, our role with the city and community will continue to be one of partnership, collaboration, and community building. I see WHALE as building upon our community connections to be more visible and accessible as a partner and a resource for saving endangered buildings and disinvested historic structures, helping stabilize and foster pride in the city's neighborhoods, and preserving the city's architectural and multicultural heritage.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Catherine Killough is the manager of grants and awards at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

Announcing the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

See the List