West Chop homeowner’s demo proposal denied

Citing significance of Island’s unique character, commissioners call out trend of ‘old, new house’ projects.

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The proposed replacement for West Chop's 1133 Main St., reviewed by the MVC, was ultimately deemed inappropriate by commissioners.

At its Thursday night meeting, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission denied the request by Susannah and Brian Bristol to demolish their West Chop 1133 Main St. house.

The request for permission to demolish the four-story, seven-bedroom, 8,500-square-foot dwelling — believed to have been built around 1890 — and replace it with a 7,178-square-foot, three-story structure was turned down by commissioners in a 7-3 vote with one abstention. 

The existing house is not listed on Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), but directly abuts the West Chop Historic District.

Among the concerns raised by the commission regarding the proposed replacement was the attempt to mirror the West Chop character, without thoughtful consideration of what makes the area authentic. 

With majority agreement that the new house’s character and identity would be a detriment to the neighborhood, Commissioner Fred Hancock called the replacement structure a “well-mannered 2022 version of what the shingle style was … I don’t believe the replacement structure is as appropriate as [the applicants] think it is,” he said. 

The construction of the proposed modern “simulation” of the existing house would be “a disservice to history,” said Commissioner Ben Robinson, noting the loss of accurate representation of historic architecture in the proposed construction. 

Commissioners took issue with the homeowners’ argument that demolition was the only avenue to be taken in order to create a comfortable, year-round living situation. 

“What [the applicants are] saying is that they can’t possibly insulate this house, make it a year-round house, and heat it without tearing it down,” Hancock said. “I don’t at all agree with that estimation.” 

Commissioners Jay Grossman and Robinson agreed.

Commissioner Linda Sibley referenced the commission’s legislation regarding Island character of structures, and expressed concern about what seems like an increasing trend of demolishing historic buildings. 

“It’s a slippery slope,” Sibley said, “a house that looks kind of like an 1890s house is replacing an 1890s house … is the marketplace such that people are buying these old houses that need a lot of repair [with intention] to tear them down?” 

Robinson relayed what the Bristols cited in their application, that in the West Chop area, “the majority of major projects have been major renovations.” Therefore, he said, “the ability to renovate these old homes is possible.”

Commissioner Michael Kim said the Bristols have shown their ability to “art[fully] renovate” the existing structure by “the level of investment that [the applicants] are proposing for their new house.” 

Kim said renovating the existing house “would result in a much richer house experience,” and it “would be making a big mistake if they went ahead with this [demolition].”

At the MVC’s July 21 meeting, the Bristols told the commission that any alternatives to demolition is “financially infeasible,” which had then triggered some further financial inquiry by commissioners, but was met with reluctance from the applicant to go into specifics. 

Numerous letters of support for the demo from West Chop residents were outweighed by the correspondence from the Tisbury historical commission, which emphatically cited the significance of the structure, noting if it were to be demolished, “it would tear a page from the history of West Chop.”

Among other concerns about the project raised at Thursday’s meeting was the impact the demolition and reconstruction would have on the environment. 

“They’re starting with a very large house, and taking it down, and building back another very large house,” emphasized Robibson. In citing a handful of architect institutes worldwide, Robinson said, “everybody in the architecture world is moving away from the idea that we should be demolishing buildings because of the embodied carbon, and amount of materials required to build new [replacements].” 

In disagreement, commissioner Brian Smith said “he can’t come to terms” with the idea that saving an “inefficient, oil-burning building” is better for the environment than a “smaller, energy-efficient building.”

In response, Hancock said that nobody on the commission is forcing the homeowners to keep its oil heat source. 

Robinson clarified that the building is only marginally smaller, making little difference sizewise. The house can be renovated to be more efficient, he said; “we’re not precluding the improvement of this building by denying a demolition.” 

