New ‘Cornerstone Project’ at New England Historic Genealogical Society Will Engage the Public

In the Back Bay, learning about linage, history, and genealogy is going to become even more interactive and user friendly.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) has plans to expand its programming offerings after purchasing the building at 97 Newbury St. adjacent to its existing headquarters at 99 Newbury St.

The Society presented initial plans for the building’s facade to the Back Bay Architectural

Commission (BBAC) on August 11, where the team received feedback on the design. The Sun spoke with NEHGS President and CEO D. Brenton Simons, as well as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Ryan Woods, to learn more about what’s proposed for the interior of the new space at 97 Newbury St.

Simons said that he wanted to stress “how excited we are to work with the BBAC and our neighbors,” and that NEHGS is “happily on the same page with the direction of the design of this building.”

The existing headquarters facility has been open to the public since 1964, though the institution itself was founded in 1845 as the world’s first genealogical society, Simons said.

Over the past 176 years, NEHGS has worked with millions of people in 139 countries across the globe on genealogical topics, and the society also features collections dedicated to American history. The organization’s staff of about 100 professional genealogists and historians helps hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds learn about their lineage, and there is a huge emphasis on education for “local residents, visitors, families, students, and scholars,” he said.

In-person and online lectures and tours are available, as is a youth education program.

Additionally, NEHGS holds a “unique manuscript collection” that is larger than that of the Library of Congress, Woods said. People can come and use research areas inside the center, or access more than 1.4 billion searchable digital records.

The new space will allow NEHGS to expand on these offerings in a friendly, welcoming environment that is open to the public.

“Part of the impetus for our physical expansion,” Woods said, is that research has shown that there are social and emotional benefits of “generational history,” and helping young people understand their family history can positively impact cognition.

The planned project, called the Cornerstone Project, is “really an outgrowth of all that we do here at New England Historic Genealogical Society/American Ancestors,” Woods said.

Woods said that the existing building has been “really collection focused,” but the new space will allow for a dedicated “people centric” space.

He said that a welcome center will be located at the front of the building, and a Discovery Center will “feature computer kiosks and interactive exhibitions that will tell the stories of the American experience to immigration to westward expansion and beyond.”

The building will also feature different interactive exhibits such as one on DNA, as well as other “science skills that are applicable to family history,” Woods said.

There will also be an “expanded and dedicated learning center for both youth and adult audiences,” a dedicated lecture hall, and “a new home for our publishing center,” he said, adding that NEHGS currently publishes “family and local history somewhere in the range of 20-25 titles a year” along with a quarterly magazine and two scholarly journals.

The new building will also be the “new dedicated home for our Jewish Heritage Center,” Woods said, which features “collections related to New England Jewish families and institutions.”

Simons spoke about a feature of the Discovery Center that he is “really excited about.” There will be a “story booth” or “story lab” where people can come and record stories that can be archived for future generations to access later.

“We find that this is a really inspiring way to have people participate in family history,” Simons said. A digital copy can be sent to the participants in addition to the archival.

NEHGS is also the “anchor location” of the PBS Series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. A lot good deal of the research for the show is done at NEHGS, Simons said. “That’s the kind of thing that we’re doing.”

When it comes to the design of the exterior of 97 Newbury St., “we’re very appreciative of the constructive feedback received from the BBAC and the Architecture Committee at the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB),” Woods said, adding that they “understand what the charge is and purview of that group is.” Simons said that “we’re a history and a preservation organization, so their advice resonates with us.”

He added that NEHGS has researched the building in depth and discovered that “it’s been altered many, many times.”

The building still needs to move through the zoning process with the City, as well as a full design review and vote from the BBAC. Woods said “depending on that process,” the project may be able to commence late next year, but he said the goal is to “make sure the design is right.”

Woods said, “inspiration is at the center of what we’re trying to do,” as well as provide information and engaging activities to the public.

“We’re excited to give new life to a first generation building on Newbury St.,” Simons said. “I want everyone to know that we’re a very welcoming, open door organization and that’s really one of our goals here; to make sure the public knows what we have to offer, and local residents and visitors can take advantage of it.”

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