None of the houses on North Water street in Edgartown are small. But tucked among the old whaling captains’ homes, with their broad lawns stretching down to private docks on the outer harbor is a comparatively diminutive Greek revival building known as the library. The fate of this home has hung in the balance since September, when plans for its demolition were first presented to the Edgartown historic district commission in the wake of strong neighborhood opposition to the project.
A leading opponent is neighbor John Connors.
His house abuts the old library building so directly that he and his neighbors could embrace from the first floor windows every morning. This is unlikely to become a ritual though, certainly for the time being. When they signed the deed on this three tenths of an acre stretch at 115 North Water street, Jeffrey L. and Martha Powers Gendell planned to tear down the library to make way for a much larger summer home, stretching down past neighboring property lines. Following multiple meetings, the historic commission has forced a compromise that will allow the Gendells to demolish the most modern parts of the house but save its oldest parts, which date to at least 1865.
The size of the construction which will replace it is still under discussion.
The house was probably an office originally. Deeds from 1865 list three properties on what was then a seven-acre lot owned by Rudolph Pease. According to assessors’ records, the lot included ownership of “two cows, a whaler’s house, a barn, an office and a shop.” Though there is no conclusive proof, members of the historic district commission have deduced that 115 North Water street, the smallest of the properties, was the office.
In 1941 Townsend Morey bought the property. According to Townsend Morey Jr., the Morey family used the house at 118 North Water street as their primary dwelling and began using the smaller building as a library. The Moreys built extensions on the buildings in the late 1940s, increasing the size of the building to 739 square feet.
Townsend Morey Jr. later subdivided the family lot, building another home at 117 North Water street that was used as a rental property. By this time the library building stood on a narrow belt of land stretching down to a pier on the water.
The home now shares the pier with tenants of Mr. Morey’s rental property. They also share a driveway, making it impractical to hedgerow or fence the property lines. The south side of the house runs along the property line, as does Mr. Connors’s house on the other side. Additionally, the front of the property extends 30 inches past the street line, which the current owners are already approaching as a zoning board issue. Squeezed between the two large homes, with disputed zones in every direction, 115 North Water street is a kind of top-end real estate version of the Gaza strip.
Despite these constraints Mr. Morey was able to find buyers willing to cover his multi-million dollar price tag. The Gendells paid $8.7 million for the property on Oct. 5.
The town historic district commission has convened to discuss the property’s fate three times since Oct. 4. Each meeting has been attended by Martha Gendell, her lawyer Rob McCarron of Edgartown, various members of the neighborhood and a looming presence at a stocky 6’6”, John Connors, with his attorney Edward W. Vincent Jr.
When the commission rejected outright demolition plans at the first meeting, they advised the buyers to come back with plans which would incorporate part or all of the structure into new plans. At this next meeting Mrs. Gendell presented various architectural plans, all dealing with the 19th century portion of the house, which measures 197 square feet. One sketch envisioned physically moving the library and relocating it further down the property toward the flood plain. Another had a cantilever extension which towered over the library.
These were discounted by the commission, but it was decided that a sketch be prepared which used the small original foundations as the front of a new structure. The resulting plan shows that the library will be converted to a bike shed following demolition of the back end.
“It is certainly the first case we’ve seen this dramatic,” said commission member Ursula Prada last week. But Ms. Prada said she is satisfied that the historic character of the original building will be maintained, despite losing the back end. “It was extensively mutilated [during the 1920s and 1950s alterations],” she said. Later, by telephone, she added: “The historic district is certainly doing their job. The bylaw doesn’t say ‘don’t change anything.’ We have to look at the character of the whole district not just individual houses.”
The historic district was voted in as an Edgartown bylaw at a 1987 town meeting with a purpose of “preserving the distinctive characteristics and architecture of the buildings and places of historical interest” of the town. Where the district lacks teeth is that it can only propose a set of guidelines rather than enforce rules.
Standing out on his deck, Mr. Connors recalls how he received a visit from the Gendells’ real estate agent back in August. After looking out at the proposed dimensions from his deck and seeing how much of his view would be obscured, he got a lawyer.
He then went door-to-door persuading neighbors to write to the historic district commission. They sent a clutch of letters voicing disappointment over the plans, mainly focusing on the threat made to the neighborhood view.
Mr. Connors is not disturbed by the decision to retain only part of the original house, though he is pleased with the decision to retain the frontage of the original building. For him the main issue is the mass of the proposed new building, and this will be addressed at the site meeting Tuesday. A framework of stakes will be put up to indicate how far down to the water and how far up the house would extend. He believes seeing the site will show the board that the Gendells’ size estimate of just over 3,000 square feet is misleading.
“There is no question that [Mrs. Gendell’s estimate] is not accurate,” Mr. Connors said by telephone this week. “I think they’ll see vividly that the property is not in accordance with the neighborhood.” Whatever the outcome, he promises to remain civil. “I’m not going to bring out an AK-47,” he said. “A lot of things are being done here by people who have chosen to come to this community not just to join a country club. But it’s a free country. Do whatever you want. I’m pleasant with my neighbors.”