Historic district challenging Katharine Cornell steeple replacement

The William Street Historic District Commission says the replica is much shorter and wider than the original.

The new steeple compared to the old steeple on the Katharine Cornell Theater - Courtesy the William Street Historic District Commission

Historic preservation advocates in Tisbury say that the new steeple installed at the Katharine Cornell Theater a year ago is not an exact replica of the original, and are asking for significant changes.

Whether it is a complete reconstruction of the steeple or a minor adjustment, a state historical board could have the ultimate say.

But the chair of Tisbury’s only historic district commission says that the replica does not reflect the historic aesthetic of one of the town’s most significant buildings in downtown Vineyard Haven.

About five years ago, the town took down the steeple at town hall due to weight concerns. At the time, a major beam in the building was compromised from the weight of the cupola and steeple. 

The town could install steel support columns, which would require taking out an elevator — an extensive and costly option — or reducing the weight from the top.

The town’s public works department opted to replace the current wooden steeple with an aluminum one, significantly reducing the load. The old steeple is actually still in storage at the Department of Public Works, according to town officials.

The project stalled over the pandemic, but just about a year ago, just before Christmas, the new steeple was hoisted onto the historic building. 

The town at the time estimated that the new steeple weighed about 3,500 pounds, as opposed to the more than 10,000 pounds of the original. The integrity of the building was restored.

Christine Redfield is the chairperson at the William Street Historic District Commission, and lives near the theater. The commission oversees renovations in the only historic district in town, which includes the Main Street area.

Redfield returned from Christmas break excited to see the new top of Katharine Cornell. She looked through her living room window, and said that she immediately knew that it wasn’t an exact replica.

“It looks like a HoJo’s,” Redfield told the Times recently, referring to Howard Johnson’s. “Or like a Friendly’s.”

She noted that the replacement was shorter and wider.

Since the replacement steeple went up, Redfield and the district commission reviewed the project. She said that the commission took photos of the building from the same location and compared them. In January, the commission released a two-page report on their findings. 

They say that the new steeple is 40 percent shorter than the original; and the new steeple is about 30 percent wider at its base.

The district commission report also finds there are aesthetic changes that don’t accurately represent the history of the building, for example a portion of the old steeple that had horizontal designs that are mostly nonexistent now.

“The new steeple is not in conformity with the original design of this National Historic landmark built in 1844,” the commission report reads. “The variances noted here must be corrected to comply with our obligations to preserve such historic landmarks. The variances are so great that the bidding and construction process and oversight must be reviewed.”

Redfield said she contacted the Massachusetts Historical Commission for help. Overseen by Secretary of State Bill Galvin, the commission helps to maintain important historical structures in Massachusetts.

It was in conversation with officials at the state commission that Redfield learned that there is a preservation restriction for the Katharine Cornell Theater, put in place in the 1980s with a grant provided to the town.

The restriction requires approval from the state commission for any renovations, whether inside or outside the building. She says they are taking the theater renovations under review.

Redfield said that she then reached out to the town to inform them about the preservation restriction, and that the historical commission would be in touch with the town about potential changes that would need to be made. 

Redfield does maintain that town administrator Jay Grande has been responsive to her concerns. “It’s not worth finger-pointing, it just needs to be fixed,” she said.

Grande told the Times that about five years ago, the town approached the renovations to the Katharine Cornell Theater like they would with all other improvements to the site they’ve done in the past. The town brought the proposal to the William Street Historic District Commission for their approval. 

There was no application in front of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, but Grande said that the local district did approve the project.

When the town was before the local William Street Commission, Redfield wasn’t on the board at the time. The district commission was then chaired by Harold Chapdelaine, who passed away last year. 

Grande said that the town has yet to hear any requests or specific directives from the state commission. He isn’t sure if they’ll do a site visit or request more information, but he said that if they require any additional changes to the steeple, the town will make those changes. 

He said there are ways to modify the steeple to meet some of the aesthetic issues raised by the local historic district commission. But he disputes that there is a significant difference in the height and width. Grande said that DPW director Kirk Metell, who oversaw the replacement project, told him it’s a similar size.

