Shearer Cottage seeks expansion

Historic Oak Bluffs inn looks to renovate existing main cottage and build two new structures.

Proposed site plans for the two-story Shearer Cottage. A basement is also proposed. -Courtesy MVC

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission continued a public hearing for the renovation and expansion project at the historic Inn at Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs.

The properties include two buildings: a main, two-story cottage with three bedrooms, and a separate one-story building with three rooms. The project proposes to increase the Shearer Cottage from six to 15 bedrooms by gut-renovating the two-story main cottage to include five bedrooms, demolish the existing one-story building, construct a new, two-story building with eight bedrooms, and construct a new one-story building with two bedrooms. If approved, the total square footage would nearly triple, from 3,061 square feet to 9,003 square feet. Additional deck and porch space will increase from 906 square feet to 2,085 square feet.

According to a commission staff report and the Shearer Cottage website, the Shearer Cottage’s history stretches back more than 100 years; Charles Shearer, a former slave and professor at Hampton University, and his wife Henrietta, who was of partial Blackfoot Indian descent, came to the Vineyard in 1895. The couple purchased a cottage and several lots on a hill abutting the Baptist Temple in Oak Bluffs. By 1912, Shearer Cottage became the first inn on Martha’s Vineyard to cater to African Americans. They also opened a laundry business onsite. Henrietta passed away in 1917, and the laundry business was closed, leaving the cottage.

In the Cottage’s early years, guests featured Black business owners, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and intellectuals from Boston and other Northeast cities. Notable summer guests included the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and his wife, Henry Robbins and his wife, opera singer Lillian Evanti, and Lionel Richie and the Commodores. 

The Cottage has also been host to groups and organizations such as the Martha’s Vineyard Chapter of the NAACP, was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, and was the first landmark designated on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. The Cottage guest book and other artifacts have been featured at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

There were renovations to the property in the 1920s, the 1950s, and the 1970s. The property has remained in the Shearer family since its founding.

The project has received extensive public support through letters submitted to the commission. Martha’s Vineyard Museum executive director Heather Seger, author Skip Finley, historian Thomas Dresser, and many others have all written in support of the project.

Architect Chuck Sullivan said the project will still need a special permit from the zoning board of appeals and the planning board.

Owner Eric Van Allen said the Cottage may have more frequent functions, but their number will be the same as it has been in the past. “My family’s comfortable with no doing no more than one event per day, no more than three per week during the peak months, July as well as August,” Van Allen said. “No more than two per week during the shoulder seasons.”

Commissioner Douglas Sederholm said there were several parts of the project the commissioners wanted more information on. “I think we have to continue it until we have a definitive proposal with regard to wastewater, nitrogen removal, and sufficient information with parameters to events,” Sederholm said.

Commissioners continued the public hearing to Nov. 18.

In other business, the commission approved an expansion of the Airport Business Park to include four new lots. The original proposal called for the creation of five new lots, but the smallest lot was removed from the proposal. The four lots total 8.58 acres.

The new lots increase the business park acreage from 45.26 to 54.04, which is still under the 63 acres approved in 1993.

Commissioner Ben Robinson voted yes for the project, but shared his perspective on Island development. “I’m going to vote for this because of the need today for these services to be provided on the Island,” Robinson said. “But we need to recognize the impact of just a continual march forward of, ‘Yep, services are needed, let’s just keep opening up new land for it.’ The land is going to run out, and we have to recognize this point in time, and not just gloss over that decision so quickly.”

Commissioner Josh Goldstein said the commission needs to let the public know where the commission stands on development as a benefit or detriment. “If this board is going to say that all development is a detriment, we need to come out to the general public and let them know the bar has risen, and they are coming to us, Madam Chair, as a hostile witness,” Goldstein said. “I fear that this board has become so anti-development, and needs to balance what Ben is saying with the need for development, but we’re not quite there.”

Commissioners also approved a written decision for 19 Mill Square, a demolition of a historic home in the Vineyard Highlands.