100 Years Ago Today: Johnny Cake Hill readies for a grand museum edifice

Johnny Cake Hill ca. 1900 (NBWM #2000.100.80.1)

Johnny Cake Hill ca. 1900 (NBWM #2000.100.80.1)

On a windswept March 13th, 1915 a group of men stood on the crest of Johnny Cake Hill, their backs to the Seamen’s Bethel. Their gaze was directed at two aged and weather-beaten wood frame houses directly across the street. The weather did not interfere with the task at hand: to clear the way for a grand museum edifice planned for the site.

A gift to the Old Dartmouth Historical Society from Miss Emily H. Bourne, the new museum building would greatly expand the Society’s existing galleries, which fronted on Water Street. It would be built to honor the memory of Emily’s father, Jonathan Bourne, Jr.; his name to be prominently carved into the frieze above an imposing front entrance, which would rise on this spot within a year’s time.

#12 and #14 Bethel Street (photo: New Bedford Sunday Standard, March 14, 1915)

#12 and #14 Bethel Street (photo: New Bedford Sunday Standard, March 14, 1915)

With the land beneath the structures already under control of the project, the task on this day was the dispensation of the buildings. In classic Yankee fashion, the public auction to sell the houses quickly commenced with the mandate that they be removed or dismantled in a requisite time. Auctioneer Fred W. Greene, Jr. called out the bidders’ offers for #12 and #14 Bethel Street; the former a well-worn shingled half-Cape style house with a bracketed awning over its front door, the latter a shabby full-Cape with nine windows placed symmetrically to its centered door serviced by a sloping porch and staircase.

Detail of  Bethel Street block, New Bedford City Atlas, 1911

Detail of Bethel Street block, New Bedford City Atlas, 1911

The 1911 New Bedford Atlas lists the owner of the #12 Bethel as Juliet A.M. Barney, and #14 as Henry E. Woodward. Boarders of many backgrounds and nationalities were typical in these tightly settled neighborhoods of the oldest part of town. The 1911 City Directory lists a few for these addresses: John Francis, laborer; Charles Williams, teamster; Manuel Lopez, seamen; Joseph Teixeira, mill hand; Mrs. Julia M Teixeira, widow.

News of the auction in the March 15 New Bedford Sunday Standard did not include information about former owners or occupants or what became of them; only that the sales were executed with dispatch and for short money. “The houses numbered 12 and 14 Bethel Street were sold to Zephir Quintin for a total sum of $79, the house on the south (#12) bringing $41 and the one to the north $35.” The Standard noted that the new owner had just ten days to remove them before excavation of the site would begin.


Interest seems to have been tepid, perhaps due to the time constriction. “The bidding started at $10, then made a jump to $20, to $25, and by small jumps to $35.  The next jump was to $37.50. Dollar bids brought the price up to $41, the selling price. The bidding on the other house was much the same, with the price starting at $20.” The reporter concluded “While the houses were very old, the lumber in them was not valuable, and the price paid, considering that the structures are to be removed was a fair one.”

The larger building had a history, which was noted by Old Dartmouth Historical Society members present for the sale. “Particular interest was manifest in the larger building. Henry B. Worth, who attended the sale, said that a picture in the possession of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society showed the Friends’ Academy standing at right angles to the street, while the building now standing on the site is parallel to the street. That the school was swing around into that position is very probable, said Mr. Worth.”

With the houses at the crest gone, excavation began and swift progress on the new building continued uninterrupted until its dedication in November 1916. An additional house immediately south of the new museum would also be removed eventually, its footprint now the upper lot adjacent the south face of the Bourne Building. This area is destined to become the upper courtyard entrance of the new Wattles Jacobs Education Center, scheduled to open in fall 2015.


One response to “100 Years Ago Today: Johnny Cake Hill readies for a grand museum edifice

  1. A brilliant piece of research and reporting. Is the museum planning events around the anniversary?

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