The vote to deny the request was made without prejudice, allowing the Bristols to resubmit new plans to the commission without the two-year waiting period.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I would have any one of the dissenting commissioners to go walk through that house.
    They make
    It sound like they bought it to tear it down, the family has lived in the house for years.
    At wits end would be my frame of mind. Sometimes it makes sense to start over. The resources and cost to “renovate” that structure would
    Leave little left that you couldn’t stick a screw driver through with your bare hands.
    I appreciate the diligence of the board but feel it’s an armchair quarterback situation. Go get your knees dirty and look at it. Then have your meeting.

    • Should these kinds of decisions be based strictly on cost?
      If that were case half of Island’s structures should be torn down and replaced high rise ocean view condos.
      Much lower life cycle cost.
      Tear down all the old rotten crap.

  2. Thank you to Brian Athearn for your suggestion that the commissioners have a look ( a walkthrough) of the house in question before making a decision. I’m actually surprised that this isn’t done. I’m not taking sides on this particular question of tearing down or renovating this house, but I can’t help but think that the commissioners are being more cautious in this situation because of past bad decisions, or decisions that were made after the fact when the buildings had already been torn down!

    • Not sure if my post went through but this family has owned the house since the 1920’s. i’d love to see how many people on the commission could say that!

  3. Gayle,
    If this was ANY community and someone came in and bought a building that was significantly historic or at the least, sentimental. I would champion the cause to protect it.
    This family is not that demographic. The concern and heartfelt compassion from the Bristol’s for this building and this community is lost on the board, for that I feel saddened. The disconnect between what is on paper and what the reality is seems very different.
    judging someone based on the home they own or Martha’s Vineyard is a very volatile conversation to have. It comes down to interpretation of ones own perception and without looking at it personally, you cannot make a judgement.
    I hope the board and all of us look at his as a real litmus test.
    Bottom line is they could be any one of us trying to stay here and having bureaucracy hold us in a pattern until we can’t afford to fight anymore.
    I believe the board or the MVC are all reasonable folks that understand common sense. let’s just apply it with some heart.

  4. It’s nothing to do with carbon or the environment or the size or year-round. It’s all to do with keeping the history and architecture of a wonderful example of the shingle-style of the late 1800s. Certainly we can preserve our island history and our character, can’t we?

    All the Bristols want is that particular view and they don’t care what they do to get it. They knew when they bought it there was a chance they’d be denied, but when money isn’t a problem, then it’s worth the chance to purchase it and see what happens. It’d be nice to see people who actually respect the island and who want to live here because they respect island life as it has been and still (still?) is. The future will be grateful.

  5. Other West Chop homes have been demolished and rebuilt beginning with the Ferraro’s up to the present day. What is the precedence of those homes in the MV Commission’s view over the Bristol house ? There is another article in the MV Times about a home on Look Street that will be torn down because it is over 100 years old and not in the historic district. The Bristol home is over 100 years old and is not in the historic district. Will Vineyard Haven homeowners in the future be dismissed when they want to upkeep their homes ?

  6. When you keep telling people what is good for them and tell them how to live their lives you risk alienating an entire community. You paint people into a corner to do things they normally wouldn’t do. Maybe the Bristol house will get infested by termites, carpenter ants, carpenter bees, powder post beetles, bark beetles, and wood borers. They would make quick work of natural demolition. And letting pipes go into disrepair could cause tremendous rot and mold. I would think that the MVC would rather work with people than deal with a building that will just fall in disrepair.

    • Carl– you have some good points– Perhaps the Bristol’s could sell this house to the Hall’s .
      They would let nature tear it down over the next 20 years.
      And then they could get the town to remove what is left because it would be unsafe and an environmental hazard.

  7. MVC is a sick joke. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. They have stood tall over the destruction of the real island community, the people. Now that the people can no longer afford to live here because of MVC’s failure to understand the consequences of the illegal weekly, now daily, rental over the last 40+years they still puke the blather about being concerned with the “character” of the island. Wooden structures do not last forever and no useless, corrupt bureaucrat can change that. The MVC’s version and vison of the Vineyard is that of an award winning wedding cake built upon a cow flap. The frosting is beautifully decorated, just don’t cut in too deep.

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