Loss of the Historic Baker-Robinson Whale Oil Refinery Rankles Officials at New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

The Baker-Robinson Oil Works, now slated for redevelopment as a hotel conference center, was one of the nation's few remaining whale oil refineries.

New Bedford, Massachusetts, the New England port city that once served as the epicenter of the world’s whaling industry, has a wonderful whaling-themed national park. However, not all of the significant relics of the city’s whaling past have been placed under the park’s protection. The recent loss of a historic whale oil refinery in New Bedford serves as a harsh reminder that historic preservation is typically subject to marketplace rules.

Small wonder that New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park attracted nearly 280,000 visitors last year. As the only National Park System unit commemorating America’s whaling industry and its important contribution to the nation’s history, the park does a remarkable job of preserving and interpreting the finest collection of whaling-era sites and relics still in existence. A visit to this park mentally transports you back to the day when whale oil was liquid gold and no port on earth, not even the fabled Nantucket, sent more whaling ships to sea (or made more money from the enterprise) than New Bedford. The first whaling vessel was launched at New Bedford in 1767, and by 1851 there were 474 New Bedford-registered whaling vessels plying the world’s oceans.

Whaling may be a cruel business by contemporary standards, but it sure was lucrative. During New Bedford’s mid-19th century whaling heyday, a time when New Bedford was “the city that lit the world,” boosters humbly dubbed the place the richest city on earth. Proof of this is still evident in the many impressive Greek Revival- and Federal-style homes, commercial buildings, and public buildings surviving from the era.

Demand for whale oil plummeted after the Civil War as kerosene lamps and coal gas lighting became widely available. Traditional whaling went into rapid decline, eventually giving way to a modern whaling industry employing factory ships in the harvest of whales (50,000 a year as recently as the 1930s) for meat, fine lubricating oils, margarine ingredients, and other specialty products. New Bedford’s whaling industry struggled along for decades until its last viable remnants folded in the 1920s.

While economic progress and the ravages of time and neglect have erased many structures and sites intimately associated with the historic whaling industry, New Bedford has retained enough of its historic character to make it obvious how the “River of Time” has flowed through the community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the New Bedford Historic District, an 11+ city-block area situated just west of the city’s waterfront in what was the city’s whaling-era downtown. Designated a National Historic landmark in 1966, the district formed the core of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park when it was established in 1996.

If you visit the 34-acre park today, you will find much to admire and learn from historic sites and structures such as:

• The U.S. Customhouse (1836), a public building designed in the impressive Greek Revival style that was prevalent in the city during the whaling era. Remarkably, it is still in use as the nation’s oldest purpose-designed port of entry facility.
• The Mechanics' Bank and Merchants' Bank Building (1831), the district’s first Greek Revival commercial building.
Seamen’s Bethel (1832; rebuilt & expanded, late 1860s), a clapboard church made famous by mention in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (He called it “Whalemen’s Chapel.”)
• The Samuel Rodman Candlehouse (1810), a stucco-covered stone structure that is one of the historic district’s oldest commercial buildings.
• The Mariner’s Home (1790), a Federal-style building originally constructed as a private home and then moved to its present site. It has survived as the historic district’s oldest structure.
• The Old Third District Courthouse (1835), a Greek Revival gem that was constructed as a bank, became a courthouse in 1896, was later recycled for retail sales (antiques, auto parts), and now serves as the park’s visitor center.
• The Ernestina, a 120-ton schooner launched in 1896. Though never used for whaling, the Ernestina (former Effie M. Morrissey) compiled an enviable record in Grand Banks fishing, Arctic exploration, trans-oceanic passenger service, and other uses. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990, and now the only surviving Gloucester-built fishing vessel of its type, the storied ship is still used for educational cruises along the New England coast.

Situated across the street from Seamen’s Bethel is the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Although this long-established institution (1903) does not belong to New Bedford National Historical Park, it is an important partner site. The museum, which is owned and operated by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, played an important role in getting the park established. Today it continues to entertain and educate visitors with 200,000 whaling artifacts and related exhibits, including an extensive art collection, numerous whaling-related products and furnishings, around 3,000 pieces of scrimshaw, some 2,500 whaling voyage logbooks, and the largest model whale ship in existence.

One relic structure that the park and historic district does not have, and never will have, is the Baker-Robinson whale oil refinery. What a shame. When New Bedford’s whaling industry was in full swing, the huge cauldrons, powerful hydraulic presses, and other equipment at the Baker-Robinson Oil Works used sperm whale oil and spermaceti to make candles, lubricants, lamp oil, and other products that were internationally praised for their exceptional purity and quality.

