New Preservation Trust chief sees a boost to Island economy

Funi Burdick invites conversations about preservation.

Funi Burdick is the executive director the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, a nonprofit that owns, operates and maintains historic properties across the Island, including the Flying Horses in Oak Bluffs, the Whaling Church in Edgartown, and Alley's General Store in West Tisbury.

The unusual work of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust caught Funi Burdick’s eye. The trust, which she now leads, does not just buy, renovate, and make museums out of historic properties. When it can, it matches a property with an organization that can use it either in an appropriate historical fashion or to enliven Island life.

Ms. Burdick cited the Old Sculpin Building, which overlooks Memorial Wharf in Edgartown: “It had been used by an artists’ association for a number of years,” she said in a Jan. 19 interview in her new office at the Dr. Daniel Fisher House. “It needed preservation work, the trust stepped in, and now the artists use it for a nominal fee.”

In this way, historic buildings that have been preserved contribute to the economic engine of the Island. One of the more visible examples is Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury, a Preservation Trust property that is open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas Day). “The trust restored it and runs a business in it,” she said. “It would have a higher profit if it was open for a shorter season, but that wouldn’t support the community.”

Ms. Burdick said that the trust is not interested in running more stores, but would rather find businesses that wish to occupy historic buildings.

Ms. Burdick trained as an architect, and received her degree from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She says she loves buildings and she loves designing, but she also loves to think about how buildings are used and the history of how people have used buildings.

“I was telling someone this,” she recalled, “and they said to me, ‘You should be in the outdoor museum business.’ I started doing it, and I realized there was a niche for me.”

Architecture, she said, trains you to have a view from 30,000 feet, to think about the impact that a building has on its surroundings. “At RISD you get a strong visual vocabulary,” Ms. Burdick said. “Communication is essential, and presentation of your ideas is everything. You need other people to come along with you. I’m all about bringing people into the narrative, but one person should make a decision in the end. Making decisions through consensus is a mess in design.”

Before beginning her job at the Preservation Trust in early January, Ms. Burdick was the executive director and CEO of the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire for nine years, and the executive director of the American Independence Museum in Exeter, N.H., for six years before that. She was not looking for another position when she heard about the opening on Martha’s Vineyard. But “it had been a dream of mine,” she said, “to find a way to live and work on the Cape and Islands. There are few institutions to lead here. How lucky I was that Chris [Scott, her predecessor] decided to leave.”

Ms. Burdick is already at work on the next Preservation Trust project: the Carnegie Library in Edgartown. The unused building was most recently drafted into service to briefly serve as the Post Office, when roof leaks plagued the current facility at the Triangle, but it had served as the lending library of Edgartown from 1904 until last year. The trust will make it a place to welcome summer people to Martha’s Vineyard; it will be called the Island Heritage Center.

It will not be a museum, but a community place, Ms. Burdick said, designed for community gatherings and to give an overview of Island history. “There are stories to tell about our properties,” the new director said, “and we need to tell them.”

The front bay will be a non-lending library and will tell the Carnegie library story. The middle bay will be a gift shop, and the former circulation desk will be staffed to direct visitors toward an experience of Island history. The rear bay, a 1970s-era addition, will include an interactive map that shows the location of all the trust properties, and other highlights that celebrate Island life.

When Ms. Burdick arrived at the trust, the Carnegie Library project still had no name, and the organization wasn’t sure who the audience would be or how to connect the library with visitors and the community. “We didn’t want it to be a welcome center,” she said, “because the problem with that is people connect it with a cup of coffee, bathrooms, and brochures.”

She thought having the word “Island” in the name was important to make visitors mindful of the rich past here, and its “future heritage.”

“The work that has been done here is celebrated,” she said, “but don’t take that for granted. What you can cherish can disappear with a few bad choices. There is a lot of fragility in our lives.”

The Preservation Trust looks for sites that may benefit from its attention. Ms. Burdick listed four criteria to guide acquisition plans: Is the property seriously threatened? Can the trust raise the resources to save it? What is the living use of the property after it is restored? Is the property of wide use to the community?

“I want to have conversations with people about what they think is important,” she said.

She wants to have these conversations in the Norton Boathouse, a trust property on the Edgartown waterfront that offers a more casual setting than the Dr. Daniel Fisher House.