ORLEANS — Given what the Orleans Historical Society has been up to recently, it's no surprise that the current exhibit at the 1834 Meetinghouse is titled “Models of Maritime Courage and Adventure.”
The OHS board has been a model of courage and adventure itself, setting out to raise $3 million to update the Meetinghouse and Hurd Chapel and purchase the Captain Linnell House while creating a new umbrella identity, the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans, for all its historic properties, including the famed CG 36500 rescue boat.
This spring, OHS received grants of $200,000 each from the town's Community Preservation fund and the Massachusetts Cultural Council as well as $20,000 from the Kelley Foundation. Add that $420,000 to the $659,000 the society says it's received in grants, cash, and pledges, and more than a third of the $3 million has been raised.
“We have probably reached out to two or three dozen foundations or grant sources,” vice chair Jay Stradal said Monday at the Meetinghouse. “The whole board is fully committed. We wouldn't go out and ask other people for money if the board didn't step up first.”
What's the money for?
“Preservation is first and foremost,” Stradal replied, “whether it's this building, Hurd Chapel, the Linnell House, or the 36500. Both the historical commission and the select board are very concerned about preserving the town's history and heritage and architecture. We agree wholeheartedly.”
By re-branding its buildings and collections as the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans, Stradal said, the society underscores that “our vision is much more community-centric. We want to create these centers for people to gather where they can learn, have fun, attend different activities. These buildings are going to be open to the public much more, particularly Linnell, not just the building but its grounds, 2.28 acres.” The Captain Linnell House will remain under private operation and ownership until its sale to OHS takes effect in January.
The center of the Meetinghouse will remain open for events, and after January the Linnell will house not only exhibits but continue to operate function space for weddings and other special events. Stradal said the Meetinghouse will focus more on Orleans history and artifacts, while Linnell will highlight “life by the sea, particularly on the Outer Cape.” Exhibits will be more interpretive, he said, covering “not just what happened, but why it happened, and what the implications are for today and the future.”
The “culture” in Centers for Culture and History in Orleans is important, according to Stradal, because “culture becomes history. It's about music, art, and all those pieces and how they all become the heritage of this town and part of the Cape.” In a press statement, OHS board chair Kathleen McNeil said the society will “host more of the cultural events we are known for, such as concerts, history talks, musical productions and youth activities.”
Not far from the Meetinghouse is another historic property, the former town hall known as the Academy Playhouse, which recently announced its intention to transform into a cultural center. Stradal said OHS “started talking to them several years ago on again and off again” about a potential collaboration, “but there wasn't a lot of interest (from the Academy) at that point... We wouldn't be interested in taking on their debt, but they're in a very historic building... If the town would find a way to work with us collaboratively on the whole thing, maybe something could happen down the road. We wouldn't be adverse to that.”
One of the society's principal assets is the CG36500 Coast Guard boat used to rescue the crew of the tanker Pendleton off Chatham in 1952 (a life jacket from the doomed ship is displayed in the new Meetinghouse exhibit). The boat itself is at Coast Guard Station Chatham for yearly maintenance before returning to its summer berth at Rock Harbor. “A lot of volunteers have been working on that for the last three weeks at least,” Stradal said. “When they get involved, it's because the boat called to them, whether they had a Coast Guard background or not.”
At some point, given its age, the boat may have to come out of the water permanently. “As a board, we have to be cognizant of that and think ahead,” Stradal said. “As far as we're concerned, we don't want to see it go anywhere.” The Linnell property “might be part of the answer, but that's way too far ahead. I hope it doesn't happen very soon. On the other hand, people are not getting any younger and the boat's not getting any younger.”
The CG 36500's story has a place of pride in the “Models of Maritime Courage and Adventure” exhibit created by guest curator and interim executive director Edith Tonelli. It begins with images of the Wampanoag mishoon, a dugout canoe, used in the time that the Cape's rivers were its roads. Then come the explorers and settlers and sea captains and fishermen. A seven-foot female figurehead from famed boat-builder Donald McKay's The Imperial presides over a section devoted to seafaring women.
“I think it's a very exciting time for us,” Stradal said. “I know a lot of people when we started down this road a year and a half ago with a $3 million campaign thought, 'What are you, nuts?' but I think they're beginning to see, and will see more. This is really something new and different. We hope people will see that and get on board.”
“Models of Maritime Courage and Adventure” will be open through Sept. 22 at the Meetinghouse on River Road, which will also host a comedy and political cabaret June 1 at 7 p.m.; the OHS annual antiques show June 15 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and a multi-media talk by Michael Tougias on his new book “U-Boats So Close To Home: A True Story of One American Family's Fight for Survival During World War II” and on his book about the Pendleton rescue. For more information, and to learn about the fund-raising campaign, go to OrleansHistoricalSociety.org.