Get #NBcreative with Your Old House

By Steven Froias

#NBcreative Writer-at-large

Despite being in the title of the city’s unique monthly celebration AHA! New Bedford – which stands for Art, History, Architecture – that last item seems to me to get short shrift as a subject that’s given a lot of close scrutiny from a cultural perspective. Which is surprising given that the City of New Bedford is simply blessed with an abundance of both beautiful and historically meaningful architecture. 

Perhaps that’s because there’s a tendency to place a premium on outstanding homes, while looking askance at those who lost their way over the years and succumbed to decay – or vinyl siding.

In truth, very much of the city’s housing stock is unique, and should be more thoroughly woven into the cultural fabric of the city. Regardless of the vicissitudes of fate, harsh New England winters, or the collective abandonment of taste during the 1970s.

Of course, the mission of the Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE (WHALE) is to foster historic preservation and continued use of the city’s architectural heritage to enhance community and economic vitality in New Bedford. And, they’ve done a magnificent job of doing just that. 

But here I’m focusing on the rest of us, and the everyday architecture of the two family or three decker homes which constitute a majority of New Bedford’s housing stock. They’re where so many of us still live, own or rent. And individually and collectively tell a story about the growth of the city from Victorian times until today. 

It seems as if we don’t value that story enough –  along with the architecture. That’s understandable when you consider that the marquee homes get all the Instagram attention, while simpler styles have historically been susceptible to bulldozing if they stood in the way of a highway through the city. 

Thankfully, enough people have paid attention to the larger story of architecture to make a difference. No better example exists than the work of the New Bedford Historical Society in preserving the legacy of the Nathan and Polly Johnson House at 21 Seventh Street. 

The Nathan and Polly Johnson House is the only remaining structure in which Frederick Douglass lived during his seven years in New Bedford (1838–45). Through the work of the New Bedford Historical Society, the Nathan and Polly Johnson House was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior in 2000. Now, that work continues as Abolition Row Park is being created along the street. 

Not every home has such a claim to fame. Yet, your old house has a story and value all its own, too – as important to the city as it is to you. 

And, here’s how you can help uncover it.

Recently, I decided to uncover the lineage of my own two family house in New Bedford by visiting the Bristol County Registry of Deeds near City Hall. All you need is your building’s address if you want to embark on the same journey. 

With the address, find the current deed for your property. You can look it up on a computer for public use at the Registry, or ask someone there for help to get you started. (They are very nice and helpful!)

Once you locate the deed in a book, a notation will direct you to the previous deed in another book by page number. In such a way, you work your way backwards to the very first deed for your address and meet its previous owners along the way. 

I already knew my building was dated back to 1897, and sure enough discovered the very first owner of the land. Combined with a little Google sleuthing, I learned more about the circumstances of the sale and how my corner of the city evolved.

Edward E. Dalrymple – a Dicksonian name if ever I heard one – was the first owner of what was to become the property which is now my address. I state it in that way because Dalrymple bought only dirt from Frank P. Hadley, a real estate magnate of the time. 

Dalrymple, then, bought land and built houses. My parcel was originally part of what is now two separate properties, my house and my neighbor’s, built around the same time. Together they form a corner, my house facing a side street and the other facing a busier thoroughfare. 

After conducting my initial research, I ran into Pat Daughton of the New Bedford Preservation Society. That group is, naturally, concerned with architecture in the city. (Heads up – starting with the May AHA! New Bedford, it will be launching a new series of walking tours; find information about them below.)

Pat clued me in to another resource – the 1911 Atlas of the City New Bedford, which you can access a stone’s throw from the Registry at City Hall or page through online here. The atlas revealed more to me about Edward Dalrymple. 

Not only did he own my lot and the lot next door, but also two lots across the street and others around the corner. His son, George S. Dalrymple, one of the executors of his estate, lived in one. The other executor of his estate, his daughter Helen, married and became Helen Agrella – but only moved a block away to Austin Street. 

Edward owned these properties until his death in 1950, and his address is listed as my current neighbor’s house next door. He owned the property where I reside for 53 years, then – and this year, 2023, marks 53 years members of my family have owned it. 

I guess we all enjoy the neighborhood. Edward’s buried just blocks away off Parker Street in Oak Grove Cemetery, according to! A fate I hope to avoid for some time.  Edward himself was born in 1861, so by the standards of the time lived a very, very long life. 

I plan to discover more about Mr. Dalrymple, as well as others who may have lived at the house through the years with the use of the New Bedford Free Public LIbrary’s access to and its census data.

Discovering the origin story of my house, and getting a glimpse at the person and people who once lived here and in the neighborhood, makes me value it all the more. Thought and planning went into creating this corner of New Bedford, as well as the construction of the homes. 

I’ll wonder now why Edward chose the details he did – common to so many houses in the area. Elaborate front staircases. Distinctive porch details. Lots of windows and precise woodwork. When undergoing renovations, these details will gain new prominence and attention. 

The architecture of a building – from Whaling-era mansion to turn of the (last) century tenement –  is as emotional as it is physical. Finding the heart in your home is priceless – as is adding to its soul with care. 


Walkways: Exploring the People and Places of Historic New Bedford with the New Bedford Preservation Society  will take place on AHA! Nights every second Thursday in May, June, July, August and September from 6:00pm to 7:00 p.m. unless otherwise stated. This series is made possible by the generous support of the New Bedford Local Cultural Council.

MAY: Historic Houses of New Bedford, May 11, 2023, 6PM

Gather at the James Arnold Mansion, 427 County Street.

This tour highlights important houses that have not been seen in previous video productions. All of the properties are located in the Old Bedford Village and County Street Historic Districts.

JUNE: VIP V Walking Tour – Notable People in New Bedford History June 8, 2023, 6PM

Gather at Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, 396 County Street.

This Walking Tour will highlight people as well as places significant in the development of New Bedford.

JULY: New Bedford in the Civil War Tour, July 13, 2023, 6PM

Gather at Custom House Square, New Bedford Whaling National Park.

The impact of the Civil War, 1861-1865, on New Bedford and its contribution to the war effort are the subjects of this walking tour. Stops include the landmark sites within the Historic District.

AUGUST: History of the Textile Industry Tour August 10, 2023, 6PM

Gather at the Joseph Grinnell Mansion, 379 County Street.

This tour recounts the rise and fall of the Textile Industry and its continuing effect on New Bedford.

SEPTEMBER BONUS: Rural Cemetery Tour. September 14, 2023.  Tour starts at 3PM

Gather at the Rural Cemetery, 149 Dartmouth Street (Dartmouth Street Entrance)

The cemetery tour not only features the people interred but also the art and symbolism of their monuments.

Previous tours may be viewed on the NBPS YouTube channel.

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