David Stanwood and the Admiral’s Hats

David Stanwood led a campaign to preserve Admiral's Hat streetlights in West Tisbury. He stands under one in his yard holding a leg of lamb, a critical element in his pursuit. – Stacey Rupolo

I stopped by David Stanwood’s house on Lambert’s Cove Road to revisit the West Tisbury streetlight controversy that found Mr. Stanwood center-stage a few years back. He motioned to a little table and a couple of chairs under an arbor where several chickens were foraging: “Let’s go sit in my office,” he said.

Mr. Stanwood began by describing what it was like when he and his wife Eleanor first moved to Music Street in West Tisbury in 1981: “One of the real charming things was that you’d walk out at night and there were these streetlights … warm, shaded … the kind of lights that Eleanor, when she was a kid, remembered lying underneath and dreaming about the future with her best friend.” The streetlights he described were incandescent bulbs housed in domelike fixtures known as Admiral’s Hats.

But by the beginning of 2014, Cape Light Compact, an energy services organization operated by the 21 towns and two counties on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, was in the process of converting thousands of streetlights to light-emitting diode bulbs (LEDs) as part of their energy-efficiency program. Cape Light was fully covering the cost of the conversion, and it was estimated that Martha’s Vineyard towns would save $74,000 annually in maintenance and electricity charges. But at what price?

The new LED lights were 4000 kelvin — much colder and brighter than the incandescent lights. And the fixtures were stark and unshaded; the Admiral’s Hats would be retired.

Appearing before a selectman’s meeting in late April 2014, Mr. Stanwood said, “If the town wakes up and the lights we’ve been using are suddenly gone, I think you’re going to find a lot of squawking … I’m concerned about the loss of aesthetic value … these fixtures are part of our heritage and part of our history.”

A few months prior to this, Mr. Stanwood had received a call from an old friend, Tom Renshaw, who Stanwood referred to as “the unofficial mayor of Woods Hole.” Renshaw warned Stanwood that he’d better watch out, there were plans to replace all the old light fixtures on the Cape and the Vineyard. So Mr. Stanwood started going to meetings in Falmouth where people were coming together to try to save their streetlights, and attending Cape Light meetings, generally being “a thorn in their side.”

Mr. Renshaw and the Woods Hole group actually came up with a workaround that would allow them to keep their old Admiral’s Hat fixtures. The solution was to replace the incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) that were more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs but still had a warm light.

“We human beings evolved with fire, so we like those incandescents,” said Mr. Stanwood. “We have different adaptations for day and night vision. We have rod cells for night vision and cone cells for day vision … when you see a bright light at night and you suddenly go out of the light, you’re blinded and your brain is tricked.”

Meanwhile, back in West Tisbury, the selectmen voted in April 2014 to purchase the 53 streetlights in town from NSTAR for one dollar with the intention of having Cape Light replace them with LED fixtures. Unless something was done quickly, the historic Admiral’s Hats and their soft lighting would be lost forever. But Mr. Stanwood had a plan.

“My backup,” said Stanwood, “was if I can’t save all the lights, at least I can save the historic district.” The historic district in West Tisbury includes the downtown area as well as the area in North Tisbury around State Road restaurant. “I went through hearings,” said Stanwood, “got people to send letters, and then the historical commission set up a big meeting at the library to vote on it.“

The missing McCullough letter

Mr. Stanwood had an ace up his sleeve. David McCullough, celebrated author and beloved West Tisbury resident, had written a letter to the town in favor of keeping the Admiral’s Hats. But when Stanwood arrived at the meeting and asked if they had the letter, it was nowhere to be found.

“Someone said it’s probably in the mailbox at town hall,” said Mr. Stanwood. So the meeting was held up while the letter was located and retrieved from the town hall, and then read to all in attendance:

May 28, 2014

The Commissioners:

I am strongly in favor of saving the [formerly] incandescent Admiral Hat street lighting fixtures in our town. They have long been part of the appeal and character of the town, and should not be done away with. Let the bright, harsh lights of other places not be brought here for the simple sake of having what’s new. If our present lights disappear, we will regret the decision greatly, and the light that is and has been cast in our neighborhoods will only be a memory. Please, don’t let this happen.


David McCullough

“That was sort of it,” said Mr. Stanwood. “It was so eloquent, and how can you go against David McCullough? It was unanimously passed.”

But the story doesn’t end there. The historical commission vote insured that the old fixtures with CFL bulbs could be used in the historical district, but Mr. Stanwood had a plan to save the rest of the streetlights in town as well. Rather than replacing the Admiral’s Hat fixtures with all-new LED fixtures, Stanwood learned that a screw-in LED bulb that had a warmer light than the LED fixtures (2700 kelvin vs. 4000 kelvin) could be substituted for the incandescent bulbs and leave the Admiral’s Hats in place. Not only that, the screw-in LED was preferable to the CFLs because they required less maintenance, and the CFLs contained mercury, which is bad for the environment.

Cape Light said that they would do anything the town wanted, but this wasn’t an approved fixture, so the town would have to be responsible if anything went wrong.

“I kept hearing, ‘It’s not approved, it’s not approved,’ and I thought, what I really need is someone at NSTAR to tell me who’s not approving it and why it’s not approved,” said Mr. Stanwood.

The blizzard of 2013

Back in 2013, a severe winter storm hit the Island. “I was playing my piano the night of the storm,” said Mr. Stanwood. “It snowed, then it rained, then the wind started blowing and all of a sudden I heard a sound like a howitzer going off. The lights all went off and I looked out in the driveway and all I could see were branches. A limb from a giant oak in our front yard had came down, and it totaled all three of our cars.”

After the storm, NSTAR (which merged with Eversource in 2012) came by to repair the fallen power lines. “The supervisor of the road crew felt so sorry for us,” said Mr. Stanwood “that he had the crew cut up all the wood into small pieces. We were so grateful, we wanted to do something for this guy.”

The Stanwoods were raising sheep at the time, and Mr. Stanwood went to the freezer and got a leg of lamb. “I gave it to the supervisor and he lit up and said ‘I love lamb,’ and he actually cradled it like a baby. Then he gave me his card, and said if there’s ever anything he could do for me, to give him a call.”

Now, more than a year later and faced with Cape Light’s rejection, Mr. Stanwood remembered the card. “I talked to my guy at NSTAR,” said Mr. Stanwood, and told him about wanting to use the screw-in LED bulbs with the old fixtures and how Cape Light said that wouldn’t be approved, and he said, Give me a couple of days, I’ll check with our NSTAR representative in West Tisbury, and I thought, I never knew we even had an NSTAR rep in West Tisbury!”

Several days went by, and the NSTAR West Tisbury representative called Mr. Stanwood back and said that he had looked into the matter, and that in his opinion there was no problem with using the screw-in LED bulbs. And that was a game-changer.

Now, knowing that using the screw-in LED bulbs was an approved option, Cape Light agreed to take responsibility for the lights; not only that, they realized that rewiring the old fixtures to accommodate the LED bulbs was a lot more cost-efficient than installing all new fixtures, and that’s why West Tisbury today still has its Admiral’s Hats and the soft, warm light Eleanor Stanwood used to dream under when she was a little girl. It just took a letter from a literary icon, three crushed cars, and a delicious leg of lamb. Looking back, David Stanwood is still a bit incredulous at the whole bizarre chain of events: “I can’t believe I won,” he chuckled.