West Tisbury historic commission says no to Parsonage demo

The members of the West Tisbury Historic District Commission (HDC) made it clear Monday that they are unwilling to approve any demolition of the Old Parsonage on State Road overlooking Parsonage Pond. They indicated they would work with Tara and Daniel Whiting, the owners, to find a solution that preserves the historic building.

Ms. Whiting and her brother own the house, which dates to 1663. Last month, Ms. Whiting appeared before the HDC to discuss plans to demolish the structure.

That discussion continued Monday. But with little likelihood the commission would approve the demolition, the focus is now on a plan to save the building.

Following Monday’s meeting, Ms. Whiting said that she needs to speak with her brother, who is off-Island and did not attend the meeting. Ms. Whiting said she would then tell the HDC about how she and her brother planned to proceed. Yesterday, in responsed to a question from a Times reporter, Ms. Whiting said she had no further comment to make.

“I think its going to work out,” Sean Conley, HDC chairman, told The Times Tuesday. The plan now taking shape would have the Whitings build a livable house on the property while preserving the Parsonage.

Mr. Conley, a real estate agent, said he hopes that the house can be converted into a museum, an art gallery, or office space. That plan would require a special permit from the zoning board of appeals allowing Ms. Whiting to build a house on the Parsonage lot, which is not large enough to allow for a guesthouse. Modifications to the Parsonage could allow it to fit the definition of a studio.

Mr. Conley said he had already heard from someone who would be willing to contribute to preserve the house. Mr. Conley said that with a combination of private donations and some help from the town, he thinks the Parsonage can be preserved.

“I have been getting great feedback. This is really an opportunity for the town,” he said.

HDC decisions may only be appealed to Superior Court. Mr. Conley said he anticipates no appeal.

Speaking generally, Mr. Conley said, “While no one wants to see a historic property deteriorate, if you cannot afford to maintain any house, you would have to sell it.”

According to the minutes of the January 24 meeting of the HDC, Ms. Whiting anticipated asking permission to demolish the house and build a new one on the same site. For that, she would need an exemption, based on the age and condition of the building and the estimated $1.75 million needed to renovate the crumbling structure.

The original house is a cape, circa 1663, built by Josias Standish, who in 1660 was one of the original settlers of Tisbury, and an incorporator of the town of West Tisbury (then called Tisbury) in 1673. Josias was the son of Miles Standish. The additions to the original structure were built by 1865, the last by Henry Whiting, Tara’s great-great-grandfather.

Monday’s meeting in the Howes House brought together Ms. Whiting, HDC members Sean Conley, Nancy Dole, Anne Fisher, Mark Mazer, Lanny McDowell and Ben Moore, as well as a handful of community members and supporters of Ms. Whiting.

Nancy Dole reported that HDC members had visited the house. She said that according to Massachusetts statutes, permission to demolish a house in a historic district requires more than financial hardship.

“The historic significance of that house is so tremendously overwhelming that I don’t think as a historic district we could — I could — be comfortable saying demolish it,” Ms. Dole said. “I feel if that we allow that house to be demolished, there would not be a house in the district left standing. On that basis, I could not approve it. You have my heart, but I think the important thing is to look for other solutions.”

Mr. McDowell described the property as a special 350-year-old gem. “It is not our job to do it, but I would like to find ways to help you find alternatives to consider, so that it is much more attractive not to be even thinking about demolition than seeing demolition as a way out,” he said.

Mr. Conley asked Ms. Whiting if she is interested in finding a way to save the building.

“That is what we would like to do, is to try to find other resources.” he said.

Ms. Dole and Mr. Conley suggested that the renovation may be eligible for Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding. Ms. Dole said that the CPA would want documented proof of the financial hardship posed by the repairs and would require that the house be preserved if it funded the repairs.

Mr. Conley said, “It could be a four- or five-year process through the CPA, plus other possibilities through state and federal money.

“I did not realize the significance of this house. I have been in the historic district since 1986, and I did not realize how old the Old Parsonage was. This is very, very special, and I think the community can get behind it.”

Mr. Moore, an architect, said, “I was touched by your coming to us and talking about the hardship aspects of it. But when I went to see it, there was no question in my mind that it needs to be fixed up, maintained, and kept intact in its entirety.” He said he would vote against having it demolished.

Ms. Whiting, West Tisbury’s elected town clerk, said that following her first meeting with the HDC, she and her brother were considering asking the zoning board of appeals (ZBA) for a variance to allow them to build a larger house than initially considered and to abandon the historic farmhouse.

Ms. Whiting said if she could build a new house on the land, she would consider donating the old farmhouse.

“That would let the historic district, the CPA, the town, the Preservation Trust — all of these different people who may or may not want to be part of that conversation — do what they will with the farmhouse,” she said.

Mr. Mazer said that it would be very expensive to turn the old farmhouse into a modern, comfortable home, and it could not be done piecemeal. A museum conversion might take 20 years. If in the short-term, Ms. Whiting were allowed to build a modern, comfortable home on the land, he said, “It would be a win-win for everyone.”

Ms. Whiting said that she had discussed the alternatives with the Preservation Trust and ZBA chairman Tucker Hubbell. “He said on its surface it seems like something that the zoning board could try to get behind and help with. So I have had lots of informal conversations, and people seem very interested in that idea.”

Ms. Dole said, “It is our job to write a letter to the CPA, and I cannot think of a better thing to do.” She said that she would be reluctant to send a letter to the ZBA for a zoning variance, without assurances that the old farmhouse would not be later demolished by neglect.

Audience member Kathleen Vincent of West Tisbury, a friend of Ms. Whiting, told the commission that she has spent time at the Old Parsonage. “It is not in great shape. You should spend the winter there and see if you still think that it is not a hardship living there. It is pretty tough.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

The print version contained two conflicting dates for the origin of the house. The date 1672 was changed to 1663. Also, a note was added to explain that the town was originally incorporated as Tisbury. West Tisbury was not incorporated until 1892.