The glory days were not to last, of course. After its useful life as a refinery ended nearly a century ago, the building was recycled as an ice house and a fish-processing facility for a pet food manufacturer. Eventually, it was abandoned and fell into serious disrepair. Now the gray-granite Greek Revival structure, which dates to the late 1830s, is only a gutted shell, having been recently cleaned out to the load-bearing walls for a renovation that will transform it into a 150-seat conference center for a new five-story, 106-room Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites.

Although the historic refinery was not included within the park’s authorized boundaries, the National Park Service and its municipal, corporate, and NGO partners had hoped to get the go-ahead, funding, and other wherewithal needed to acquire the property and preserve its historic interior. The deal couldn’t be put together, however, and it was clearly only a matter of time before the property would be redeveloped. The old refinery building occupies a prime site, being located on the main arterial connecting Interstate 195 to the waterfront and situated directly across from the historic Bourne Counting House at Merrill's Wharf.

Though the loss of the Baker-Robinson whale oil refinery may seem like a tragic episode, at least in the context of New Bedford National Historical Park and the city of New Bedford, it’s hard to identify bad guys. New Bedford planners make the plausible argument that not every historical building (even manifestly significant ones) can be preserved, and also point out that civic leaders serve the best interests of the community when they promote projects that create jobs and tax revenues. Lafrance Hospitality, the developer, argues that the corporation has not only operated with the city’s legal sanction, but also in the best interests of its clients and shareholders. The intangibles of historic preservation have always had a hard time standing up to arguments like that.

There’s no getting around the fact that the old whale oil refinery was in terrible shape and would have been extremely expensive to restore. When push came to shove, this historically significant vestige of the whaling era wasn’t gutted because city leaders failed to appreciate its historic value, or because an unprincipled developer pulled a fast one, but rather because the money needed to rescue it was simply not available.

Critics insist that the refinery’s original windows, doors, and shutters should have been preserved, and that more consideration should have been given to saving the massive brick hearth that held the rendering cauldrons. The developer says that an extra half-million dollars was voluntarily spent to preserve the old building’s shell instead of demolishing it, and that interior features such as the brick hearth, press components, and wooden wainscoting could not be readily incorporated into the interior redesign of the hotel conference center.

Some artifacts from the old refinery, including bricks from the hearth, were saved for exhibit in the park, which also has a partial video record of the building’s interior as it appeared before the structure was gutted.

With the removal of all but the walls and the roof of the venerable structure, further debate on the preservation issue was rendered moot. The new hotel, which has been under construction since last August, is scheduled to open in June. The interior renovation of the conference center is slated to begin this fall.

Postscript: On December 30, 1840, Moby Dick author Herman Melville was signed to the crew of a New Bedford-registered whaling ship, the square-rigged, 359-ton Acushnet. Just four days later, the Acushnet was outward bound for the Pacific. Melville spent the next 18 months at sea gaining firsthand knowledge of whaling. When he wrote Moby Dick ten years later, it’s clear that Melville drew heavily on his experiences in New Bedford (see especially chapters 2-13) and aboard the Acushnet.

Comments

Sorry this doesn't fly at all and the blog doesn't reflect the truth of what happened. Baker Robinson had been placed in 2005 on the Preservation MA Most Endangered Properties list. It was included in the Park's Management Plan and legislaton was pending to extend the boundaries of the Park to include it. The developer originally claimed it would be restored. Federal and State historic tax credits were available for Baker Robinson and rejected by the developer. The interior condition of Baker Robinson as of Mark Foster’s photographs in 2009 cannot be talked away. The building was intact until it was gutted. The Whaling Museum has done history an enormous service by posting his report and the historic photographs in their collection on their Flickr site.
Baker Robinson was gutted to the walls before the Saturday – Monday entrance of the Park Service. All that has been documented by them are the remains of the hearth/tryworks. They have been removed yes and numbered yes but their historical context is gone. The slate roof has been dumpstered. The Baker Robinson Safe may be available now at your local salvage yard.

The S.O.S.justification of the NBEDC neglects the fact that Baker Robinson appears over 20 times in various Park Service Plans. The letter neglects to note that the NBEDC’s Planner, was the Park Service architect and is still the Chair of the Historical Commission. He was present and working for the Park Service when the 2002 plan for its interpretation was written. Photographs show that it had a variety of window styles including 9/9/ windows, 6/6 windows, double panel shutters, and unique doors. What is the plan?

