Museum's old barn will be its new home
The Martha's Vineyard Museum will be preserving more than just Island history when it opens its new campus in West Tisbury a few years from now. The sure-to-be eye-catching centerpiece of the 10-acre site will be a big old dairy barn, barely saved from demolition in the Western Massachusetts town of Shirley where it had stood since the 1850s.
"We were excited about saving an artifact and using an historic building," said Keith Gorman, who has recently taken over as executive director of the museum. "It's wonderful to have a collection that people can interact with, but it's also wonderful to save an historic structure. Part of our mission is saving a larger regional heritage."
Island builder Rick Anderson, an aficionado and advocate of reclaiming, removing, and reassembling antique barns, got wind of the structure's plight early last summer and traveled to Shirley to see it. Mr. Anderson has brought more than 20 old barns and houses here for reconstruction since the early 1980s, and he realized the building's potential at once. The stately old barn had won a brief reprieve from sure destruction thanks to the Shirley Historic Commission. The town board stepped in when developer GFI Shirley, the new owner of the land, planned to raze the barn as part of turning the old farm into a residential subdivision.
With his practiced eye, Mr. Anderson could see the building's quality materials and craftsmanship, and it didn't take long for him to decide. "I liked it; I felt I could save it," he said, adding that he did not have a plan at the time for a customer or a specific use for the barn.
Mr. Anderson was delighted when representatives of the museum, with whom he had been consulting about design ideas for the new property, expressed interest. "I felt this is perfect. It's very much a sister barn to the Ag Society barn," he said, explaining that the two were built as dairy barns and so have similar interior design.
At 40 x 105 feet, the Shirley barn is only slightly smaller than the Ag Society barn, which measures 45 x 150 feet. Once the new building is erected, the two barns will stand nearly within sight of one another since the museum site is directly adjacent to the fairgrounds.
According to an article by Julie Masis published in the Boston Globe last month, the barn was owned by the Hazen family until 1910, then sold to Edward Mott Davis. The new owner converted the farm into an orchard and stored apples in the barn. For years it has been known in the area as the Hazen-Davis barn.
Since first visiting the barn, Mr. Anderson has made frequent trips to Shirley to work on the dismantling, a familiar process to him. The intricate preparation for taking the building apart entails going through the entire structure and tagging each piece in preparation for reconstruction at its new home. With two loads of material already delivered here, Mr. Anderson predicts at least three more trips will be needed before the move is complete. To date, piles of exterior boards and timbers have been moved, he said. Upcoming shipments will include heavy beams and other heavy pieces as well as cut granite posts and cut stone from the underpinnings.
Those from the museum were equally enthusiastic after viewing the barn. "It's a beautiful building, an enormous building," said Mr. Gorman in a telephone conversation. "It's a beautiful dairy barn. There's a simple beauty to it. It just sort of fits within a rural setting."
The exact use for the building is yet to be determined. With minimal modernization, it could be a seasonal facility, used only in warmer months for programs and exhibits that do not require climate control. Or it might become a new home to parts of the museum's permanent collection, which would require considerable renovation to protect fragile items.
Although the developer donated the barn to the museum free of charge, moving and reconstruction are costly. When museum board president Chris Morse told a crowd of supporters gathered for the organization's annual Night of Discovery benefit in July about the barn, the reception was more than positive. In a spontaneous fundraiser, patrons filled the air with waving auction paddles, showing their wholehearted support for the project.
"I've been to auctions before, but I've never seen anything like that," said Mr. Gorman, describing a "sea of paddles going up. It was an immediate response. You could just feel the energy in the room. Something clicked and people got excited about it."
According to Amy Houghton, director of development for the museum, the spur-of-the-moment effort raised $70,000 that evening. In the days that followed, other supporters jumped on the barn wagon, raising the total to some $95,000.
The hard cash is not to be sneezed at, of course, but the museum has also received priceless pledges of community support, including offers of help from at least 40 Islanders willing to take part in the project when the time comes. According to Mr. Anderson, many of those who signed on were involved in the dramatic community barnraising of the Ag Hall more than 10 years ago.
One offer is already proving invaluable. Wayne Guyther, manager and co-owner H.N. Hinckley & Sons in Vineyard Haven is providing a flatbed truck to move the disassembled barn to the Vineyard. Along with the truck and driver for the off-Island runs, Hinckley's has made a boom truck and driver available to unload the materials here, and additional labor to boot. The family-owned company is also paying the Steamship fare.
"We've been supporting the museum's efforts to develop the new site," said Mr. Guyther, who added that when Mr. Anderson, who is a good customer of the lumberyard, and board member Judy LoRusso told him about the project, he was quick to offer a hand. "We thought that this was a way we could help," he said.
The stately barn, which is sure to become a focal point of the museum's new home, was a bargain thanks to the developer who donated it, and generous volunteers and supporters. But those at the museum recognize that developing the new land will come with a hefty price tag. And there are many steps that remain before the institution can open its up-Island doors. Although brainstorms and dreams about the new museum have surely blossomed since the organization acquired the 10-acre site from the Littlefield family several years ago, only this spring will serious design work commence.
According to Mr. Gorman, a workshop will be held in March for museum representatives with design professionals to get the process underway. As design work proceeds, so will fundraising, with a capital campaign that must provide a substantial sum to pay for the extensive project.
Mr. Gorman said that until development plans are definite, an exact fundraising goal cannot be set. He said a preliminary goal of approximately $27 million is "very much subject to change - we must see if it is realistic." The economy, the response of donors, and inflation will affect the figure, along with the final plans for the property.
Mr. Gorman added that the museum may decide to develop the campus in several stages. Then there will be town and Martha's Vineyard Commission permitting procedures before actual building can get underway. "We're taking measured steps and we're taking responsible steps," he said.
The museum cleared at least one significant and necessary hurdle in January when, after an archeological survey conducted by Rhode Island-based Public Archaeology Laboratory, the Massachusetts Historical Commission gave it the green light to develop the acreage. Mr. Gorman explained that the survey is required in order to receive any government grants for the project, and also for good stewardship of the property. The survey aimed to determine if any ancient burial sites or other important historical materials would be found.
With this permission in hand, the museum will soon begin moving ahead with some clearing at the site. Plans call for a plastic hoop house to be erected as soon as possible in which to store the dismantled barn and protect it from harsh weather, awaiting the time when enthusiastic Vineyarders will gather to raise it for its new life as part of the museum.