Historical perspective on the centuries-old vista


To the Editor:

The Historic District Commission will hold a hearing on May 18 at 4 pm to discuss a proposal from the new owner and his architect to substitute the existing but altered hundred-year-old house at 81 South Water St. with an imposing double-gable, shingle-style house with neo-classical Doric pilasters and portico added — a historically inspired but essentially modern mix-and-match architectural form that contrasts with the 19th century houses nearby. If this proposal is accepted, the historic open harbor view from South Water Street, which has given pleasure to all passersby for over 300 years, will be narrowed by 12 feet, 9 inches, not counting the screened porch, which will not be truly see-through, as suggested by the applicants. The increased massing of the structure will also contribute to a more visually constricted character than the current buildings present. The destiny of the low hedge that separates this property from the old Mayhew Parsonage’s 15-foot easement is uncertain; if allowed to grow higher, this much-loved vista will be chopped in two. 

There are two approaches to property in a village. One attitude is, “I should be able to do whatever I want on my land.” The other accepts that whatever portion of our property can be seen from a public way is, for that reason, public. It is part of the “streetscape,” the urban landscape, and affects everyone. It is worth reviewing the history of this house and outlook, and how previous owners (and Edgartown residents) have responded.

When South Water Street was but a dirt track in the 17th century, Gov. Thomas Mayhew established his home on this property. By the early 1900s, his cottage was inhabited by two Mayhew sisters. In about 1909, neighbor Agnes Meikleham started a campaign to raise money so the Mayhew Cottage could be preserved as a museum, with the sisters still living there. Edgartown residents donated money for that purpose and, undoubtedly, to preserve the legacy of the open harbor view. In the end, the Mayhew sisters decided to sell out, and the cottage was demolished in 1910.

A new house was built there in 1912, and it still exists today, altered and expanded, but still mostly contained within one side of the property. The original 1912 house was purposely placed snugly at the south side of the plot, just as the previous cottage had been. Placing a new house in the middle would have been normal, but the new owners recognized the public’s love of the harbor view, and sensitively chose to accommodate themselves to the interests of the general public by locating their house at the far side of their land, inconveniently close to their neighbor. The general footprint of the two previous houses, therefore, is itself historic, and should be maintained. The sense that a house in this prime position with Mayhew heritage is either as existing, or a more historically accurate reproduction, is also very important for the reputation of Edgartown’s Historic District.

Now in 2023 this property, and Edgartown as a whole, is at a crossroads. Which approach will be taken? Will the new owner build a house that narrows down the public vista and introduces a bulkier architectural mix of styles to this historic section of South Water Street?

Or will the owner pause and consider how best to conduct his stewardship of this historic house and outlook, which is such a key part of the DNA of Edgartown?

Tourists come specially to admire the harbor from that viewpoint, as do countless Vineyard residents. This is not just a matter of a few neighbors trying to protect their views. From the workman driving by in his pickup truck to the child riding past on her bike, and the couple strolling along the street, millions have had their spirits boosted during the brief moments when they pass that beautiful open space. Will the new owner squeeze it down, then plant it over, and deny the public’s enjoyment of this open view of the harbor for the next 300 years?

The Historic District Commission’s guidelines include retaining open space and existing setbacks, preserving existing natural contours of the landscape, saving existing buildings, designing so that new constructions relate in height, scale, and bulk to neighboring houses, and making sure retaining walls are inconspicuous. I believe that this proposal does not show due respect for those guidelines. Given the current lenient planning rules, the Historic District Commission is often unable to combat further harm to Edgartown’s architectural integrity and the loss of its much-loved open spaces. This time, the public must take time to become fully informed, make its voice heard, and support the HDC in requiring adherence to its guidelines, or this important and historic section of South Water Street will be irrevocably compromised.

Please write by sending an email to hdc@edgartown-ma.us, or a letter to the

Historic District Commission, P.O. Box 5158, Edgartown, MA 02539, objecting to this

proposal. Please also join the public meeting via Zoom, on May 18 at 4 pm.

Jane Bradbury