Is history a value?

A photo of the Mill House prior to it being demolished to make way for a new house. — Tommaso Bertini

I’m an architect from Florence, Italy. I have been coming to the Vineyard every year since 1994, and since then, I have become fascinated by the local architecture, so different from the stone Palazzi of Florence. For 20 years I lived in Vineyard Haven at the Mill House, which I loved. That house and many more historical ones on the Vineyard are not only the testimony of a past lifestyle but also a richness for the community as an architectural heritage. The recent loss of the Mill House, and other similar historical buildings are often opportunities for debates in the media, showing a growing cultural conscience around the issue of historical building preservation.

So, before going forward with this theme I think we should ask ourselves some questions:

Is history a value? In particular, do we think that the architectural heritage of Martha’s Vineyard is linked to the history of this Island? If I own a historical building should I be helped by federal/state laws to maintain it? Could restoration and preservation of historical buildings be a work opportunity for local builders?

In Italy during the year 1939, a public organization was born with the purpose to preserve and maintain the national historical building patrimony. Thanks to these laws we can now visit Florence, Rome, Venice, and all the historical small Italian villages and appreciate the atmosphere and beauty of a past era, given also by the human scale of buildings that is now often lost.

Since then we have had strict laws that preserve and protect the historical heritage of architecture and landscapes. There is no doubt that tourism in Italy is one of the main voices on the public budget. If Florence had saved only the monuments and lost its characteristic center town small architecture, would Florence still be as we know it today?

So the question is, is doing away with a certain specific local architecture that has characterized Martha’s Vineyard for centuries a loss?

Is the heritage of the human scale of the traditional Vineyard architecture, and in general of the world-renowned style of New England architecture, at risk?

The cultural heritage of a building is not only given by its external appearance. The richness of architecture is also given by small decorative details, specific room layouts, and unique interiors that once destroyed, are an everlasting cultural loss. 

The art of restoration means exactly this; a preservation of the entire building and its history. 

A detailed survey is the first mandatory step to make a proper restoration and ensure preservation. A well done survey includes not only plans, sections, and elevations but also decorative details, built-in furniture, specific materials, wall papers etc… Yes, restoring a building is usually more expensive than tearing it down and building something from scratch.

In Florence, once you have a detailed survey design and a complete history of the building you can then start working on the project of restoration, submitting it to the historical committee. Depending on the age and authenticity of the building there are several grades of restoration from restoring the building exactly as it was, to tearing down some more recent parts and restoring the original ones. In no case, in private projects, are new volumes allowed to be added. Sometimes, when there is the impossibility, for structural reasons, to restore certain parts, you tear down those parts and you rebuild them with the same materials and building technique. This is why not all contractors are allowed to make such restorations; you have to prove your knowledge of restoration and you have to be inserted in a special list of approved skilled contractors that is overseen by the public committee.

The same thing goes for boats. If you love your old beautiful wooden boat you want to keep her alive, not let her soul fade away. That is why you choose a good boatyard that knows the old wooden boat building and maintenance techniques.

Finally, what different visions are possible for the Vineyard in a hundred years depends on what cultural value is placed on historical restoration and preservation.


Tommaso Bertini is an architect from Florence, Italy, who has been a summer resident on the Vineyard since the ‘90s. He lived in the Mill House in Vineyard Haven.