Old is not historic

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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. 

8 COMMENTS

  1. I lived in that house for many years and left her in 2019. The old fir floors are beautiful…worn but clear and golden and warm like nothing but old wood can be. I walked them with my newborn many a long night. The antique windows with their pulleys and weights make a soft rumble upon opening and closing and I think it’s a sound lost to most now. The previous long time owners summered in the cottage out back and became my surrogate grandparents. They told me the stories of the many previous owners. She was once a boarding house with a kitchen in the basement that fed the neighborhood. Hence, the old exterior locks still on all the bedroom doors, smooth worn brass that fits your fingers just right. And some writing on the basement beams that I could never really make out, and the bottom layer of wallpaper that was pages of sheet music. No, none of the boarders were B. Gosnold or Teddy’s girlfriend, as far as we know. We’ll concede that historical edge. Maybe time and history just have to march over the mediocre. When I first moved in the last 3 apple trees of the Cronig’s ancient orchard stood along the driveway and still produced fruit. They are long gone now. The giant maple that shaded her east end went down in a storm just a few years ago, but the frayed ropes from a long ago child’s swing were still there when I moved in. So high up. But once its branches were low enough for them to be fastened there. The holly tree that I’m sure was planted when she was built is still tall and strong. There’s a sweet little hawthorn tree that I meant to dig up and save before I left. She’s a drafty old gal, but solid and forthright. Four square sides that remind me of a stout matriarch with her hands on her hips. She’s seen some things. The basement might be a bit damp, it’s true. Maybe she’s just historically architecturally insignificant. I’m not sure where I stand with ‘preserving old houses for the sake of preserving old houses’. I’m all for energy efficiency and her old boiler that we called Maryanne (from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, written in 1939) certainly doesn’t fit that bill. I know her soul, though. And I know the ground and the plants and the ghosts surrounding her modest footprint. The renderings of her proposed replacement, a giant out of place beast, were sad to see. So here we are, a controversial decision made. I’ll miss her if the new owners eventually get their way and she has to go. She might grumble if a renovation happens, but her bones will still be there remembering all the things she’s seen. Maybe some old clear fir will be saved and not be sent to the dump. And if a new not-too-huge efficient home takes her place someday, I suppose that’s good for everyone. An efficient year ’round home for an island family would be really good for everyone. I think she’d be ok with that. ( RIP Roger Erickson, her owner and caretaker for many years. I think he’d be ok with it, too.)

    • Samantha, A Beautiful tribute to something perceived mistakenly as “old and in the way”….. a future iteration not one of us will be spared. And since when does the paper- as a whole – spout their personal opinion about decisions made by our elected boards and representatives in the form of a news story no less? please try to stick to the facts, and keep the opinions in the opinions section. The waters are muddy enough already.

    • Yes, Samantha, beautiful tribute to the house you grew up in. However, as my mother said to me 20+ years ago when I expressed my sadness about the house I grew up in in Maine being remodeled by new owners ” We no longer own it. What happens to it now is not our business” Cherish the memories, but move on.

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