February 1, 2021
The Founding of the Herreshoff Marine Museum
A history of how it began back in 1971 as a floating exhibit with extraordinary examples of Herreshoff craftsmanship and aesthetics.
by John Burnham
When it was launched in 1971, the Herreshoff Marine Museum was literally a floating institution, consisting of a few donated boats, the first of which was THANIA (HMCo. #248), a double-ended 60-foot Herreshoff cabin launch, built in 1905.
Halsey Herreshoff, grandson of the famous designer Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, recollects the museum’s founding this way:
“In November, 1970, I was approached by a New York lawyer who pointed out to me that the owner of the yacht THANIA, Daniel Newhall, of Jamestown, Rhode Island, had unexpectedly passed away. In his will, he left THANIA to the Herreshoff Marine Museum, together with $10,000 to provide for some of its upkeep.
“‘Well,’ I said to the lawyer, ‘That’s most extraordinary because we never knew Mr. Newhall. We don’t have any museum. And, so, what do we do?’ And he said, ‘Well, you have two choices. You can either refuse the request or you can form a museum. And, if you do the latter, I would suggest you call it the Herreshoff Marine Museum because that’s the designation that’s in the will.’”
Enthusiastic donors encouraged the Herreshoff family to create an institution to preserve more extraordinary examples of Herreshoff craftsmanship and aesthetics, and as a result, with a board of directors nearly all with the same surname, the Museum was born in 1971.
There was no Museum building in those days. The donated boats—THANIA (HMCo. #248), a Marlin Class cruiser, 240 (HMCo. #240), and an original HMCo. rowboat—served as evidence of the purpose, to preserve the history and innovative work of the remarkable Herreshoff Manufacturing Company.
In August, 1978, the first physical Museum space opened on the ground floor of 18 Burnside Street where a small and growing collection of Herreshoff boats, artifacts and images were displayed. Originally a storehouse drafted by Clarence DeWolf Herreshoff and built by the workmen at the company in 1917, the structure at 18 Burnside Street had been acquired two years earlier by Halsey Herreshoff, who made the first floor available for exhibit space.
In 1979, the Museum Board initiated a membership program and a bi-annual newsletter. That same year, the Museum acquired on loan from the Ford Museum the 1860 catboat SPRITE, the oldest remaining catboat in America and for which Nat Herreshoff at the age of eleven-and-one-half years, laid out the full-size patterns for her construction.
Progressing from this modest beginning, the Museum expanded significantly, acquiring most of the former Herreshoff Manufacturing Company waterfront and original manufacturing buildings in 1985. The first Herreshoff Rendezvous was held in Bristol in 1981 as a regatta for Herreshoff boats, and the event has continued to bring aficionados of Herreshoff designs to this famous section of Bristol waterfront ever since.
According to Halsey Herreshoff, his parents, Sid and Becky Herreshoff, were the main drivers in developing the museum in those years—and his mother was “the best salesperson I ever knew.” Among her successes was persuading a friend of the Museum, Isaac B. Merriman, Jr., to leave a great deal of his estate to the Museum, enabling the purchase of most of the buildings on Burnside Street.
In 1990, Norman Herreshoff bequeathed the adjacent Richmond/Herreshoff House. Later acquisitions and improvements in the 1990s completed “The Herreshoff Marine Museum Campus” with a restored waterfront, large events tent, a 200-foot pier, a string of floating docks and an extensive mooring field for a new sailing school and visiting yachts. In 1992, the museum and its expanded collection moved into the largest building on the site, the 150- by 90-foot two-story steel-and-masonry structure constructed in 1960 by Pearson Plastics.
A major expansion of the mission of the Museum occurred in 1992 when the Board established the America’s Cup Hall of Fame to honor individuals who have made outstanding contributions to yachting’s most distinguished, and the world’s oldest continuing sporting competition. Today, the Hall of Fame has nearly 80 inductees and its supporting collection of artifacts includes manuscripts, news articles, photos and memorabilia that document the Cup from its very beginning in 1851.
In 1996, perhaps the most significant, and for many the most interesting element of the museum, was created; the Nathanael Greene Herreshoff Model Room and Workshop to contain almost 500 half models, books, design materials, tools and papers. This collection is not equaled anywhere in the world.
Fifty years after its founding, more than 60 Herreshoff boats reside in the Museum’s Hall of Boats, and its research library holds over 6000 books specific to Herreshoff, the America’s Cup, the history of yachting and important works of naval architecture and marine engineering. Donations from well-known America’s Cup participants (including Briggs Cunningham, “Bus” Mosbacher, and Ed duMoulin) have added to the library and provided unique personal and business records of Cup campaigns. The library is growing and continues to attract important collections.
In celebration of its Golden Jubilee Anniversary, the Museum is holding a series of events and non-stop storytelling celebrating the legacy of the Herreshoffs, their boats and their company. Interwoven in the fabric of the decades is the Museum’s own story, but perhaps even more important is the evolution of the Museum’s early emphasis towards education; that education now includes robust youth sailing and boat-building programs in addition to being an extraordinary marine industry resource for those seeking knowledge relating to the design of boats and the challenges in building them.
The Museum has an impressive waterfront site in which century-old design and manufacturing processes provide inspiration for new generations of problem solvers. Although no longer a floating display, the 60-foot cabin launch THANIA – now in the Hall of Boats – remains one of the Museum’s proudest and most popular exhibits.