Ancient Whiting parsonage sold

The old parsonage in West Tisbury, built in 1667, one of the oldest houses on the Vineyard, has sold. — By Ralph Stewart

Updated at 9:40 am, Friday, September 27

The historic West Tisbury Parsonage at the head of the Edgartown Road has been sold to Ric Burns and Bonnie Lafave for $600,000. The building goes with 3.3 acres of land reaching down to Parsonage Pond and including part of that weedy body of water used for many years for town skating. The new owners will have the option of clearing the weeds and allowing Islanders access for skating.

For Tara Whiting and her brother, Daniel E. Whiting, the sale ends a long, often discouraging process of trying to reclaim some measure of their lifelong connection to the Parsonage. The Whiting family, most recently Ms. Whiting’s aunt, Prudy Whiting, and Ms. Whiting herself, ran the building as a bed-and-breakfast in the summertime. However, the building, first built in 1667 and added onto many times before 1865, has been in very poor condition for some time.

As with many ancient structures, there were leaks and mold and mildew. Ms. Whiting lived there in summers and ran the business until 2004, but it became clear to her and her brother that it was not really safe, even for the short stays that guests spent there, let alone for Ms. Whiting to live there for extended periods.

Ms. Whiting, who is the West Tisbury town clerk, told The Times in a telephone interview that it was always her hope to spend the rest of her life in West Tisbury, but restoring the Parsonage and making it livable would have been prohibitively expensive for her and her brother. As anyone who has experience with restoration of really old structures knows, nearly every sill and post and joist would need to be replaced, an enormously labor-intensive (and therefore expensive) proposition, she said.

She and her brother proposed to the town historic district commission [West Tisbury historic commission says no to Parsonage demo, February 9, 2011] that they tear down the building and build a somewhat smaller replica that would, at least from the road, look similar to the historic building. Ms. Whiting told The Times that the members of the Historic District Commission, the Community Preservation Committee, the Planning Board, and the Zoning Board of Appeals were helpful and sympathetic, but the answer in 2011 was no. Although she had thought that she and her brother might qualify under a hardship provision of the historic district bylaw, there is a kind of Catch-22. She was told, “It’s not a hardship if you can sell it.”

The Whitings did not formally apply to the historic district commission. Sean Conley, chairman of the West Tisbury Historic District Commission, explained in a telephone call, that although the commission met informally with Tara and Daniel Whiting, a meeting at which the district members made it clear that the commission would not approve demolition of the Parsonage, the Whitings did not make a formal application, so there was never a public hearing, and the commission never formally denied permission to demolish the building.

And so, as many younger members of old Island families have had to do, the Whitings put the Parsonage on the market in 2011, but without success. They recently listed it with JJ Manning, auctioneers of Yarmouth Port, and an auction was scheduled. However, Mr. Burns and Ms. LaFave made an offer, and Mr. Manning advised the Whitings to take it.

“You might get a bit more, but you might also get a bit less,” Ms. Whiting quoted him.

With the condition of the building and the restrictions of the historic district, it might be hard to find a second buyer, Ms. Whiting and her brother concluded, and they accepted the offer. The auction was cancelled.

Mr. Burns is a documentary filmmaker (Death and the Civil War, 2012), as is his more famous brother, Ken Burns. His wife, Ms. Lafave, is a television news producer. They have two sons. They live in New York City and have been frequent summer visitors to the Island, recently renting from the Whitings’ cousin, Sue Whiting, at Quitsa.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include comment from Sean Conley, chairman of the West Tisbury Historic District Commission.