The high stone wall curves around the small gray house as if enfolding it in a protective embrace. When the winter winds blew, hard and damp, across the north shore of the Island, those thoughtfully-placed granite stones shielded the house, and the people within it. It’s so easy to imagine the Tiltons listening to the wind moaning in the chimney piece as the sponge for the next day’s bread worked on the hearth. Perhaps, on a very cold night, they looked down at their callused hands and took a little justified pride in the work they’d done, raising that house, setting the stones into that wall.
This Wednesday at 5 p.m. in the Chilmark town hall, the historical commission will entertain an application to tear that house down. An engineer’s report says it is “uninhabitable” even “unsafe.” Yet the house is intact, its poured glass windows perhaps the very same ones from which a Tilton looked out on her sheep and wondered how she might hide them from the depredations of the British soldiers.
The applicants for demolition are Roy and Diana Vagelos, longtime summer residents of the expansive, multi-dwelling compound on North Road for which the little pre-revolutionary dwelling sits as a kind of sentinel, marking the passage of centuries and life ways from an Island of harsh subsistence to a place of summer idyll. Dr. Vagelos is the distinguished former CEO of the multinational pharmaceutical giant, Merck. He and his wife are noted philanthropists. Among many other good causes, they have endowed labs at University of Pennsylvania to the tune of an estimated $15 million. It is hard to imagine that they do not have the means to undertake a sensitive restoration of the little house that would address any engineering concerns about its safety.
In America the right to do as one likes with one’s property is seldom questioned. But it seems that the bar should be higher for those who are fortunate enough to become custodians of a little piece of America’s heritage that has endured for more than 200 years. Some might say that the little house is too modest to matter. But it is the modest buildings that tell us the most about who we once were. They are the templates of ordinary American lives. To care for the Monticellos and Mt. Vernons tells us something about the lives of the grand and the famous, but that is not who we are as a people.
Imagine an old quilt, where the quilter has pieced together a medley of fabric: silk from her grandma’s wedding gown, cotton tick from her father’s work shirts. You wouldn’t pull out the cotton pieces and leave the silk and say you still had a wonderful quilt. It is time we started to see the heritage of our built landscape the same way, where the simple, hand-built vernacular structures tell us just as much, if not more, about what it was like to be here as this Island, this country, grew up.
Interested parties are welcome to attend Wednesday’s meeting or to fax written comments to Jane Slater, chairman of the Chilmark historical commission at 508-645-2110.