Fund seeks permit to demolish historic Denniston building

The Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF) will apply for a permit to demolish the Denniston building, site of the Island’s first African-American church. The structure was once the cornerstone of an ambitious plan to create an affordable housing development called Bradley Square.

The housing fund, which abandoned the development plans and put the property up for sale last month, will make the application in response to questions from potential buyers.

The organization requested a hearing before the Oak Bluffs Historic Commission on November 10. The commission must first decide whether the building fits the definition of a building that should be preserved. If it decides saving the building should be considered, the commission can invoke a town bylaw that prevents demolition for at least six months. During that time, the commission would most likely schedule a public hearing to gather information on its historic value and its condition.

Decisions and dilemmas

“It’s a hard decision,” housing fund executive director Ewell Hopkins said. “It comes down to buyers.”

He said if the housing fund does get permission to demolish the building, it does not mean it will tear it down.

“We’re only going to remove the building if we have a qualified buyer that wants that as a condition of the sale,” Mr. Hopkins said. “People interested in buying the property don’t want to be seen as the people tearing down the building.”

The asking price for the one-half acre lot at the corner of Dukes County Avenue and Masonic Avenue is $975,000. The housing fund has already invested $1.2 million in the development. Under financial pressure following a disappointing fundraising season, the fund’s directors voted to sell the land to recoup some of that investment. The board is also eager to relieve the organization of its monthly mortgage payment of about $6,000.

“We’re just another victim of the economy,” board chairman John Early said last month, shortly after the board voted to sell the property. “I hope whatever happens there includes an acknowledgement of the historical value of the Denniston building and the need for affordable workplace housing.”

Mr. Hopkins said he is pleasantly surprised at the amount of interest from potential buyers, including some interested in developing a mixed-use property, including some affordable housing.

Historic irony

The dilapidated building was the home of the late Oscar E. Denniston, a respected African-American minister. It has been vacant for more than two decades.

Developers planned to remodel the building into a sanctuary and office space for the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP, with an affordable living space on the second floor. Two new buildings were to house seven more affordable living units and commercial space.

During efforts to raise funds for the Bradley Square project, the NAACP touted the historic value of the structure, in an effort to save it from demolition.

“We are being faced with the financial difficulty of preserving an important part of the Island’s own cultural history,” the NAACP wrote in a recent fundraising letter. “For this reason, we are in dire need of your help to save Bradley Square, a historic landmark, listed on the Island’s African American Heritage Trail, from demolition and random commercial development.”

“For over a half-century, the church was an integral part of the Island community and is considered an invaluable anchor in the vibrant history of African-American life on Martha’s Vineyard,” the NAACP wrote in another recent appeal.

Martha’s Vineyard Museum staff members and volunteers removed hundreds of historic documents and pictures from the building as the housing fund prepared to develop the affordable housing project.