Last year the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust celebrated its 40th birthday. President Chris Scott has been with the organization for 24 of those 40 years. The Times recently talked to Mr. Scott about his milestones over the years, and what it means to be in the “business of old buildings.”
When did you begin working with the trust?
I’ve served as executive director since 1992, and in 2015 I was elected president of the organization as well.
What kind of work were you doing before?
I’ve been in preservation my entire career, as a builder, a designer, and then as a person who worked with state government and various nonprofits. One of the things I did before was to serve as the director of the Office for Historic Landscape Preservation with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, planning Heritage Parks and restoring parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Did you have any reservations about moving to the Island?
I had been coming here for summers since the early ’80s. When I was contacted about the job, of course you think about it a little, because it is different to live on an island, but we were really excited to live here full-time.
What have been some of the most significant experiences from your time with the trust?
What I cherish the most are the acquisitions we’ve made. When I first started in 1992, we managed seven historic structures and one historic landscape. We now have 21 historic structures and four historic landscapes. Every time we acquire a new space it’s a very exciting time. The most recent acquisition was Edgartown’s Carnegie Library building on North Water Street, which we plan to turn into an Island heritage and welcome center. Alley’s was acquired in 1993. In each case there was a really compelling reason why these landmarks needed some help and should be included in the trust’s stewardship. It’s in my nature to get excited about acquisitions, and to do restorations, and it’s compelling to see how they integrate into the fabric of Island life.
I received some very good advice the first year I was here. A couple of board members said, “You have to do a good job with the buildings we have, but you always have to have an acquisition in front of us. It keeps us interested and the Island interested in us.” A parallel is the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, which keeps acquiring significant properties that the community has deep appreciation for.
What are some of the most interesting artifacts or pieces of history you’ve discovered after you acquired a property?
We’ve found a lot of remnants of the past, that’s for sure. In the Grange Hall [built in 1859, acquired in 1997] we discovered hundreds of signatures backstage that actors and stagehands had left over the years, dating back to the 1800s. The walls were signed and visitors had left little notes, and we preserved those things, and I show people that.
When we renovated Alley’s, we found a lot of old coins and bottles. When restoring the Daniel Fisher House, we found a piece of clapboard that had been signed by two Athearns and an Osborn, dated 1842, with the message “We leave this in remembrance of other times.”
Before we acquired the original mechanic piano from the Flying Horses, I went to a Rhode Island auction house to check it out. I was poking around inside the case, and found an old Liberty head nickel from 1878 (Flying Horses was built in 1876) and a corroded brass ring, and knew it was the one.
We find things all the time, remembrances of the people who lived in, visited, even built the buildings. As a builder myself, I would always leave something behind.
We’ll be putting some exhibits in the Carnegie Library, and there may be a place for some of those things. You feel a connection between those who have gone before us and the present day, and that connection exists in every building.
Many people know of the trust, but aren’t clear exactly what the organization does, or the scope of all of its work. What are the group’s primary objectives and mission?
That’s a great point; we are hoping the Carnegie Library can help organize that presentation a bit. The one-sentence answer: to acquire, restore, and manage the endangered landmarks of Martha’s Vineyard for the enjoyment of the community and generations to come. It’s a very diverse collection of properties. The Flying Horses was for sale in the 1980s, and there was concern it would be dismantled and the horses sold to collectors. We acquired the building and maintained it as a working carousel, which is what it was intended to be (it’s the oldest operating platform carousel). That thread goes through all our properties. They are all functioning today as they were originally intended to function when they were built. This is, in my mind, good preservation. If a building had a community need in the past, it is still fulfilled today.
Another component of what we do is economic — there’s a tremendous economic effect that our properties generate for the Island. The Old Whaling Church, the Grange Hall, Union Chapel, and Dr. Daniel Fisher House are all used as wedding venues. When you think about the number of Island businesses that supplement weddings — the caterers, florists, lodging, etc. — these buildings are a platform for all that. The Grange Hall hosts farmers markets and artisans fairs — people use these venues as a place to generate income for their families. There are also the nonprofits that have found homes in our buildings, including the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association in the Old Sculpin Gallery, the Island Theatre Workshop in the old West Tisbury library, and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Morgan Learning Center inside the Nathan Mayhew Schoolhouse. What we try to do is focus on being in the old-building business, which allows them to better focus on their mission.
