Where’s there’s a will, there really is a way.
This is a story about how serendipity joined with love and perseverance to make a tiny house grow into a home in Oak Bluffs.
Donna-Lee Stewart has cobbled her little house together from perseverance, support of family, and friends, with some help from the Edgartown dump, of all places. It’s a home plenty big enough to accommodate a lifetime of love
Joe and Donna-Lee Stewart were not a glam couple dripping with money. They were a working couple with two daughters, from South Windsor, Connecticut, who loved the Island and wanted more than a seasonal commute here, where Joe did commercial painting to help pay the vacation freight. Donna-Lee worked full time in New York City for a large video distribution company.
“In 2000, we moved here. We were renting this little three hundred twenty five square foot house in Oak Bluffs, in back of the main house on Forest Hill Ave.,” she recalled earlier this month, while sitting in the gazebo behind her wondrous little home. “The clothes closet was actually outside. We had a goal of buying both houses to live here. Joe was hired by Ernie Boch [the late and legendary Boston area auto dealer] so he had work on the Island.” Ms. Stewart commuted for a year from her job in New York.
“It was a great job, but the commute and the cost of commuting was tough,” she said. So, Ms. Stewart got a job with the Campground Association in Oak Bluffs, later moving to her current job in administration with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
“We really wanted to buy the big house and this one, but the price was too much so we decided to buy a Florida house for the winter and continue to rent the little house here. And we did. Sure enough, the owner here then called with a price we could afford,” she said.
“I said ‘yes,'” Ms. Stewart recalled, still awed at her audacity. “I don’t know why I said yes. The owner was great, we had a lease to buy agreement that allowed us to get started here. We rented the front house to cover the mortgage.”
So far, so good. But a 325 square foot house, essentially a studio, is pretty small digs, particularly when mom is also determined to persuade daughters Kelli-Ann and Kathy to emigrate to the Island.
“Kelli lived in that shed at first,” Ms. Stewart said, pointing to a cheerily-decorated domicile most appropriately sized for a tractor lawnmower. As her daughters arrived, they lived, one after another, in the big house until they were able to get their own housing.
Serendipity showed up in 2004.
“A friend called and said, ‘There’s a part of a house in the Edgartown dump.’ I checked it out and turns out John Abrams [of South Mountain Company] had moved a large master bedroom there from a house he was renovating.
“We bought it for $20,000, which went to the Island Affordable Housing Fund,” she said.
The 425-square foot, ready made addition would fit the little house perfectly – sort of. Then came the tough part.
“Joe got very sick. He was in the hospital, so I took the project on. Friends and people at work tell me I’m a project person. I like to see a thing through once I take it on,” she said.
After a long process of permits and licenses and lining up family friend Louis Smith to transport the addition from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs, and the arrival of a crane made available by a friend of daughter Kathy, the big day arrived in summer 2004.
“I was literally on the phone with the house movers when the other phone rang. It was the hospital telling me to take Joe home. I stopped everything and went to get Joe. And you know what? The Baxter Crane guys offered to leave the crane in the yard, and to call them when I was ready,” she said, shaking her head at their kindness.
“So Joe got to sit in the yard and watch the addition get settled on its new foundation,” she said. Mr. Stewart, in declining health, also participated in several “fixes” that arose, such as the butting foundations that weren’t quite compatible, necessitating construction of a three-foot section to blend the original house with the addition.
“My friends Lynn and Michael Kirsch in Connecticut were remodeling her house and they sent their builder up here for a month to do that work,” Ms. Stewart said, adding that her entire kitchen – cabinets, sink, oven and fridge – came with the builder from the Kirsch remodel project.
Mr. Stewart died in December 2007. Ms. Stewart still finds it difficult to talk about her husband at length, saying simply, “He was a great, great guy. We were married 41 years.”
She has concentrated on instead on finishing their house.
The interior is a warm, calm environment with a peaked ceiling living room, a kitchen, and master bedroom. The clothes closet has moved inside as well.
The backyard has been transformed through a blend of lush plants, an all-white flowering memorial garden, and a shed sidewall painted with flowers by the extended family on the occasion of granddaughter Ashley Battlefield’s first birthday in 2005. A series of subtly-lighted planting beds curl among walkways, anchored by a wrought-iron gazebo with a sail canvas roof and an expanse of slate tile flooring.
As Ms. Stewart has done with her life, this house feels as though it has put itself together as a home from disparate pieces and a woman’s resolve.
As she conducts a tour of her house, Ms. Stewart glances up at a one-word wooden sign centered on a beam above the kitchen.
The sign says: Imagine.