It was the letter William W. Crapo (1830-1926) had been waiting for. The aging lawyer, former congressman and first president of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, had been anticipating some official word from his old acquaintance and client, Emily Howland Bourne (1835-1922) about her intent toward the building of a massive museum edifice, which would be like no other in the world.
On January 4, 1915, Miss Bourne finally penned a letter that confirmed she would build a soaring church-like structure atop Johnny Cake Hill adjacent to the Society’s gallery of whaling artifacts located down the hill in a former bank on North Water Street. Moreover, it would be purpose-built to receive the world’s largest ship model, whose main royal truck would rise to 50 feet from the floor/waterline to nearly touch the apex of the museum’s barrel-vaulted ceilings. She would build it as a memorial to her beloved father, Jonathan Bourne, one of New Bedford’s most successful whaling agents.
She wrote to Crapo, “I have held back in making this known to you by my hope that I might persuade my friend, Mr. Henry Vaughn (an Englishman) of Boston, to undertake the work.”
Henry Vaughn (1845-1917) was a distinguished architect of prominent churches in the northeast United States. He was one of the architects of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, collaborated on Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., and Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut.
Vaughn planned an elaborate Georgian Revival exterior; within it would include open and balustraded upper galleries to survey the ship from three quarters of the compass, supported by colonnades of the Doric Order, which would give the entire space the reverential air of a Romanesque church. The half-scale model of the whale ship, LAGODA, dramatically enshrined at the center.
The entire project was more than Crapo and the fledgling society could have hoped for. In scale and grandeur it surpassed all expectations; it was what one might more likely expect to see presented as a national pavilion at a world exposition, than as a building addition to a newly formed museum operated by a regional historical society. Creating a dramatic and memorable spectacle was quite deliberate. Emily noted in her letter that the “old traditions, and activities of the city should be perpetuated, and put in a form to be easily recognized by its future inhabitants…” There was no denying that the magnificence of new building transcended language and would be easily understood by all groups and all ages.
The work soon commenced and the building rose swiftly in 1915, with enclosure before the end of the year. Immediately, the LAGODA began to take shape within the great hall, like a gigantic ship in a bottle, under the supervision of Edgar B. Hammond, who had taken measurements for it from the CHARLES W. MORGAN.
As inscribed above the main entrance on Johnny Cake Hill, the Jonathan Bourne Whaling Museum was dedicated November 22, 1916. Nearly a century later, it never fails to inspire awe upon entering the space.
For more on Emily Bourne and her munificent gift: Old Dartmouth Historical Society Sketch #44