What is the acquisition process like?
Each of the properties is different, but often we find places by reacting to events at the time. Alley’s is the Island’s oldest continually-run business. In 1992 the owner decided to close it, and there was a lot of concern among West Tisbury and the Island. People reached out to us, and we reached out to the owner, and came to the terms it is operated under today. We start conversations, and relieve them of being owners in the old-building business. We have conversations with property owners all the time; not all of them move forward, but many of the important ones have.
So what’s the next acquisition for the trust?
A possibility is the Great House in Chilmark, which the owners are struggling with; we’re in discussions. If we can be helpful and it’s a good fit, then things will develop.
How has the job of the trust been affected as the real estate market here has changed?
Property values 25 years ago were so different. It’s always been hard for trusts to compete with the private sector, but we actually don’t compete. If someone else does it, we don’t have to invest in it, which is great. Today land costs and property costs have changed so significantly, but the need is still there, and our ability is still there.
Historically, our focus has been historic public landmarks. After we acquired Alley’s, we thought, “We got them all now, right?” (chuckles). But things progressed, things happened, things change. A lot of these structures are residential, and not what investors want, and I’m concerned about that. That’s why were so supportive of towns’ historic districts and their efforts to preserve. We appreciate what towns are trying to do to guide change.
How many wedding requests do you typically receive each year? Any memorable stories?
[Mr. Scott recruited director of special events Janet Heath to answer this one; she was hired after he almost double-booked a wedding trying to manage the requests himself.] Janet Heath: We get about 250 requests across the four buildings we host in. We’re booking up now for 2017, and I just received a booking for 2018. I once took a booking in May for August, and they turned it around. All of the weddings are really so beautiful. If people are taking the trouble to come to the Vineyard, they’re really interested, and they’re really involved, and they have a vision. We see a lot of the trends, and some of the very Vineyardy things, like clambakes for rehearsal dinners, which is really classic and just great.
The Taste of the Vineyard has become one of the most highly anticipated events of the season. How did it become so popular? How long did it take for tickets to sell out last year?
The Taste has been in existence for 31 years now, and we love what it’s become. We do a couple nights, almost back to back. The Saturday event is a little calmer, and includes the auction. Thursday’s event is the stroll. For any nonprofit event to last 10 years and be well-thought-of is a good achievement; to have one going for 30 years–plus is a huge achievement. We try to keep it exciting year after year. We get wonderful participation from restaurants and caterers, and have seen a growing list of beverage distributors and purveyors. And of course there’s the band. We love that it’s mostly local, and for a lot of folks it’s the kickoff for the summer.
Last year, tickets sold out in 24 hours. We started a couple years ago, with the advent of online ticket purchasing, making them first available to those who have supported the trust. We were getting requests from New York, Chicago, people we didn’t know wanting 20 tickets. Part of the fun is having a lot of people there, but we need to operate on some kind of capacity. In the past three or four years, sales are happening exponentially faster; what once took a week to sell out then took a few days, then just one day. This year they could sell out in 12 hours; could be less.
What are your goals for the trust in 2016?
Every year we try to undertake a few major projects, in addition to routine maintenance and repair.
This year we’ll also be busy with the Carnegie Library — we want to develop a really exciting facility there that is an amenity to this community. We’re excited to be working with great designers, and hope to get renovations started this summer. We want it to be a visitors and heritage center, a place with an organized presentation that can explain to both visitors and residents the highlights of our history using our properties to tell the stories.
I’m very proud of what our staff does to accommodate all the community groups that use our properties, and the tenants that do a great job inhabiting our buildings. That work is not a visionary goal but a solid goal, one we have to tend to, and that’s where our credibility starts: what we do with these properties day in and day out.
To find out more about the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust and the work they do, visit mvpt.org.