Denniston House demolition delayed by Oak Bluffs board

The Denniston house has deteriorated over the years. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The Oak Bluffs historical commission (OBHC) voted unanimously to designate the Denniston house, the first African-American church on the Island, a “preferably preserved property,” thus sparing the long-vacant wood frame building from the wrecking ball for six months. The action was prompted by a demolition permit filed with the town in late December by carpenter Matt Viaggio, who said he is acting on behalf of the trustee. The OBHC can assign the “preferably preserved property” designation to any town property over 100 years old.
The question central to the proceedings was whether the location of the building or the actual structure is historically significant. The back and forth was brisk.

“I go by it every day, and I think It’s time to move on,” Amy Billings, a member of the community preservation committee, said. “I understand there’s historic significance, but it’s cost the town a lot of money.”

“I think everybody knows about the failed project of Bradley Square and the lack of resolution,” David Wilson said. “None of that undermines the the historic value.”

“I agree with David,” Barbara Baskin said. “Buildings can be fixed. It can be brought back to original condition.”

“It’s sat in disrepair for three decades,” Lori Perry said. “It’s not responsible to leave it like it is. It can be marked with a plaque; we don’t need the building.”

Commission Chairman Pamela Melrose said other than the demolition delay, the commission had little sway over the final result. Commissioner Renee Balter asked Mr. Viaggio what his plans are for the lot. “At this time I have no plans,” he said. “I’m just trying to clean it up.” Mr. Viaggio said the lot has become a public parking lot and a “free-for-all.”

Ms. Balter suggested giving Mr. Viaggio 30 days to formulate a plan that could include saving part of the building or moving the building. Mr. Viaggio said there was “not much building left,” and he said they would not know any more in 30 days.

The Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund purchased the Bradley Square property at the corner of Dukes County Avenue and Masonic Avenue in 2007 for $905,000, with the intention of building affordable housing, retail space, and preserving the building. After a grueling permitting process before Oak Bluffs town regulatory boards and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, a national recession triggered severe declines in charitable donations.

In August 2009, Governor Deval Patrick helped turn the first shovelful of soil to break ground for the Bradley Square affordable-housing development. Unable to complete the project, the fund faltered.

The property was on the market for nearly a year, but no buyers emerged. Under the shadow of foreclosure proceedings, the lots sold at auction on Aug. 4, 2011, for $500,000.