Old buildings are like old friends. They’re there for us, through rain and snow, watching parades pass by, even dressing up for such occasions. They’re as much a part of our communities as our postmen, our police officers and our barbers. And, if properly cared for, they outlive us all.
Old Derby Academy stands proudly above downtown Hingham like a doting grandmother, watching over us through a grand façade of 14 street-facing windows, stylistic and symmetrical at the same time, as beautiful a representation of Federal architecture as there is to be found on the South Shore. We built buildings like Old Derby the way we did for a reason. Our nation was young, in fact reborn after the War of 1812, and we were likening our new republic to that of Ancient Rome. We were proud. We were bold. Our architecture said so.
Yet, while the country was young by definition, Hingham was already getting on in age. As one of the first settlements in America, it was nearing its bicentennial. It had seen the entire breadth of American history. Its people had been settlers, farmers, sailors, bucket makers and more. By 1784, the year after the signing of the Treaty of Paris signified the end of the American Revolution (it was a Hingham man, Benjamin Lincoln, who accepted the sword of surrender from the British at Yorktown), Madam Sarah Derby had shared her vision: a school in which boys and girls would learn together. She bought the land at 34 Main Street in 1784 to open the Derby School seven years later.
The students privileged to attend the first Derby Academy—now gone—followed different courses of study. While the boys fought their way through Latin, the girls refined their needlework; it was, after all, 1791. But the fact was that nowhere else in the country did boys and girls share learning space. It just wasn’t done. By 1818, the school needed a new building. And so the new Derby Academy was built (the other torn down), the only Derby Academy we knew until the current institution was constructed on Burditt Avenue in the 1960s.
Old Derby became the focal point of Hingham history in 1966, the headquarters of the historical society dedicated to promulgating the glories of the ancient town’s past. It was multifunctional, its interior reimagined from classroom space to exhibit space, echoes of the voices of celebrated lecturers from centuries gone by replaced with, well, the lecturing voices of modern authors and historians talking about those lecturers who came before them. As a gathering place, for weddings and other functions, it held charm.
By 2015, as it approached its 200th birthday, Old Derby Academy was, indeed, old, and was in need of some modernizing. Hingham architect Sally Weston, who took on the job of revitalizing “the grand dame,” as she calls it, knew it could be new again, and retain that charm.
The Hingham Historical Society raised $2.5 million. The changes would be subtle—foundation repairs, chimney fixes, window refurbishing—and dramatic. New kitchen space will greatly increase the society’s function-hosting capabilities, as will the nearly doubled square-footage (from 4,882 to 9,481). There will be elevators. There will be air conditioning. There will be a facility better equipped to properly store the thousands of artifacts and photos the society holds on behalf of its community. There will be outdoor function space for 200 guests. And there will be an addition, off the back, difficult to see from the street—the beloved façade will remain—that will allow Old Derby to become the Hingham Heritage Visitor Center at Old Derby. Hinghamites who lived in town before and during the transformation will always call it Old Derby. Those who come in the future may know it as the Visitor Center or “the museum.” But that transition will take a long time.
Acella Construction broke ground in the fall of 2015 with a nine-month plan in place. As the year drew to a close, Old Derby was wrapped like a Christmas present, as Hinghamites waited with great anticipation to see what would emerge from within. Something great, no doubt. As that is the legacy of the building known as Old Derby.