The public came out in numbers to a public hearing at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) Thursday night to weigh in on the proposed demolition of Denniston House in Oak Bluffs, and to send commissioners a clear message: Bring it down.
Because the building is more than 100 years old, and in a commercial district, the MVC is reviewing the demolition as a development of regional impact (DRI).
Denniston House, built in 1895, “is reputedly the first primarily African-American Church on the Island,” according to an MVC staff report.
The former church has been the subject of years of contention between those who consider it an historic building that should be preserved, and those who consider it an eyesore that should be demolished.
“As an African American, we did not, and we don’t now, worship in one church under one denomination,” neighborhood resident Pat Tankard said. “The minister came from West Indies; he wasn’t an African American. I happen to be Catholic — I couldn’t have gone to that church.”
Ms. Tankard has lived in a nearby house on Dukes County Avenue for the past 10 years; her family has owned the house since 1961.
“That building has never had any significance to my family or anyone I know,” she said. “It has nothing to do with racial issues. It feels to me like a smokescreen. Someone wants something, and they want to keep something from happening there. What is really happening there? … It’s been going on too long. It’s time to move on.”
Ewell Hopkins, former director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF), also spoke in favor of the demolition. The IAHF bought the property in 2007 for $905,000 to create affordable housing, low-cost retail space, and to preserve the historic building. After the IAHF was unable to raise $1.3 million in private donations needed to complete the project, it applied for a demolition permit in 2010 to make the property more attractive to a potential buyer. Mr. Hopkins said a worldwide search for a buyer drummed up no interest.
“We diligently worked to find a way of finding any interest to develop the property,” he said. “In terms of the racial component, I tried for three years to find African American support nationally and internationally for this project. We went globally to find any interest to develop this property … I believe we should allow Matt [Viaggio] to do with the property what he chooses.”
Mr. Viaggio bought the troubled property at a bank auction in 2011 for $500,000 after it had been on the market for more than two years. It took three years to clear title on the property before closing in October 2014.
One of the most compelling arguments for demolition came from Trip Barnes, commissioner from Tisbury. “Dean Denniston was a nice guy. I was the last person to move him out of that house. At the time he said to me, ‘Trip, why don’t you buy this place for a warehouse?’ That’s how much he thought of it.”
Mr. Viaggio has said he’s interested in developing mixed-use buildings with top-of-the-shop housing, but he will not get into specifics until the demolition permit is in hand. Part of the lot is zoned R-1, and part is zoned B-1. There is a certified five-bedroom septic on the property.
The lone dissenting voice of the evening was Pam Melrose, chairman of the Oak Bluffs Historical Commission (OBHC). In February 2015, the OBHC deemed the building “preferably preserved,” which triggered a six-month demolition moratorium. The OBHC previously designated the building “preferably preserved” in 2010.
“This is one of the most historic buildings we’ve had to deal with since I’ve been on the board, which has been a number of years,” she said. “Some people have said it’s insulting because it’s the result of segregation, but we feel our history is our history. The house itself is already on the African American trail. Our biggest concern is we don’t want it to be a place that people drive by and don’t realize the significance.”
Mr. Viaggio told the commissioners that he had contacted the NAACP immediately after buying the building, and that they had come to an agreement that a plaque recognizing the Rev. Dean Denniston and Susan Bradley — who founded a mission at the church dedicated to helping the Island’s growing immigrant population — would do the history of the property justice.
“I’d also like to find the [Wampanoag] chief that the Bradfords bought it from,” Mr. Viaggio said.
Mr. Viaggio made the plaque a formal offer to the MVC, should the demolition permit be approved.
Newly appointed land use planning committee (LUPC) chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, who ran the meeting, referred the proceedings to a post-public-hearing review of the LUPC on Monday, Jan. 23.