First Baptist Church
The restoration of the First Baptist Church will provide an elegant venue for community theatre while retaining a home for the congregation. The project is a national model in the effort to save a sacred space through innovative reuse. WHALE believes this is the best chance to restore a National Treasure while making it accessible to the public.
An Urgent Need
The First Baptist Church is now considered the most important building in the city that is in danger of being lost. Without immediate stabilization, the historical treasure will be unprotected for this winter and may be damaged beyond repair.
After a successful feasibility study, WHALE has led a team effort to repurpose the church as a permanent home for Your Theatre, Inc. while also retaining a home for the congregation. This project is based on a national reuse model where congregations can become sustainable through shared space. When you restore historic churches while honoring its members, you are only enhancing that community. As a community theatre and local history exhibit, this project will further connect a historic neighborhood to New Bedford’s growing creative economy.
The MA Historic Tax Credit recently granted the historic site $250,000 for its first award towards construction costs. This is a major breakthrough, but there is a long way to go as these credits cannot be used directly towards the most pressing costs such as boiler replacement. The $1.2 M restoration project is projected to begin in 2017.
Historic & Community Significance
The First Baptist Church is a prominent landmark and is a key corner building that anchors City Hall Square in the heart of downtown New Bedford. The meetinghouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and was designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation due to its history in the creation of Parliamentarian Procedure. The national and international significance comes from one of its members, Lt. Henry Martyn Robert, achieving world-wide acclaim for creating “Robert’s Rules of Order” which have been adopted as the standard for parliamentary procedures due to his experience moderating a disorderly meeting held at the church.
Built in 1829 in the Greek Revival style, this church is a two story wood framed building that sits atop a stone foundation, rectangular in plan with a gabled roof featuring a steeple. The steeple was a landfall for whaling ships returning to port and it is the only surviving church featured on the City’s seal.
In 2014, the Mass Cultural Council and National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Your Theatre Inc. two grants for a theatre reuse study. The project reviewed the feasibility of the community theatre group to purchase the site as a venue while also allowing the First Baptist Latino Congregation to retain space for their services and mission work. With this successful report, WHALE has moved forward as the developer with plans for a capital campaign.
As an added venue in the downtown, the theatre will enhance the vibrancy of the streetscape by bringing a historic building back to life, attract several thousand more potential customers for the restaurants and other businesses that populate the downtown area, and build upon the city’s revitalization which both the visitor and residents’ alike enjoy. The project will be another symbol in the Downtown New Bedford Historic District showing that reuse and restoration of historic buildings is central to the cultural and economic revitalization of the community.
The First Baptist Church Restoration is an initiative of the Waterfront Historic Area League and Your Theatre, Inc. both nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations are located and dedicated to the City of New Bedford.