I believe we need to be very clear that when a great building is demolished or gutted, the criminal assault to our culture and ourselves extends forward beyond the life of any ten-year replacement. The future has been cheapened irreparably. The past has been betrayed, erased and made irrelevant, usually for the most frivolous and fleeting of reasons. Our great buildings are not our playthings. We are all accountable when the demolition specialists move in to gut our history forever.

Thank you for the additional information, Peggi. I certainly didn't mean to imply that I support the decision to sacrifice Baker-Robinson.

On March 7, 2010 the Standard-Times described the last minute efforts to document the Baker Robinson Whale Oil factory. What needs to make absolutely clear is that the 1838 candle house was gutted LAST week to make a June deadline. Until then large parts of the interior remained in place including the first floor entry, large portions of the second floor office, with tongue and groove paneling containing a stencil reading Spermaceti, the Baker Robinson safe and interior windows allowing light into the office.

Linking to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Flickr site there is a full history of the building with stunning photographs of what remained of the interior. Mark Foster’s report serves as the Baker Robinson obituary. I realize that it would have required money and work to restore what was a National treasure. I also realize that the adjacent hotel is being built to bring tourists to New Bedford and yes that it means economic redevelopment and yes I wish them well.

Except - This is the building described in the 2000 New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park’s General Management Plan as: “The Baker-Robinson Whale Oil Refinery Located across MacArthur Drive from the Bourne Counting House, the Baker-Robinson Whale Oil Refinery building was part of a larger industrial complex, and is one of the few remaining examples of whale oil refineries in the United States. The National Park Service will seek a legislative change giving New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park the authority to assist in the interpretation and preservation of this property, similar to the park’s relationship with the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum. The National Park Service will support the creation of interpretive waysides describing the history and use of the Baker-Robinson Whale Oil Refinery.”

This is the candle house described in the 2002 news story announcing its listing on Preservation MA Most Endangered List. Jack Spillane wrote “An archaeologist working for the Whaling National Historical Park has said the Baker-Robinson building is probably the best example of a preserved whaling oil refinery in existence. Its basement contains the actual structures that held the vats where the whale oil was boiled down for candles and lamp oil. "Properly documented, preserved and interpreted, it would be the only site of its type in the United States," wrote Patty Jo Rice, a preservation specialist in a 1999 letter to the park service."

This is the building owned by Hetty Howland Robinson Green’s uncle. The Robinson in Baker Robinson. This is the whale oil factory filmed in Down to the Sea in Ships. This is the 1838 building that survived fire and abandonment until 2010. It was listed on Preservation MA Most Endangered list in 2002. In 2008 the Standard-Times reported, “Work is going slower than expected, and is slightly behind schedule, in part because of the special care being given not to damage the adjacent, historic, whale-oil building that the hotel developer wants to include as part of the new structure.”
LaFrance Hospitably initially retained one of the country’s finest architectural firms the Newport Collaborative to over see the restoration. What happened?
There is no excuse for the unannounced gutting of Baker Robinson. Although a hastily gathered team was allowed into the shell on Saturday, it had already been demolished to the walls with only the basement foundations of the hearth left. The second floor office gone. The other elements on the Whaling Museum site gone.
Matt Morrissey is quoted as remarking, "It's Richard's money, and his risk, that saved the building," he said. This is like arguing that the United States saved Viet Nam destroying villages to “save” them. On January 10, 1020 the NBEDC gave LaFrance a $250,000 mortgage. Registry of Deeds Book 9622, Page 24 Did they place a clause requiring restoration in their mortgage, no. Did they ask what the plans were for Baker Robinson or did they already know. Did they share the gutting plan with the Whaling Museum, National Park Service or Massachusetts Historical Commission?
This is the New Bedford that used to bill itself as the city that goes to sea. The city that has a world famous Whaling Museum. The city that has a National Park dedicated to whaling history. The city that uses historic taxes credits. In ten, twenty or thirty years someone may remember to ask what happened to the last tangible tie to the whaling industry. Then they can look for the interpretive sign posted on a gutted shell and the interpretation virtual Baker Robinson. Ironically we had the real thing until it was gutted. Lost and gone another historic landmark. There is no excuse for this and the Baker Robinson has been gutted. The historic context is now gone for good. Business as usual in the new New Bedford.