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Getting the past shipshape

Redeveloped Hingham property includes ‘walking museum’ chronicling heyday of World War II shipyard

Leslie Cohen, vice president of development for Samuels & Associates, talks about the wall (in background) and wayside panels installed around the Hingham Shipyard that tell the story of the shipyard's involvement in WWII. Leslie Cohen, vice president of development for Samuels & Associates, talks about the wall (in background) and wayside panels installed around the Hingham Shipyard that tell the story of the shipyard's involvement in WWII. ( Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Sara Mason Ader
Globe Correspondent / September 10, 2009

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Up to 23,000 workers a day once toiled around the clock at the Hingham Shipyard to build state-of-the-art destroyers that played a major role in shoring up Allied seafaring might during the height of US involvement in World War II.

Pulling that volume of workers together was no small feat. Hingham had just 8,000 residents at the time, so laborers traveled there from as far as New Hampshire to work at the shipyard, and the assembly lines included 2,700 women. Trained by skilled workers borrowed from Quincy’s Fore River Shipyard, the Hingham Shipyard’s workforce produced 227 ships over 3 1/2 years beginning in 1942, far exceeding the government’s expectation of 60 ships a year and even establishing a record in 1944 for building a destroyer in less than four weeks.

For more than half a century, visitors and commuters passing through the shipyard had little way of knowing about or appreciating its triumphant past. But recently, a historic “walking museum’’ was installed at the redeveloped site to chronicle and commemorate its years during the war.

By late 1945, the shipyard was shut down, no longer needed to support the war effort. For the next half a century, the 130-acre site was left largely untended. The commuter ferry services running to Boston and the trickle of business traffic were hardly de tectable against a backdrop of decaying warehouses and other industrial artifacts from the World War II era.

“What that place once was is so impressive. I didn’t want that to fade into history,’’ said Paul Healey, a Hingham resident for more than 45 years, who has served on the town’s Planning Board for 16 years.

Transformation of the shipyard into a new mixed-use commercial and residential property began in earnest several years ago, when three developers, Samuels & Associates, AvalonBay Communities, and Lennar Urban, joined to revive the site. AvalonBay and Lennar focused on residential sections of the development, with Samuels handling the retail and commercial portion of the project.

As part of the zoning process, the town asked the developers to commemorate the shipyard’s history in some way.

“The town made the request, but we viewed it as an opportunity to weave the theme throughout the project,’’ said Leslie Cohen, vice president of development at Samuels & Associates. “We branded the center’s name [The Launch at Hingham Shipyard] around the history of the space and carried the theme throughout the project.’’

Samuels enlisted graphic designer Whitney Perkins to work with a team of longtime Hingham residents with firsthand knowledge of the shipyard’s history. The group brainstormed ideas and provided documentation from the past. Samuels also gave a grant to the MIT Museum to catalog and digitize more than 3,000 images of the shipyard during the war.

Some of those images can be viewed on the 16 wayside panels designed by Perkins that line the walkways throughout the shipyard development. Another nine images are posted on several of the commercial buildings.

The panels chronicle the story of the shipyard from a variety of angles, starting in 1941 when the town was the home of farmland and a few small shops. After Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941, US combat forces entered the war and the government determined a clear need for greater ship-building capacity to overcome the threat of advanced German submarine capabilities.

Bethlehem Steel was awarded a government contract to build a new type of ship, a fast and nimble vessel called a destroyer escort. Bethlehem chose to open a shipyard in Hingham based on its proximity to deep water, railroad lines, and available workers. Full production was underway at the shipyard less than five months after groundbreaking ceremonies.

Cohen points out that in addition to the outdoor panels, several retailers in the development will carry the shipyard theme into their establishments. For example, the newly opened Patriot Cinemas features a panel in its lobby, as well as a flat-screen TV running the 30-minute documentary film “The Hingham Shipyard Remembered’’ on a continuous loop.

“The panels were designed so that the content could be viewed and understood in any order,’’ Cohen said. That way, visitors can roam the property and read about the history of the site at their leisure, she added.

Although the panels are already available for viewing, Samuels is planning a dedication celebration on Saturday. The festival will include a series of family events and food samples from the shipyard’s incoming vendors.

At this point, nearly 70 percent of the shipyard’s retail space has been leased, but the lackluster economy has slowed the pace of store openings. Many are not scheduled to open their doors until the spring. While the only store open for business is Bed Bath & Beyond, other big retailers coming in include Old Navy and Fresh Market. A pizza restaurant called Pizzapalooza is expected to open in November. Two upscale dining establishments, Esti’s and Alma Nove, will follow.

Nonetheless, visitors have begun trickling in. On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, several families were seen strolling near the waterfront. The parking lot in front of the movie theater was relatively busy, and customers formed lines in the lobby with the scent of popcorn wafting out the front doors.

The team of residents that worked with developers on the historic panels hopes that not only will visitors and commuters appreciate retail and aesthetic improvements to the waterfront location, but they also will learn something along the way.

“It’s wonderful to commemorate the site,’’ said Ann Collins, whose father-in-law was the vice president sent by Bethlehem Steel to run the Hingham Shipyard. Her husband, Lieutenant William Collins, was awarded the Bronze Star for heroic achievement in Japan.

“The technology that America put into the war was the deciding factor,’’ said Ian Menzies, a 48-year resident of Hingham and a retired Boston Globe editor. Menzies first arrived at the shipyard in 1943 as a young British Navy officer. The ship he helped launch from Hingham eventually sailed to the Battle of Normandy, where it staved off enemy attacks on Allied supply lines to troops engaged in combat on the beach.

“A piece of that victory can be tracked here to Hingham.’’

For more information on the shipyard’s Family Festival on Saturday, go to www.hinghamlaunch.com. Sara Mason Ader can be reached at smasonader@yahoo.com.