NEW BEDFORD — New Bedford is getting two new historic districts, after the city council approved a proposal from Mayor Jon Mitchell establishing them at Abolition Row and Mechanics Lane.

The two new districts will be added to the city's only other local historic district, the Bedford Landing-Waterfront Historic District, which shares its borders with the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park.

For Massachusetts cities and towns, local historic districts are a way to preserve distinctive buildings and spaces, maintain and improve their settings, and keep new designs compatible with the character of the area.

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A local historic commission must approve the plans before any exterior archictectural feature is altered in the districts.

New Bedford's Historical Commission and the Bedford Landing-Waterfront Historic District were both established in 1971, partly as a reaction to the destructive urban renewal program in 1966 that saw thirty blocks razed in the city.

Abolition Row and Mechanics Lane

The Abolition Row Historic District is made up of a group of homes along Seventh Street, including the famous Nathan and Polly Johnson house.

Part of the Underground Railroad, the historic home belonged to prominent Black abolitionists who sheltered Frederick and Anna Douglass when they first arrived in New Bedford, among many others.

Meanwhile the new Mechanic’s Lane Historic District is centered around a group of 19th century homes that line the eponymous downtown alleyway.

Mechanics Lane, with the First Baptist Church
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Houses on Mechanic's Lane were built in the early to mid-1800s and belonged to tradesmen and craftsmen, generally called "mechanics."

The lane also runs behind the historic First Baptist Church, which is featured on the city seal.

Restoration of the church — which was the birthplace of Robert's Rules of Order — is ongoing but nearly complete.

Creating the New Districts and Comments from City Officials

Neighborhood residents approached the New Bedford Historical Commission about creating new historic districts in 2016, and the proposals were approved after input from residents, the planning board, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

New Bedford has seven National Historic Landmarks, three of which are located in the new Abolition Row district.

The city is also home to 15 National Register Districts, including parks, mill complexes, and residential areas.

"The designation of the Abolition Row and Mechanic’s Lane Historic Districts will ensure that these unique and cohesive group of properties are recognized for their historic and architectural significance and are protected from potential alterations that could undermine the area’s historical character," Mitchell commented.

New Bedford Historical Commission Chair Diana Henry noted that the new districts come more than fifty years after the first one was established.

"The designation of two new districts as a result of a grassroots effort initiated by neighborhood residents is an endeavor to be celebrated," she said.

"The Historical Commission looks forward to collaborating with the new district property owners in the continued preservation and recognition of their unique properties and their contribution to what makes New Bedford special."

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