For 150 years, it stood as one of the oldest — some say the oldest — coeducational schoolhouses in the United States. More recently, it served as headquarters to the local historical society, its ground floor featuring a visitors center and gift shop. For now, the Hingham Square building long known as Old Derby sits closed.
Supporters say a planned $3 million renovation to transform the site into the Hingham Heritage Museum will allow more permanent exhibitions and provide a more attractive rental venue. Groundbreaking on the renovations was held last week.
“It’s the grand dame of the downtown,” said Hingham resident Sally Weston, who is donating her architectural and design firm’s time and expertise to the endeavor. “You really want it to shine and become a centerpiece.”
The Hingham Historical Society bought the 19th-century building from Derby Academy in 1966, and it has been serving as its headquarters and the town’s de facto visitors center, said society president Michael Studley. It will continue in those roles after the overhaul.
He said people come from all over to research genealogy and to view the museum’s collection on the history of the town, incorporated in 1635. The collection holds 12,000 to 15,000 artifacts.
The renovation work is expected to take nine months, Studley said. Elevators will be installed in the three-story building, along with air conditioning and improved kitchen facilities. Square footage is expected to increase from 4,882 to 9,481. Repairs will also be done to the foundations, windows, and chimneys.
The land the building is on was donated in 1784 by Sarah Derby, a prominent local resident, for the purpose of building a school. Founded in 1791, the Derby School, later Derby Academy, erected a second building in 1818 at 34 Main St. to house a growing student population. Derby Academy sold the second building — the first was torn down — to the historical group when the academy moved to its current location about a half-mile away, Studley said.
The old schoolhouse opened to the public in 2008, after being used primarily for Hingham Historical Society meetings and occasional events, as well as being rented out for weddings and parties, according to the society’s executive director, Suzanne Buchanan. As many as 8,000 people have stopped at the visitors’ center and gift shop annually, Buchanan said.
Studley said more than $2.5 million has been raised for the renovation, including more than $1 million provided through the town’s Community Preservation Act program.
Laura Winters, who is helping with marketing, said a Sept. 26 “Barn Ball Denim and Diamonds” fund-raiser is expected to bring in an additional $50,000. “I really see it being the jewel of the square,’’ she said of the renovated building.
Jean Lang can be reached at jeanmcmillanlang@gmail.