Historic New England has long been a quiet steward of the region’s history, offering tourists, history buffs, and school children a glimpse of the region’s storied past through its 38 house museums and other historical properties.
You wouldn’t know it, but the once-sleepy organization — known mainly for properties such as the Eustis Estate in Milton, or the Gropius House in Lincoln — is the largest independent preservation group in the country. Its vast collection of New England artifacts, said to be the world’s most comprehensive, boasts some 125,000 objects: everything from period furniture and paintings by John Singleton Copley, to primitive home appliances, and Julia Child’s sensible black shoes.
Now, Historic New England is aiming to dramatically boost its public profile, showcasing its collection as part of an ambitious new initiative to create a sprawling cultural center around its headquarters in downtown Haverhill. Organizers hope the mixed-use project, which will require a robust fund-raising effort, will serve as an economic driver for the area. They add that it may offer a host of amenities, including exhibition space, performance space, artist work-live space, retail, housing, restaurants, and perhaps even a hotel.
Vin Cipolla, the group’s president and chief executive, said the initiative will be “transformational” for the organization, which for more than 110 years has been acquiring rustic 17th-century dwellings, elegant 19th-century mansions, and a vast array of objects, ephemera, and documents in an effort to tell the region’s history through domestic life, its buildings and materials.
But with the proposed Haverhill development, the preservation group seeks a larger stage, entering the noisy cultural fray as scholars interrogate the region’s once-tidily presented history, raising challenging new questions about its role in the slave trade and treatment of Native American populations.
“We are working very hard to be able to tell a much fuller, much more complete New England history,” said Cipolla, who joined the organization in 2020. He added that the group’s textiles collection, for example, will enable them to give a nuanced account of the region’s cloth manufacturing economy, which before the Civil War relied heavily on cotton harvested by enslaved people. “You can imagine where this can go with respect to building inclusive narratives.”
On Tuesday, Historic New England completed a $4.5 million purchase of an old shoe factory and pair of adjoining lots in downtown Haverhill. Add that to another lot and neighboring factory the organization already owns to warehouse its collection, and the preservation group has amassed a 3.2-acre campus on Essex Street that offers an estimated 600,000 square feet of potential development.
At the heart of the proposed campus will be the two former shoe factories, portions of which will likely be repurposed to create what the organization has dubbed the Historic New England Center for Preservation and Collections, a public venue to showcase the collection through exhibitions, educational programming, and other events.
“These incredible objects are here to tell stories,” said Cipolla. “People are really amazed by the extent and diversity of the collection, but it has been primarily in a warehouse, there has been very little public engagement over the years.”
With the collections center as an anchor, the initiative, Cipolla hopes, will attract nonprofit and commercial partners to help plan and develop the buildings and lots into a vibrant district. The objective is to create a cultural destination that will transform Haverhill’s economy, not unlike what Mass MoCA has sought to do in North Adams.
“We have an opportunity, with culture as the driver, to help take a prominent role in revitalizing this area,” said Cipolla. “We’re not private developers, and we don’t want to be. But we can be a partner in helping facilitate this kind of activity.”
He added that locating the new project in Haverhill, one of the state’s 26 post-industrial Gateway Cities, also has its advantages.
“There are incentives and benefits to being in a Gateway City, investments that can be leveraged, and there’s federal money, because this is a transit-oriented effort,” said Cipolla, who added the properties are adjacent to the commuter rail and Amtrak.
The initiative already has the support of some area politicians, including Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini.
“This will totally remake that end of town,” he said. “This is going to put us on the tourist map.”
State Representative Andres X. Vargas said he’s filed a $250,000 earmark for the organization in the House budget, which “hopefully will be finalized.”
“The fact that Haverhill is about to become an epicenter of New England history is going to be a huge cultural and economic asset to the city and the region,” said Vargas, who called Historic New England the city’s “best kept secret.”
Founded in 1910 as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Historic New England now employs around 90 people full time, with an additional 170 part-time workers. Its endowment, battered by the market in recent years, stands at around $125 million.
Even so, the Haverhill initiative, which Cipolla hopes to have completed in five to seven years, will be a heavy financial lift for the organization: He estimated the capital campaign, still in the planning stages, will have to raise somewhere between $150 million and $200 million, even as fears of a recession continue to circulate.
“It’s going to be a large, comprehensive campaign effort, and it should be,” said Cipolla, who acknowledged it was a “bit unusual” to talk publicly about a fund-raising campaign before its launch.
“There’s no reason to deflect or pretend that we’re not pursuing this very ambitiously,” he said. Cipolla, who’s previously led the National Park Foundation, The Municipal Art Society of New York, and the David Geffen Hall Campaign at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, added: “We think this is going to be a global destination.”
Deborah L. Allinson, chair of Historic New England’s board of trustees, said the organization’s efforts to raise its public profile have been a long time coming, even as disputes over historical narratives have become more charged in recent years.
“We could feel a lot of the pressures around our history, pressures around us as an organization, as a region,” she said, adding they brought on Cipolla with an eye toward transformational change. “We knew we wanted to be relevant for the future.”
She added that the preservation group, whose holdings also include some 1.5 million archival letters, articles, and other documents, has hired a number of scholars to work directly with its collections.
For Cipolla, that means “deep forensic work” to uncover women’s stories that have been overlooked in their collections, and examining the region’s once-dominant textiles industry, among other subjects.
“All stories that need to be told,” he said. “We have objects in this facility that cover the extent of New England history, but sitting on a shelf they’re not really performing the way they potentially could.”