Vineyard Museum will move to the old marine hospital in Tisbury

A proposed master plan shows the existing marine hospital, minus its brick wing, attached to a long, narrow addition. — Photo courtesy of South Mountain Co.

On Sunday, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum threw down the welcome mat and invited the community into its new home — or its new home to be.

With a spring in his stance, David Nathans, the museum’s executive director, stood on the porch, gaily welcoming visitors as if he were showing off a brand spanking new building. Instead, the object of his pride is an ungainly, heavily used old building that looks like it got stuck in another era. For many Islanders, it’s a stretch to see the structure for the vital marine hospital that it once was, let alone the vibrant summer camp that it became and continued to be up until four years ago.

Of course, one man’s gritty rock is the next man’s gem, and planners at the museum see limitless possibilities in the building and site along Lagoon Pond Road that they recently purchased from the St. Pierre family. To them it’s much more than “that big old building up on the hill down by the Lagoon,” as some might describe it. “You know, the one that’s sort of off Skiff Ave.” If all goes to plan, in six or eight years the site will house a modern museum with a wealth of space and programs.

For many years after it was built in 1895, the U.S. Marine Hospital was perhaps the most prominent structure on the Vineyard Haven skyline, especially as seen from the approach to Vineyard Haven harbor. At that time, when Vineyard Sound was still known as the second busiest waterway in the world (after the English Channel), Vineyard Haven was visited by more merchant mariners every year than any other New England port except Boston. Some of those mariners came ashore sick, and others fell ill while laying over here. Similar hospitals were built along shipping routes, both inland and coastal, across the country by the Marine-Hospital Service, a federal program since 1798 that evolved into the Public Health Service in the early part of the 20th century,

Shipping traffic through Vineyard Haven declined with the 1916 opening of the Cape Cod Canal, which shaved appreciable time off trips to and from Boston, and which enabled coastal pilots to avoid the treacherous shoals off Cape Cod.
But the marine hospital in Vineyard Haven stayed active. In 1935, a brick surgical wing was added. Wounded servicemen from both world wars convalesced at the hospital, and surgery was performed on local citizens as well.

After World War II, use of the hospital fell off, and the federal government sold the building to the Seamen’s Friend Society in Boston in 1952. For the next seven years, it lay empty.

In 1959 it was leased by the St. Pierre family house their summer camp, called the St. Pierre School. “The camp was started by my dad in 1938 on Main Street, going out to West Chop,” Barbara St. Pierre said in a phone conversation earlier this week. “In 1959 we moved to this property. First we leased it, and then my parents, J. Raoul and Dorothy St. Pierre, bought the property in 1962.”

Until 1977 it was an overnight camp, with a capacity of about 50 campers. Then it became a day camp, with top enrollment of nearly 100 campers just after the turn of the current century.

“We changed our focus,” Barbara St. Pierre said. “Instead of having children boarding from all over the world, we decided to focus on the children who lived here.

“Our last year was 2007. We were into our fourth generation of campers and the St. Pierre family. The camper from the ’30s would become a counselor and then a parent, and on and on for four generations. I can’t walk down Main Street without running into three or four people who came to camp, from 7 years old to 80. It’s quite a span of memories.”

Ms. St. Pierre was the camp’s owner and director from 1986, when her mother died, until 2007. “It was a wonderful experience, a lifelong love of mine,” she said.

While she looks back fondly at her relationship with the camp, Ms. St. Pierre is very upbeat about the next phase in the life of the building. “It’s a wonderful future for the building,” she said. “I can’t think of a better use for it. It’s all positive.”

Exactly what that future will look like and when it will start to materialize is uncertain at this point. At the event on Sunday, plans drawn up by South Mountain Company and Oudens-Ello Architecture were displayed in a south-facing room that once held as many as a dozen patients in double-decker beds. With the brick wing removed, the renovated existing building would house offices, classrooms, the library, and storage. Attached to its north side would be a new structure for exhibition space, climate-controlled storage, and a lecture hall. Finally, a separate “shed” would be built on the back of the lot to house large objects. Taken together, the three buildings will total approximately 30,000 square feet. There is also plenty of room outside for ample parking and a large lawn where special events may be held, under a tent or not.

Mr. Nathans was quick to point out that the renderings were conceptual, not an actual plan. They were one representation of the museum’s “long-term vision to meet our three objectives of more and better quality storage, more and better programming space for exhibitions and events, and greater access for students and adults, residents and tourists,” he said. “Exact size, location on site, design, costs, and timing are all on our plate to think about and study before we make any statements.

“The first step is finishing some really thoughtful planning, and knowing what’s going to happen, which will help raise funds,” he said. “And then it will be done sequentially.”

At some point, of course, planners will have to decide which part of the project to tackle first. “You don’t phase a project like this unless you make a meaningful difference in the first phase,” Mr. Nathans said. “For example, renovating the 1895 building would be very helpful in providing access and service to the community.”

And the next step? And the next? “I’m not sure how many steps there are going to be, but the wonderful thing is that we’re done with step one,” Mr. Nathans said. “We own it and we’re going to be able to take advantage of a wonderful site.”