Chris Scott marks 20 years of preserving Vineyard landmarks

The Dr. Daniel Fisher House, headquarters for the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Twenty years ago, when Carole Berger was president of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, she put a want ad in the Boston papers looking for an executive director. She got more than 100 resumes. Chris Scott was among those who wanted the job. He listed degrees from the University of Vermont and Harvard University, work on restoring 20 public parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and being part of the team that restored Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

“Our committee was impressed with his credentials,” Ms. Berger said. “He was a very impressive candidate compared to any of the other applicants, and he had a history of coming to the Vineyard, and loving the Vineyard.”

Mr. Scott’s family tradition of visiting the Island in the summer helped convince him to take the job.

Next week marks Mr. Scott’s 20th year behind the desk of the executive director, where he looks out his office windows over the grounds of the historic Dr. Daniel Fisher House on Main Street in Edgartown.

Mr. Scott lives in Edgartown with his wife Pamela, and their daughter Victoria, 11.

Enormous influence

Those who know him credit Mr. Scott with an enormous influence on preserving the things everyone loves about Martha’s Vineyard.

“He’s able to work with people so well, and make things work,” Ms. Berger said, “so we end up with something everyone’s pleased with most of the time. We don’t end up with shouting matches. That’s probably his greatest gift.”

Strolling through Edgartown on a hot afternoon, Mr. Scott walked by several buildings owned and managed by the Trust. He pointed out two retail stores that were once slated for demolition to create more parking by paving those parcels and part of the town green.

“The town green is still here,” he said.

The Old Sculpin Gallery looms at the end of Dock Street. Once it was a thriving boat shop where Manuel Swartz Roberts built boats including the Edwina B., which bobs at its slip a few yards away. Mr. Scott gestured toward the Edwina B., one of only three Roberts catboats left in the world, to make a point about how preservation makes history come alive.

“That boat,” he said, whirling and pointing to his left, “was built right there.”

At the Norton Boathouse, the last remaining captain’s boathouse on Edgartown Harbor, Bailey Norton is having lunch. Mr. Scott’s eyes light up as he walks into the historic waterfront building recently acquired by the Trust. He is in awe of the history surrounding him in pictures of the Norton family sailing and fishing.

Mr. Scott said that his work at the Preservation Trust provides daily dose of job satisfaction. “I love driving through West Tisbury in the early evening,” he said. “The Grange Hall lit up with a community event, Alley’s lit up, store’s doing business, the center of West Tisbury is alive.”

Quiet resolve

Mr. Scott is known for his wide expertise in historic buildings and landscape architecture, and his thoughtful approach to thorny problems. Sally Rorer, president of the Preservation Trust, calls it quiet resolve.

“He wields a velvet hammer,” she said. “He knows exactly where we’re going and what we’re doing. He’s been a huge leader and steward for the trust. He packs a punch in a quiet way.”

Sometimes, Mr. Scott says he feels like a crisis manager. The Trust is often the call of last resort for someone who owns a landmark building.

“They were good stewards of important landmarks, they did it as long as they could,” Mr. Scott said of the typical acquisition. “They found that a disproportional amount of their resources were being consumed by being in the old building business. Well, we’re in the old building business. We take on those expenses, and they can focus on their mission.” With a staff of three full-time and one part-time employees, the Preservation Trust takes care of maintenance and repairs at 20 properties, handles bookings for weddings and other events, and plans the organization’s own fundraising galas.

Buildings that once fell into disrepair, or were considered not worth saving, now stand as architectural jewels scattered across Martha’s Vineyard.

“People forget,” Mr. Scott said. “You’re used to seeing the Whaling Church, beautiful and majestic. It was in very, very tough shape when we took it over (1980). The Grange Hall, part of it was condemned.”

Helping hand

His Island neighbors value Mr. Scott’s skills and expertise, so he gets tapped for all kinds of community service beyond historic preservation.

An avid saltwater fishermen, he is a longtime member of the Martha’s Vineyard Bass & Bluefish Derby committee, and is the current treasurer of the nonprofit organization. He also served on the Edgartown library building committee, a position where his skills as both a building expert and a consensus builder were put to a severe test.

In his position with the Preservation Trust, he is exploring ways to use the historic Carnegie Library building on North Water Street, when the town’s new library, on the site of the old Edgartown School, is complete.

Mr. Scott is the president of the Scottish Society of Martha’s Vineyard which enthusiastically celebrates Scottish heritage throughout the year.

Functioning history

The Trust is serious about preservation. But the organization puts as much emphasis on preserving the function, as the form. It’s not part of their mission to create buildings that become museum pieces.

“All of the buildings today, are functioning as they were intended when they were built,” Mr. Scott said. The Grange Hall is still a community center and makeshift theater. The Flying Horses Carousel still spins about 300,000 kids toward the brass ring each summer. There are still religious services at the Old Whaling Church, and now there are town meetings, community concerts, and soup suppers, too.

The Trust focuses on two main criteria when acquiring a property. First, it has to be a significant landmark. Second, it has to have a history of public use that provided some value to the community.

A third factor is also considered, though it ranks behind the goal of preservation.

“It’s nice if it generates some of the income that is required to keep it up,” Mr. Scott said. “But that’s not a deal-breaker.”

Managing change

Sometimes it’s a matter of sharpening the focus. Most people understand the concept of preserving the environment, but they don’t always understand what it takes to preserve a building.

“The public thinks of these things the same way they think of beaches, a public resource,” Mr. Scott said. “Well, no, not necessarily. They can either stay in the public domain, or they can get lost.”

Mr. Scott says some may disagree, but he believes Island residents are adept at managing change.

“Places change, Martha’s Vineyard changes,” he said, talking about the Island’s historic buildings. “If they’re really special, you don’t want them to change so they are unrecognizable. A lot of good people are committed to keeping this place beautiful.”

Through all of the constant pressure on the Island, Mr. Scott thinks Islanders have done a pretty good job of preserving what is important.

“It’s still pretty wonderful,” he says.