Asked if the town is considering replacing the steeple, Grande said that would be a hardship that the town is not undertaking. It would require closing the building down and making significant renovations, like removing an elevator.

“There are other ways of addressing the aesthetics of the steeple,” Grande said. “Aesthetically, the new steeple, most people think it is fine. They don’t have an issue with it. But for those ones that scrutinize it, I think those issues could be addressed.”

A representative with the Massachusetts Historical Commission has not responded to a request for comment for this story.

As for Redfield, she said it’s important to maintain the historical character of the building, even if that means a completely new replica.

“We want to hold the town to the same standards as any homeowner,” Redfield said. “They changed a nationally recognized, historic building. They took a spire that was beautiful and elegant and put something not even close in its aesthetic.”


  1. Let the historical commission start a fund raiser for what they or one person wants, this town has too much on its plate at this time. And if everyone waits long enough maybe all of the existing town hall government will be removed from the theater and major renovations could be addressed at that time. Sometimes we have to accept short term discomfort for long term benefit to move forward.

  2. This is worse than “woke”
    No wonder they call it the “hysterical commission” .
    Yes. it’s a good cause to preserve the historical character of the town. But this up. it’s done. it looks great.
    I’m already facing enough of a tax bill to keep the historic character of the school in place.

  3. Steeple details “corrected” instead of keeping an elevator? Does anyone who isn’t on the historic commission really care? Are we so tied to everything “historic” that present day needs, which are more and more expensive, become unimportant or impossible? I am proud of our island and greatly appreciate its many unique features, some of which reflect its history, but surely our future is important as well.
    Mary-Jean Miner

  4. Is there a government on the island of Martha’s Vineyard more inept than Tisbury? The historical commission should insist, and demand that the steeple be returned to its original stature. Why does Tisbury have to make a controversy about everything?

  5. I really like this quote “Grande said that DPW director Kirk Metell, who oversaw the replacement project, told him it’s a similar size.”. Really? Just looking at the two photographs shows how different they are! As for the elevator, I wonder if it even works. When I was involved with presenting plays in the theater, most of the time it either didn’t work or wasn’t accessible, meaning it was blocked by any number of things. I appreciate that the taxpayers of the town of
    Tisbury don’t want their taxes going up any higher than they already are, but perhaps there are some grants available? Or something?
    Unfortunately, this is what you get when you choose the cheaper option.

  6. The original one is elegant, has class, and excellent scale. The replacement steeple is a stunted pale shadow of the original. A ‘lick-and-a-promise’. Historical authenticity can be a real bother, but would you paint the building chartreuse if you got a good deal on the paint?

  7. Tisbury government is more than strange. I met with Grande in his office and we spent an hour agreeing completely on replacing the drawbridge defective gates with simple easily operated and modern ones and set up a select board slot of time so as to have the board vote on it, which, I was led to believe they would vote in favor of replacing them.

    There are even easily obtained funds for the project from the transportation funds at the state level.

    But instead of doing his job, he went to the Police Chief, the Fire Chief and Harbormaster and asked them if they had an issue with the defective gates. And, naturally, they said they did not. And so Grande simply killed the project single handed.

    Amazing town.

    The next times you sit on the drawbridge waiting in line a mile long while the gates do their dance, think of how we could have corrected it, easily. They cost $2 million by the way.

  8. unfortunately it is not a duplicate of the original so sad the town could not follow through but typical vh politics

  9. Now I know why I was underwhelmed when the new steeple was put in place on the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
    Did the old steeple look like this?
    No, it didn’t.
    Thank you, MV Times, for publishing two side-by-side photos so we can clearly see the deficiencies in this so-called restoration.

    Kirk Metell also told me that a stand of linden trees were not lindens.
    They are lindens.
    Similarly, the new steeple looks nothing like the old one.
    Also, the proportion of the base look different.
    The whole steeple must be fixed.
    And the historic theatrical venue must be returned to its intended use.

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