MV Museum decision due soon on former Marine Hospital site


The Martha’s Vineyard Museum (MVM) board is up against a January 31 deadline to decide whether to buy the former Marine Hospital property in Vineyard Haven.

Next week, museum representatives will meet with abutters, Tisbury board and committee members, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) to discuss possible plans if the purchase goes forward.

The 4.4-acre property, owned by the St. Pierre family, went on the market last April for $3.195 million, according to broker Karl Buder of Coldwell Banker Landmarks Real Estate.

The main building, the old Marine Hospital, is 10,290 square feet and has 29 rooms, according to Mr. Buder. It sits on a hillside overlooking the water off Lagoon Pond Road near the Skiff Avenue intersection, about four-tenths of a mile from the Steamship Authority dock in Vineyard Haven.

Built by the government, the Marine Hospital opened in 1895 and operated until 1952 as a medical facility for sailors, soldiers, and their families over the years.

J. Raoul (“Bud”) and Dorothy St. Pierre bought the property in 1959 and moved the summer camp they had run in Vineyard Haven for 20 years to its spacious grounds. Their daughter Barbara eventually took over running the camp, and kept it going with the help of her daughters until they closed it about two years ago.

MVM executive director David Nathans said that a long-time donor brought the property to the museum board’s attention. The donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, offered to fund an option to buy the property, which took it off the market until January 31, and a feasibility study by an architectural design team to look at options for restoration and new construction on the site. The donor also pledged some money towards the property’s purchase if that comes to fruition.

With a short deadline to complete a feasibility study, Mr. Nathans said the museum sent out a request for proposals last October to about 40 architectural firms that have demonstrated a combination of historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and museum experience. A museum committee narrowed a list of 18 bidders that responded down to 6 and conducted interviews.

South Mountain Company of West Tisbury, the only Island-based design/build firm to apply, teamed up on the winning proposal with Oudens Ello Architecture, a Boston firm already chosen to work on the proposed expansion of the West Tisbury Library.

“It was a very rigorous process, and I think all of us on the committee felt excited and encouraged by the level of participation and interest,” Mr. Nathans said. “And granted, it’s a tough economic time, but there was a lot of great thinking and sincerity in these proposals, and it was quite frankly a very difficult decision.”

With the choice of South Mountain Company and Oudens Ello on November 10, he added, “I think we’d all say we got a great one.”

Mr. Nathans said the combination of the two firms’ design and adaptive reuse experience, as well as South Mountain’s extensive Island experience and contacts, provided the best of both worlds.

Since the two firms began work on the feasibility study in early December, Mr. Nathans and the museum planning committee, made up of mostly board members, meet regularly with them for updates on the site’s possibilities.

“We’re doing the project simultaneously,” Mr. Nathans said. “It was not enough time to do a kind of stepped process, which is why we’re tight in the sense that as they continue to refine the plans, we’re simultaneously refining our thinking as a planning committee and a board. It’s not like we have lots of time at the end to make decisions.”

Patronage and fundraising also are part of the discussions.

Last week the museum planning committee sent letters inviting property owners who live near the Marine Hospital to attend a discussion forum at 7 pm on January 19 at the Tisbury Senior Center.

“We want to make sure that what we’re thinking about encourages their participation and reaction, and that there are no surprises that come down the pike that impact their lives in any negative way, if we can avoid it,” Mr. Nathans said.

Members of the Tisbury planning board and other town boards and committees also were invited. The following night, on January 20, the museum planning committee will meet with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for a pre-application review of the possible project at 7 pm.

“We want to make sure we’ve covered as many of the bases as possible,” Mr. Nathans said. “That will inform our decision and make us more confident when we make it, one way or the other.”

Preliminary estimates for moving the museum to the former Marine Hospital site range from $12 million to $30 million because it is not just a matter of relocating the facility, Mr. Nathans said. Storage is an important consideration for the museum, wherever it is located, with a goal to make its collections more accessible to the staff, researchers, and the public.

The museum’s Edgartown campus is located in a tightly packed residential neighborhood on School and Cooke Streets that affords no parking and little public visibility. The property includes four main buildings on about one acre of land — the Thomas Cooke house (c.1740), a carriage shed, a library building, and the Capt. Francis Pease house (c.1840), where most of the museum’s object collections, changing exhibition spaces and offices are located. The museum also hosts educational programs for Island students throughout the academic year.

Mr. Nathans said if the museum purchases the St. Pierre’s property, functions and materials housed in the library, carriage shed, and Pease house would be moved and the Cooke House would continue to operate as is.

This is not the museum board’s first time to consider a move. A facility-needs analysis done in 2001 suggested the museum needed more exhibition and storage space, as well as parking, Mr. Nathans said.

In November 2002, leaders of the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, later renamed the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, purchased 10 acres of the Littlefield family’s Scarecrow Farm property on State Road for $1 million as a future new site.

The Society began a fundraising campaign with a target of $27 million for a new building with ample display space, proper storage rooms, and common areas that would be more accessible to the rest of the Island.

“The fundraising campaign was started just after the new hospital campaign, so with the combination of bumping into the hospital campaign, of bumping into the Y campaign, and of a poor economy hitting us, the raising of the awareness and the funds never reached a critical mass,” Mr. Nathans said. “So what we’re doing is consolidating what we’ve been doing for the past year and a half that I’ve been here and taking a look again at what our needs are.”

Designs and plans were done for a much bigger museum in West Tisbury as part of a more ambitious plan and program that have since been scaled down, Mr. Nathans said.

“We are still ambitious, but I think it’s tempered with our requirements and reality,” he added.

If the Marine Hospital site can accommodate the museum’s needs, Mr. Nathans said the West Tisbury land would likely be sold.

In April 2008 the Edgartown selectmen suggested to the MVM board that they consider moving the museum into the old Edgartown School building. Mr. Nathans said the museum planning committee at that time rejected the idea because there was no room for expansion at the site as well as limitations on storage and parking.

Depending on the feasibility study results, the former Marine Hospital site may offer all of those things, Mr. Nathans said.

Plus, a museum on the property could offer a draw for tourists, since it is within walking distance of the Steamship Authority terminal.

Unlike the St. Pierre School, MVM is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and would not be required to pay annual property taxes, currently $13,201, according to the Tisbury assessor’s office.