Updated Feb. 8
A fire ripped through a Vineyard Haven home on Monday afternoon at the intersection of Owen Little Way and Main Street. Flames could be seen shooting out of the roof and windows and the thick black billowing smoke was evident for miles.
The fire at 319 Main Street was reported just before 1 pm. Firefighters from all across the Island descended on the scene to fight the fire.
Hose crews attacked the burning house from multiple points on the surrounding lawn. Those crews snuffed parts of the blaze, but a big tongue of flame in the center of the house resisted all the water firefighters threw at it from the ground. Firefighters perched on Tisbury’s fire tower eventually drenched the huge center flame with the tower’s water cannon, reducing it to white smoke. The success was short-lived. Pockets of flame stubbornly reemerged on the third floor of the building and at multiple roof points. Firefighters blasted those spots from the tower and the ground. Almost two hours into the battle, pockets of fire persisted. At about 2 pm, Tisbury Fire Chief Greg Leland told The Times he feared the structure was in danger of collapse.The fire response completely shut down Main Street just beyond the intersection of Tashmoo Avenue. Fire apparatus, ambulances, and the personal cars of volunteer firefighters clogged the street. Tisbury Police redirected traffic back down Main Street or up Tashmoo Avenue.
At about 5 pm, excavators were on site demolishing what was left of the house.
According to assessors records, the home is owned by Elizabeth McBride, the daughter of the late Sheldon Hackney and the late Lucy Durr Hackney.
The homeowners escaped injury, but Chief Leland said two pets were inside. It was later revealed that two dogs perished in the fire. The remains of one of them was recovered when the house was dismantled. On Tuesday all that remained of the house were piles of charred debris. The debris was cordoned off with fire line tape. Chief Leland said that the tape was a safety precaution because, among other things, house fire debris can harbor toxic substances and shouldn’t be touched or handled.
Writing on behalf of the town administrator and the select board, building commissioner Ross Seavey expressed sympathy for the owners of the historic home.
“While this is a tragedy for the owners and their family,” Seavey wrote, “we take solace in the fact that there was no loss of human life for the owners or the responding emergency personnel. We send our heartfelt condolences to the owners for the loss of their dogs that did not make it out of the building.”
Seavey thanked Chief Leland and Deputy Chief Rolston and thanked the fire department itself, including firefighter Troy Maciel, who brought in his company’s excavators to bear. Seavy also extended thanks to the many town departments that helped with the response and that continue to “stand ready” to offer help to the property owners “as they deal with this terrible loss.”
Chief Leland said the cause of the fire is under “active investigation” but admitted that investigation would be hampered by the demolition of the house. The demolition occured for two reasons, he said — ”extremely persistent fire” that endured what he guessed was about 200,000 gallons of water, that just wouldn’t stop burning in places, and “structural instability” caused by the fire. Chief Leland said the building was coming down “no matter what” but for safety reasons the fire department opted to control how and when that happened.
Furthermore, he said taking apart the house allowed firefighters to saturate smoldering sections of the building in ways they couldn’t before. Chief Leland said “legacy construction” and modern furniture both played roles in the intensity of the fire. Explosive sounds neighbors and onlookers may have heard during the blaze weren’t propane bottles, he said. They were windows blowing out from overpressure. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs firefighters battled the fire with Tisbury. West Tisbury firefighters initially covered Tisbury’s fire station but were eventually called to the fire too. Later on Tuesday, Chief Leland said Tisbury’s water department calculated that 340,000 gallons of water were expended to fight the fire.
The house has a storied past and was once the scene of a dinner party with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Sheldon and Lucy Durr Hackney, led rich lives before and after rooting themselves to the Vineyard in their later years, according to their obituaries. Sheldon died in 2013 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lucy died in 2018 “surrounded by four generations of her loving family.”
According to her obituary, Lucy was born in 1937, the second of Virginia and Clifford Durr’s four daughters. She grew up in Montgomery, Ala., where her parents, prominent progressives, were civil rights activists. Her father, an attorney who defended those accused of disloyalty during the New Deal and McCarthy eras, played an important role in the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. He helped bail family friend Rosa Parks out of jail, and aided her representation in the case that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Parks, a seamstress who was also secretary of the NAACP, fitted Lucy’s dress for her 1957 wedding to Sheldon Hackney.
Sheldon was a historian and an educator. He specialized in the history of the South. After Sheldon received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University in Connecticut, he taught the subject at Princeton University in New Jersey. He later became the president at two schools: Tulane University in Louisiana and the University of Pennsylvania.
According to her obituary, the Hackneys first came to the Island as guests of their friend Lucy Myers in 1966. They purchased the home at the corner of Owen Little Way in 1975. “The house was the scene of many parties and social events, big and small, including a dinner party with Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993, many raucous birthday celebrations for Lucy’s mother each August, and countless family dinners,” according to her obituary.
The house has other ties to history, as well. It was one of three houses moved by William Barry Owen in 1907 to make way for Owen Park, Bow Van Riper, a historian with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, told The Times. Van Riper said the history of the property he shared with The Times is included in James Norton’s book “Walking in Vineyard Haven.” According to that book, the house faced the sea in its original location at what is now Owen Park. When it was moved to Owen Little Way, the house was turned to face the street, Van Riper noted. According to Norton’s writing, as of 2000 “the house retains its original style and character, a good example of the three-bay Quaker-style architecture of the period.”
A porch, and possibly an ell, were added to the back — possibly after that — but the face that the house presented to the street was still recognizably the one it would have had in 1802, Van Riper wrote.
“[The house] was built in 1802 by Benjamin Luce, who was descended from James Allen, one of the four original English inhabitants of what’s now West Tisbury,” Van Riper wrote. “Benjamin Luce came from money, property, and power . . . he was a merchant and lawyer, and moved to Holmes Hole (then a small-but-expanding village on the fringes of Tisbury) because he sensed opportunity. Being in the (relative) boondocks didn’t do his career any harm . . . in 1803 he was elected Tisbury’s representative to the state legislature.”
The house was passed through the Luce family and was given to Hepsibah and Captain Richard Luce (not the Captain Richard Luce who made a fortune whaling and built the beautiful yellow house at the intersection of William & Camp Streets, but a distant cousin of his), he gave the house to the couple as (we assume) a wedding present, according to Van Riper.
“I can’t find any record of when Richard and Hepsibah Luce sold the house, but we do know that the last person to live in it before Owen had it moved in 1907 was Rev. William C. Hicks, the pastor of Grace Episcopal Church from 1894-1898,” Van Riper wrote. “There’s another long gap in the ownership history after the house was moved, but in the early 1970s it was owned by a family name Andresen. I assume that Sheldon and Lucy Hackney bought it from the Andresens, since (in my memory, which on things like this goes back to the mid-70s, the Hackneys have ‘always’ lived there).”
Updated with details about the fire and the house’s ties to history.