Trophy houses, as a group, are bad for the Vineyard. They are huge blots on our rural Island landscape. Summer people are overwhelmingly responsible for creating them. Do summer people create them out of ignorance? Or lack of taste? Or excessive pride? Or out of sheer, don’t-give-a-damn arrogance? In my opinion, all of the above. Many summer people believe that since a man’s home is his castle, why not build a castle?
But just what is a trophy house? To qualify, a trophy house must, of course, be very big and expensive. But in order to be classified as an atrocity, it must have two additional attributes. It must be prominently visible, and its design must be totally inappropriate for the Vineyard.
One restaurateur and longtime Vineyarder can’t be bothered by such fine distinctions. He says, “Big is always bad and inappropriate on Martha’s Vineyard.” By his definition every town on the Island is riddled with big, bad trophy houses. Yes, perhaps, but I think there are clear degrees of separation between what is merely big and what is clearly ghastly.
Some new trophy houses, appropriately designed and properly in scale with their setting and neighborhood, are actually a credit to the Vineyard. And then there are the half-dozen grand old shingle mansions on West Chop. They are huge, prominent, ostentatious — but now so old and quaint that they are in fact wonderful to look at. They have become Island treasures, probably the oldest trophy houses on the Vineyard. But in the long history of trophy houses, they are comparatively recent and minor.
Consider Chenonceaux, the stupendous, gorgeous chateau in the Loire Valley built for Louis XII’s mistress Diane de Poitiers. It is visited every year by thousands of tourists who pay to walk through. The same is true for England’s Blenheim Palace, built and paid for by the government as a gift to the Duke of Marlborough, literally as a trophy for his glorious battle victories. And then there are the most stupendous trophy houses of all, the pyramids of Egypt, trophy houses for dead pharaohs.
I don’t think any tourist will ever pay to visit any Vineyard trophy house, although our charity auctions try to sell almost anything.
In Edgartown there is wide agreement that the house built on Tower Hill in the 1980s by the late Ernie Boch was the town’s very first and enduring monstrosity. The night-after-night light pollution from this prominent house has been a long-playing eyesore. As Edgartowner Boatner Reily says, “Ernie Boch was the Christopher Columbus of trophy houses. He got there first.”
Visual pollution, either by excessive lighting or by other means, is a crucial factor in measuring the degree of vulgarity. A trophy house built on a point, or on a bluff, or on the very highest point of a hill is much worse than the same house hidden out of sight in the woods.
So what is truly, magnificently unforgivable? The answer of course depends on individual points of view. Vineyard architect Ben Moore is a lively foe of trophy houses, especially those that don’t fit into their neighborhood. He cites three trophy houses that trouble him:
On the southern edge of Sengekontacket Pond, he objects to a house whose “Large mass fills the view channel . . . Odd look to it, out of scale with the neighborhood . . . . Finish materials don’t blend in with houses and landscape.”
On Head of the Pond Road he complains about “A house with large gambrel roofs and a large garage . . . . Very formal and symmetrical, inappropriate style for this farm setting . . . looks out of place.”
And on Main street in Vineyard Haven, right near the bank, he doesn’t like “Large and wide gambrel roofs that fill the lot side to side . . . . House is equally a visual problem from the ferries . . . . A different style from the neighbors.”
Tom Chase, a conservation executive and native of Oak Bluffs, says, “People who build giant houses show a lack of concern for their neighbors who live more modestly. And the architects and landscapers show no remorse for what they now build.”
Chris Murphy, West Tisbury member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, says in laughing despair, “There is nothing more to say about trophy houses. They are like hurricanes and other natural disasters.”
The trophiest house on the Vineyard is still under construction. Drive out Vineyard Haven’s Main street toward West Chop. Way out of town you will come to a beautiful two and a half-acre grass meadow running right down to the beach. This is the West Chop Meadow, owned and permanently preserved by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. I grew up in an old shingle house a tenth of a mile away, and I still remember as a young teenager walking along the beach past that meadow. In all those years it hasn’t changed. still there, still beautiful.
Right across the street from that meadow, on a two-lot spread, rises the new home of James Ferraro, a prominent Miami lawyer and noted philanthropist. He has made a large gift to our new hospital, as well as to other Island charities. But by far his largest gift to the Vineyard is his new house — or rather his cluster of new houses. The nine-bedroom main house is wide and high, directly facing the meadow and guarded by a double-decker, tightly-packed stone wall seven feet high. The house has a corner turret with a pointed conical roof, two lofty stone chimneys and a great many glass windows. Behind the main house, behind an even taller tightly-packed stone wall, is the second main house, with only seven bedrooms. In the months to come there will also be a swimming pool, a pool house classified as a guest house, a real guest house, a tennis court, a reflecting pool and a gazebo. All this has been granted under a special permit from the Tisbury zoning board of appeals. This extravagant permit allows a height of 34.5 feet, a mere six inches below the maximum permissible height in any of Tisbury’s six districts. The whole complex is what the Michelin Guide would classify as a three-star trophy house: “worth a detour” to visit.
Lenny Jason, who at one time or another has been the building inspector of every town except Tisbury, says, “This is not the place I came to in 1952. People are building houses so long that they have to put in intercoms to communicate with their children. People don’t have the same emotional commitment to the Vineyard that they used to have. People come in now and build big houses without knowing anything about the Vineyard.” Then he adds with a laugh, because the idea is so impossible, “People shouldn’t be allowed to build a house until they have lived here a couple of years.”
Any person who sells his property has the right to impose any restriction he likes about the size, character, style or anything else about what the new owner will be allowed to build. Indeed, some well-to-do-owners who respect their neighbors and respect the Vineyard itself do impose such restrictions. But in most cases, the more severe the restrictions, the lower the price the owner is likely to get for his property. Money usually triumphs over virtue.
Can anything really be done?
No summer person can suggest remedies or solutions. That is up to the citizens of our six towns, where summer people have no vote.
A friend of mine, a longtime planning board member who specifically asked not to be quoted by name, told me, “If you say anything controversial, there are always repercussions.”
I say, let there be repercussions. We summer people are the ones who are building the excessive trophy houses that damage our Island. I think all of us, both summer people and Islanders, should speak out against them.
Keep talking. Keep objecting. Maybe some people will get the point and behave differently. That is only a maybe — but worth a try.
Ralph Graves is a former editor of Life Magazine and editorial director of Time Inc. He is a novelist and a longtime seasonal resident of Chilmark.