On the morning of May 22, Charlotte Holloman packed up a few items, helped her 91-year-old mother into the car and drove away from their home at the edge of Lagoon Pond for what could be the last time.
Barring a last minute reprieve by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the house where they have spent part of every summer entertaining friends and contemplating nature for more than half a century will soon be demolished to make way for the new Lagoon bridge.
The fate of the house, literally tucked under the drawbridge on Beach Road at the easternmost outskirts of Vineyard Haven, is the subject of a tangled decade-long standoff between the Hollomans and the state Department of Transportation. Now on her third lawyer and facing imminent eviction for the second time, Ms. Holloman is angry and tired of battling to keep her house or at least get what she considers fair market value for it.
“We’ve suffered in silence for much of this time, but I’m done with that,” she told the Gazette on Thursday. “I take it very personally because I don’t believe they need to do this, and I know they don’t need to do it now.”
A spokesman for the transportation department, which formally took over the property by eminent domain in February 2012, said two different appraisals put the value of the house and the 5,870-square feet of property it sits on at $267,000, the amount they have offered to pay. Ms. Holloman said an appraisal she commissioned put the value at between $1.2 million and $1.5 million. She was previously paid $267,000 in 2006 when the state placed a temporary easement on the property. The property was assessed for $447,000 in 2012, according to Tisbury town records.
Matthew Martin, a policy analyst for interim U.S. Sen. William Cowan, said late Thursday that he has been in touch on Ms. Holloman’s behalf with officials from the Mass. DOT who had asked for a copy of Ms. Holloman’s appraisal and expressed willingness to work on a resolution to the issue.
Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the DOT, confirmed that the agency remained open to negotiating the matter, but noted that taking the property was necessary to deal with storm water runoff created by the new bridge.
“While we understand the appraised value may be disappointing to the property owners, the appraisals were conducted in strict compliance with acceptable industrywide standards. The house was valued at its highest and best use, with no deduction for its use as a vacation property,” he said.
The Hollomans bought the house in May 1962 from Henry Cronig. Built in 1949, it sits on the site once occupied by the Betty Benz Tea House, a 50-seat restaurant that was destroyed in the hurricane of 1938.
In an interview with the Gazette in 2004, Mrs. Holloman said her late husband, Harlem physician Dr. John L.S. Holloman Jr., was not interested in buying the house that they had rented for several summers, but that Mr. Cronig persisted.
“He’d come down here with his car and his cigar and they would talk for hours,” Mrs. Holloman said. “At the time very few black people owned homes in Tisbury. Of course they were here on the Island, but the concentration by and large was in Oak Bluffs.”
Located on a tiny spit of land, the four-bedroom house seemed more like a ship in the 1960s and 1970s, when friends would gather there to catch fish, observe boats, birds and other wildlife, and wade in the water.
“It’s a sort of landmark,” said Robert Tignor, a senior judge in Washington who also has a home in Oak Bluffs. “I could sit at her kitchen table and watch the boats coming in and out, the osprey and oystercatchers. I’ve caught striped bass off her back deck.”
“It’s always been an iconic house in the African American community because of its location and because of the stature of Dr. Holloman and Mrs. Holloman,” said Stephanie Phillips, a longtime family friend and Oak Bluffs seasonal resident who practices law in Washington, DC. “When you’re in the house, even though it’s right off the road, you thought you were in another world. You’re right on the Lagoon. It’s a magical place.”
Plans for a bridge over Lagoon Pond to replace one built in 1935 had been on the drawing board for years, but Ms. Holloman said the first she knew of its potential impact on her family home was in 2001, when Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel and public works director Fred LaPiana drove down to her Washington, D.C. home to talk about their options. Both urged her and her mother to get a lawyer, which they did, she said.
The state DOT announced plans in 2003 to replace the old bridge in two phases: with a temporary bridge, which was finally opened in January of 2010, and a permanent bridge, which is scheduled to begin construction sometime in late summer or fall of this year. The state plans to open bids on the $44 million project on June 4, Mr. Verseckes said. To begin constructing the current temporary bridge, the highway department in 2006 exercised its right of eminent domain to gain a seven-year easement on several lots along Beach Road, including the Holloman property. Ms. Holloman said she was paid $267,000 for the easement, $40,000 of which went to her first lawyer.
Joe Moniz, a friend and Connecticut lawyer who advised Ms. Holloman informally, said this week that Ms. Holloman understood the easement was to put trucks and equipment on the property. “No one knew it was going to go on this long or that it would be so intrusive. The traffic, the vibrations, it caused all kinds of structural damage,” he said.
“The bridge is 76 inches from the front door. If you are sitting in her home, you can literally hear people walking, talking, riding bikes or driving on the road. The traffic vibrations are intolerable,” he said. “People always ask, why would they build a house under the bridge, when it is really that they built a bridge over the house.”
In a 2009 letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, Ms. Holloman wrote that the bridge construction had created “the exact combination of annoyances, concrete, walls, construction, dust and noise that we regularly drive all the way up from Washington, D.C. to get away from . . . What would become of us during this construction, and how we would be compensated, seems not to have figured in the state’s calculations.”
Ms. Holloman, who worked in Democratic politics for many years, said she believes appealing to the governor proved to be more harm than help.
“I knew how things worked and I was a very strong believer in the value of constituent services, so I went to the top officials,” she said. “At that point, Mass. DOT got in touch with us, but it seemed to have hardened them.”
In February 2012, Mass. DOT took legal possession of the land through another eminent domain action, this time claiming the property was needed “for the purpose of laying out, constructing and maintaining Beach Road.”
When the Hollomans failed to voluntarily vacate the house, the transportation department sent a letter in January of this year giving them 30 days to leave. The order was extended until April 3, when Senator Cowan’s office intervened to stop the eviction. Since then, Mrs. Holloman said, she has received several calls asking her to leave.
What makes the Hollomans’ many Island friends most distressed is the effect on Mrs. Holloman, a European-trained opera singer who recently retired as a professor of classical voice at Howard University and still has 16 private students. Mrs. Holloman was diagnosed last year with stage four metastatic breast cancer. Her daughter says she can’t bring herself to tell her mother that eviction is imminent.
“This house is just part of her mother’s fabric,” Ms. Phillips said. “She believes that her time on the Vineyard is what has given her the ability to fight the cancer, and to have this happen at this point seems so sad.”