The Martha’s Vineyard Commission misfired when it decided to say no to the demolition of 43 Look St. in Vineyard Haven.
The house is old, built circa 1900, but in no way can anyone point to it and say it is historic. While some commissioners pointed to the “American Foursquare” design, it’s nothing to write home about. While some people might see that style as having character, there is no historic registry for it.
We feel somewhat responsible for the commission’s overreach here.
Our coverage of the Mill House in Vineyard Haven prompted a renewed focus on preserving the Island’s historic properties. In the case of the Mill House, however, there is no question that the house was historically relevant.
You could start and stop at the home’s first owner, who allowed British soldiers to stay there during the Revolutionary War. But there’s more. The home was once owned by dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, who purchased it during World War II. She moved out of the house when her companion, author Dashiell Hammett, died in the house, according to an account in “More Vineyard Voices” by Linsey Lee, the oral history curator at Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
In that book, Lee shares her interview with Cary Scheller, the granddaughter of General A.B. Carey, who bought the Mill House in 1880. “At the time, it was a little single house, a Cape, and it was owned by Molly Merry, who was a woman of repute in town,” Cary Scheller said. (In a separate history of Vineyard Haven written by Henry Franklin Norton and published in 1923, the house is described as being in “a most picturesque location” and Merry’s exploits are detailed; though she died in 1843, it’s possible the house was still owned by her family when the general bought it.)
As a result of part of the house being demolished before all the permits were obtained and without any Martha’s Vineyard Commission review, the MVC ultimately approved the demolition and the rebuild plans, but ordered the home’s owner to donate $75,000 to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and another $25,000 was donated to create a database of 100-year-old homes in Vineyard Haven. The MVC also reiterated that any home older than 100 years old should be reviewed by the commission before being demolished.
While we certainly agree with that policy, we don’t think every 100-plus-year-old home should be spared the wrecking ball. In the case of 43 Look St., we can find no good reason for that house to be spared, and consider the MVC’s decision an overreach that does nothing to preserve the character of the Island.
As he so often does, commissioner Trip Barnes put it bluntly. “I don’t think there’s anything historic about the house,” Barnes said during one of several public hearings on the project. “Bartholomew Gosnold didn’t spend the night there; Teddy Kennedy didn’t have a girlfriend there … it’s just an old house, the guy wants to get a new house, I don’t blame him.”
Barnes is right. The house isn’t in a historic district, and it’s not listed in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) or any other historic register.
Commissioners raised issues with the cost of renovation versus the cost of replacement — they were almost identical. But is that really their purview?
Commissioners also raised legitimate questions about the designs of the replacement structure. They wanted to see accurate renderings of what would replace the house that’s there now. That’s a legitimate question.
But enough with preserving old houses for the sake of preserving old houses. There should be a benchmark of a house having some historic value in order for it to be preserved. That wasn’t the case here.
Is there another legal challenge in the MVC’s future? We hope not, but we wouldn’t be surprised.
We’ve supported most of the decisions where the MVC has been challenged. In this case, the decision by the commission is indefensible.