This Was Then: Last days of Lane’s Block

Cat runways, plank walks, and dental animals.


Lane’s Block, the jewel of Main Street, Vineyard Haven, was cut down in 1951.

Ground was broken for the massive building just days after the Great Fire of 1883 burned Capt. Charles Smith’s spacious 18th-century home to ashes on this spot, together with all of Main Street. Dr. Charles Lane (1850-1931), a savvy contractor and builder, oversaw construction personally as massive timbers were erected atop monolithic blocks of cut stone. The building was completed by early 1884.

The “block” long served as an incubator for small businesses and local organizations, like Sam Lee’s Chinese Laundry, Chick’s Vineyard Haven News, and the selectmen’s office. The top floor was originally an assembly hall for clubs and lodges, including the Grange, the Barnacle Club, and the Royal Society of Good Fellows, until the lack of fire escapes brought the legal ability to host such meetings to an end. Mabel Johnson and her partner Margaret Pittman kept a boarding house upstairs during the 1910s and ‘20s, catering mainly to working men, especially telephone company employees. But ultimately, the top two floors became mostly apartments.

Dr. Lane, a medical doctor, druggist, and telephone entrepreneur, was a legendary character. A generation of old-timers, now gone, would swap Dr. Lane stories the way many might swap Craig Kingsbury stories today. He was “one of the old country doctors,” said the late Stan Lair on Vineyard Haven in a 1979 recording. “He first traveled with a horse and wagon, and then later on a small Model T Ford. He was quite a guy. He was the first Ford dealer on the Island. He got the agency so he could buy his new car — he only bought about two, I guess.” He made house calls to perform major surgeries atop dining room tables, some have recalled.

He also kept animals. The late Ralph Look reminisced about his childhood neighbor on Union Street in a 1979 interview: “He had maybe in the vicinity of possibly five or six cats. He had a runway for all his kitties from the third floor right out to the street, a partition on each floor for the cats to go in and out. And I can see ’em now, going in and out of that building. He never had to worry about ’em, see . . .  He did just about as he pleased. Dr. Lane [had] pigs, hens, everything imaginable. Animals of all kinds. The town couldn’t do anything about it. Stink? God, don’t talk! He could care less. He was gonna have his little farm right side of it. And he was a big taxpayer. He had a good command of Union Street, I’ll tell you, he really did. He never asked the authorities for one thing. He used to empty waste right out in the street. Barrel after barrel, he’d dump them! No one ever said anything.”

The building was full of surprises and architectural quirks — odd partitions, and false ceilings and passages. Lair recalled the “nice wide stairway” from Main Street up to the second and third floors of Lane’s Block. “Oh my gosh – the stairs were wide and they were dark,” recalls Mrs. Lorraine (Merry) Kornek, 87, now of Naples, Florida. “It was very dank – you couldn’t wait to get to where you were going.” 

Kornek’s classmate, Jackie Baer of Vineyard Haven, 87, remembers visiting a restaurant owner, Marion Hallowell, who lived in an apartment upstairs. “There were always a mysterious bunch of doors up there,” she recalls. “It was kind of tricky. A plank went [over a gap] to get into one of the apartments — Mrs. Hallowell’s. I can remember walking the plank. It was kind of scary. She was a big lady — I can’t imagine that woman walking that plank.”

Hallowell’s restaurant was located underneath Lane’s Block on Union Street from 1937 until 1944. Run by George and Marion Hallowell, they sold coffee and prepared short orders among huge potted plants. The Hallowells had previously run the Homeport in Menemsha as well as a café in Edgartown, and the Lane’s Block restaurant had a long history as an eatery under a series of names — Mrs. Marceau’s, Haz Dunning’s, Frank Swift’s and The Modern Restaurant among them. Following George Hallowell’s death in 1945, it became the ArtCliff Restaurant, run by Art Silva and Cliff Luce, which soon expanded into the ArtCliff Donut Shop and the ArtCliff Record Shop. By 1950, it became The Mooring restaurant.

A dentist, Dr. Paul Lynch, kept his office upstairs in Lane’s Block for many years.The late Walter Renear of Vineyard Haven recalled, “when Dr. Lynch didn’t have any customers, he used his drill to carve wooden buttons. Make wooden buttons and make holes in them.” His brother Bob Renear added, “People were in the waiting room and they’d hear this ‘waaaaaahaahhh.’ He’s there grinding away at a piece of wood. He made little animals or whatever.” Dr. Lynch, who also was secretary of the Art Workers’ Guild, also built finely crafted models of clipper ships. He died suddenly while driving to work in 1938, and his practice was taken by Dr. H. Eugene Watkins. “My mother took me up [to see Dr. Watkins] one day,” recalls Mrs. Kornek. “He was going to give me a shot of novocaine and I jumped up and ran home.”

After Dr. Lane died in 1931, the property was eventually sold to Henry Cronig. The building was in poor shape, and a change in the septic laws meant that the 12 apartments in the upper floors — only partly occupied — could no longer be maintained as they were. In late 1951 demolition began, and Dr. Lane’s grand block was truncated to the modern, one-story form we see today. 

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 2018.



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