Restoring The Plummer House In New Bedford

Apr 1, 2019

The Leander A. Plummer House in New Bedford, currently undergoing restoration by the Waterfront Historic Area League, or WHALE.
Credit Waterfront Historic Area League

The Plummer House in New Bedford is one of the latest restoration projects to be undertaken by the Waterfront Historic Area League, or WHALE, an organization focused on preserving New Bedford’s architectural heritage.

The house was built in the late 1850s for New Bedford native Leander A. Plummer. He helped found the New Bedford Cordage Company, which supplied various types of rope for whaling ships, textile mills and other industries. Plummer called his house 'Morelands,' reflecting an area that was considerably more rural during his time than it is today.

This 1871 atlas shows the Plummer House originally facing east. It was later turned to face Hawthorn Street to the north.
Credit Waterfront Historic Area League

“Right now the house faces north – it faces Hawthorn Street. But we know from 19th century maps and illustrations that the house originally faced east with its side facing Hawthorn Street,” said WHALE Project manager Rachel Alison. “It had extensive grounds, and as the area became more populated, the house was eventually lifted and moved to face the street, presumably to avoid facing new neighbors directly to the east.” 

WHALE has been working on the Plummer House restoration for about eight months. It’s an early example of the Italianate style of architecture, with a number of Greek revival touches. Plastic covers some of the walls and woodwork as various contractors apply new paint and plaster, and replace electrical, plumbing and other components.

WHALE Project Manager Rachel Alison.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“The woodwork’s unusual because it’s all chestnut,” said WHALE Executive Director Terry Bernert. “You don’t find that in many New Bedford homes, so you have that rich, red color coming through, and when we first got the house, you couldn’t even see the grain because of all the mold and nicotine on top of it.” 

Before WHALE came on board to do the restoration, the house sat vacant for about 12 years. 

“There were huge holes in the roof – water was pouring into it. It was actually broken into many times,” said Bernert. 

It eventually became a 'receiver property' under a program through the state Attorney General’s office. They identify vacant or dilapidated properties, then give the lien-holders a certain amount of time to correct any code violations.

The Plummer House was built primarily in the Italianate style of architecture.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“And if they don’t correct them, there’s a process where the city and the Attorney General’s office can appoint a receiver who’s usually a non-profit who specializes in restoration and real estate. We were chosen as a receiver to clean it out and then restore it,” said Bernert.  

Although the Plummer House had fallen into disrepair, many of its most unique features survive. There are some well-preserved examples of imported Dutch tilework, called Delftware, surrounding several of the home’s fireplaces.

Imported Dutch tiles, known as "Delftware," surround several of the Plummer House's fireplaces.

“Delftware was really popular until about 1820s, and then it kind of went into a dormant period,” said Rachel Alison. “And then it had a resurgence in the 1870s. and Massachusetts has the most examples of in situ delftware in North America, and we’re lucky enough to have examples here in the Plummer house.” 

A wooden panel above one of the fireplaces features a seaside scene painted by Plummer’s son, Leander A. Plummer the 2nd, a well-known artist in New Bedford during his time. A nearby door features a scene with painted birds and marsh grass etched into the dark wood.

This scene on one of the home's doors features marsh grass etched into the dark wood by Leander A. Plummer's son.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

The third floor has a room that’s thought to have been Leander Plummer the 2nd’s art studio, although that can’t be verified. In a nearby bathroom is a surviving example of a very early toilet.

“It was probably added sometime in the 1880s. And the earliest examples were built of wood and designed to look like furniture like you see here. And this didn’t last very long, because they quickly learned that wood is kind of hard to keep clean and sanitary, and so they quickly changed over to things like porcelain or metals,” said Alison.  

The Waterfront Historic Area League hopes to have the Plummer House restoration completed by summer. It will be sold as a private residence, with most of the proceeds used to cover the cost of restoration.