Fight wrecking ball with a hammer

Demolition of the Mill House took center stage at the Martha's Vineyard Commission's LUPC meeting Monday. - Gabrielle Mannino

The demolition of the Mill House is disturbing on so many levels. It’s disturbing because the process was ignored. It’s disturbing because the Martha’s Vineyard Commission doesn’t know what it can do about that process being ignored. It’s disturbing because a piece of history is now lost — flattened and hauled away.

There’s a process in place to refer a building built before 1900 to the MVC to determine if a building is indeed historic, or if it’s just old. It’s a determination that needs to be made by inspecting the property — something that can no longer be done with this property except through photographs.

Of course, you don’t need much of a process to determine that the Mill House was historic. We are fortunate on this Island to have so many historical records and resources at our fingertips, including a whole museum dedicated to Vineyard history.

In Linsey Lee’s book “More Vineyard Voices,” the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s oral history expert features an interview with the daughter of General A.B. Carey, one of the previous owners of the Mill House. That interview includes a discussion of the first owner of the 1750 house, Molly Merry, and how the mill came to be attached when her grandfather purchased it in 1880.

More insight into the Mill House can be found in Henry Franklin Norton’s history of Vineyard Haven, which references Merry allowing British soldiers to bunk inside.

More recently, it was the home of dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, where she lived with her companion, author Dashiell Hammett.

If those walls could talk.

Yes, it has been added onto and, yes, not all of it was historic.

But concentrating on the pieces that were historic, there is no explanation why that is now gone without any chance of preservation. Tisbury selectmen and the MVC must demand answers.

Tisbury building inspector Ken Barwick says he didn’t authorize the demolition. He issued a building permit for a new foundation, renovations and “interior demolition.” As soon as he learned the building had been leveled, he told the contractor, Peter Rosbeck, to stop his work on the site. (There is work going on at adjacent buildings owned by the same woman, Lise Revers, Barwick says.)

Rosbeck has not returned calls asking why the building was bulldozed. And architect Patrick Ahearn, in letters to the planning board in Weston where Revers is a resident and is opposing the development of a Chapter 40B project she abuts, wrote that Barwick authorized the demolition. Ahearn also wrote that Barwick didn’t refer the project to the MVC initially because it didn’t meet the criteria for a historic referral, which can only be characterized as spin.

Ahearn touts himself as a historic preservationist, and his design for this house is, arguably, beautiful. But it’s hypocritical for him to point the finger at Barwick as giving the green light.

In Edgartown, he knows, there is a demolition delay bylaw that provides time for affordable housing groups to acquire or reuse residential structures. Ditto for West Tisbury. In Oak Bluffs, it can take years to alter a historic building because the town has overlapping historic districts that require reviews of even minor alterations. Decisions are made without the haste that was used to topple the Mill House. For example, it took three years before the owner of the Denniston House was able to raze it, despite near-universal agreement that it was beyond repair.

Unlike Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, Tisbury seems to be leaving too much to chance and way too much in the hands of Barwick, whose workload is so great the town just agreed to add an additional inspector. But this ordeal raises these questions: What type of town does Tisbury want to be? One that allows history to be erased before anyone gets to see it, review it, or preserve it?

Revers says she had no idea the Mill House was being completely taken down, and says it was a decision made between Rosbeck, Ahearn, and Barwick. It’s a comment that stretches credulity, especially on a project where she’s investing $2.9 million on top of the $3.8 million she paid for the property.

Rosbeck, Ahearn, and Barwick should all know better. The process of referring any building built prior to 1900 to the commission is nothing new. And Barwick, for sure, knows that very well from his experience with the Santander Bank roof in Vineyard Haven, where he did authorize replacement of the bank’s clay tile roof with asphalt shingles. He did it without referring the project to the commission, and ultimately, selectmen stepped in and got the commission involved.

One thing is clear, the commission needs to act quickly and with as much of a hammer as it can muster legally to hold Rosbeck, Ahearn, and Barwick accountable. They need to send a strong message that they won’t tolerate situations where someone begs for forgiveness rather than asking permission.