Updated April 30
The Mill House, one of the most recognizable buildings on the Vineyard Haven waterfront, was demolished to make way for a replacement of the historic house that overlooks the inner harbor. Its fascinating history includes stories that its first owner once allowed British soldiers to bunk there, and that she was regarded as a “woman of repute.”
The property was purchased by Lise N. Revers in 2017 for $3.8 million. Revers’ builder, Rosbeck Builders, applied for and received a building permit from the town for “interior demolition, new foundation, [and] new addition” with plans drawn by architect Patrick Ahearn. The application was applied for on Aug. 14 and approved Nov. 14. Ahearn’s drawings show a building that looks similar to what was there, albeit with a lot more windows facing the harbor, and that features the mill as part of the living space.
“When I initially reviewed the proposal, I found nothing in the plan that stood out to me,” Tisbury building commissioner Ken Barwick told The Times Thursday, with the folder for the project sprawled on his office conference table. “I went over the plans with the contractor, and they are putting back essentially what is there.”
Plans call for an estimated $2.9 million in renovations and 7,272 square feet of living space. The existing house had 5,132 square feet of living space, and portions of it dated back to 1750, according to assessors’ records. Much of the additional space will come from having a basement that will be finished, according to the plans.
Work has stopped on the house after the recent demolition, and the project has been referred to both the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) and the town’s historic committee, Barwick said.
On Friday, Adam Turner, executive director of the commission, said he has not yet reviewed the referral or been to the property, but was surprised to learn that most of the house, with the exception of the mill, had been razed.
“I hope the historic pieces were not demolished,” Turner said. “They’re supposed to be referred, and they’re supposed to go through the process. I only know of a project when it’s referred.”
Harold Chapdelaine, chairman of the Tisbury Historic Commission (THC), wrote in an email that the MVC has regulations that require the demolishing of any building built before 1900 be reviewed for historical significance.
“A request for demolition would trigger this process; if the building history shows it was built prior to 1900 the [building inspector] would refer the project to the MVC, the MVC would then start the process and reach out to the Tisbury Historical Commission,” he wrote. “At that time the THC would work with the applicant and the MVC to review the historical significance of the structure or parts of the structure. Once the THC has made a determination, the THC meets with the selectmen for their input. That decision is then sent to the MVC for additional review and implementation of an ‘order of conditions.’”
Revers, a former tax attorney who owns Beechwood Stables in Weston, told The Times she was unaware that the entire building would be torn down. She said it was a decision made by the builder, Peter Rosbeck, in consultation with Barwick.
“I don’t know the details,” Revers said, referring questions to Rosbeck. “The building inspector determined that it was not habitable and not able to be rehabbed.”
Revers told the Times she thought Barwick was on location for the demolition, but Barwick said he was off-Island dealing with a family matter.
Rosbeck could not immediately be reached for comment.
Margaret Snow, a former owner of the house and now a seasonal resident of Makonikey, wrote to The Times upset that the house she once lived in was gone.
“We were custodians of a house that we believed would last long beyond our time,” she wrote. “One summer it was included in a tour of historic homes in Vineyard Haven. It is unbelievable that the town allowed this to happen. It is a loss of a part of its history. Some may call this progress. To me it is a lack of respect for the past, and terribly sad.”
The Mill House was also once owned by dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, who purchased it during World War II. She moved out of the house when her companion, author Dashiell Hammett, died in the house, according to an account in “More Vineyard Voices” by Linsey Lee, the oral history curator at Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
In that book, Lee shares her interview with Cary Scheller, the granddaughter of General A.B. Carey, who bought the Mill House in 1880. “At the time, it was a little single house, a Cape, and it was owned by Molly Merry, who was a woman of repute in town,” Cary Scheller said. (In a separate history of Vineyard Haven written by Henry Franklin Norton and published in 1923, the house is described as being in “a most picturesque location” and Merry’s exploits are detailed, though she died in 1843 it’s possible the house was still owned by her family when the general bought it.)
“They wanted to make the house bigger, so Grandfather bought an old mill that was going to be torn down and had it moved up on his land and attached it to the Old Cape,” Cary Scheller was quoted as saying by Lee. “Mother seemed to think the mill was from Chappaquiddick, I’m not sure that’s right, but was going to be torn down and they saved it.”
Now the mill is the only piece that remains.
Some parts of the house were clearly not historic, Barwick said. There were additions to the Mill House in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, he said. During his visit to the house after Revers’ plans were filed, he found a building that was in disrepair, he said.
“The building was falling in on itself. In your terms and my terms, it was failing,” Barwick said. “Even if they tried to put it back, it had no structural integrity. It was in major disrepair, is a nice way to put it.”
Chapdelaine reviewed the plans with Barwick, but would not comment on them. “Yes, I have seen the plans,” he wrote. “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the plans without following the process and introducing them to the full membership of the THC.”
In a follow-up email, Chapdelaine wrote that often when there are multiple additions or renovations, the historic commission has to make a determination between “what is old and what is historic.”
The commission is charged with coming to a consensus on what is truly historic. “While a home may be determined to be historic, the structural components may have deteriorated beyond repair, and we are faced with building a replica,” he wrote.
While he praised the efforts to save the mill, Chapdelaine conceded he would have liked the historic commission to be involved sooner in the process.
“The THC was not involved prior to demolition, so it is not my place to speak to the interactions by and between the [building inspector] and the builder,” he wrote. “Certainly the THC would prefer to be involved with the house intact, no matter the previous condition. Speaking as chairman of the THC, I am pleased to see the care the builder has taken [to] support and preserve the historic mill.”
Updated to include additional comment from Chapdelaine and to correct name of general – Ed.