Terry and Marcia Martinson began to move into an old house looking down on the Edgartown harbor this week. Unlike most people who live on the Island waterfront these days, the Martinsons will live there year-round. But taking the whole history of the place into account, their time in the home will be short.
Viewed either way, what makes the story of their move unusual is that a committee of volunteers spent the fall and winter making the place ready for the Martinsons, who will live in what must be considered one of the most beautifully sited and handsomely built old parsonages in North America.
Mr. Martinson, who arrived in October, just a few weeks before his wife, is the interim pastor at the Federated Church on South Summer street. The parsonage, built in 1832, has been the home of the minister since a descendant of the Mayhews, the founding colonial settlers on the Vineyard, gave it to the church in 1956.
Lore has it that the Mayhews built the home after they arrived in Edgartown in 1642, and that the house has served as the parsonage for the Christian church they established here soon after. Both notions are wrong. But the parsonage is indeed the last Mayhew house standing on land that the family owned from the time of their arrival. Upon her death nearly 60 years ago, a descendant, Sarah Joy Mayhew, gave the house to the church, founded more than 300 years before.
The parsonage stands on South Water street just south of Cooke street, and the view extends from the lighthouse to Chappaquiddick across the harbor to the town. The provenance of the house is clear, as is the fact that no one has changed it much since it was finished more than 180 years ago.
Thomas Coffin, who built the house for Joseph Mayhew, a merchant, appears to have left a date in a beam in the attic, though it’s difficult to make out for sure. At the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, visitors “can find certain bills [Joseph] paid to Thomas Coffin, who built it — how much lumber and how many shingles they had,” said Mary Jane Carpenter of Edgartown, a retired title examiner, Island historian and one of the leaders of the effort to rehabilitate the home.
The latest renovation of the parsonage followed a larger effort two years ago to replace the furnace, rewire the building, replace much of the plumbing and hang new windows. That job cost $200,000, but this one, managed and run by church volunteers, cost almost nothing.
“We just got together. We leaned on our friends. We would have work days,” Mrs. Carpenter said during an open house on Sunday. “We were all so old that we could only really work in the morning and then we’d all go home and take naps! We started in October and we worked furiously in November. And there came a point when we had to pull up the floors and take out the plumbing. So in December and January we didn’t do much. And that was when Bill did that wonderful job.”
Bill Vrooman of Oak Bluffs, a retired math teacher and craftsman, removed three layers of wallpaper from the bathrooms and layers of flooring in the kitchen — so many that when they were gone “it created a tripping hazard at the thresholds,” Mr. Vrooman said. The committee left the cabinets in place, so when the new stove went in, Mr. Vrooman had to raise it to make the surface level with the countertops. But since the building was unoccupied and empty, the work went quickly, he said.
What struck visitors at the open house was how simple and airy the parsonage looked and felt, despite its age. The paints were soft, pearl gray and mauve, and the flat faces of the mantelpieces — refinished by Herb Ward of Vineyard Haven — stood out solidly and handsomely. Hallways, small bedrooms and sitting areas lay side by side in a pleasing, nearly improvisational arrangement that many new owners do away with when they renovate Island homes.
“I think we’ve managed to pick through that jumble that we saw back at the end of October and come up with kind of a light, bright, livable home, using period pieces that are integral,” said Mrs. Martinson, who helped with the work, having spent part of her mainland career working with a shop that sold custom-built furniture, much of it colonially flavored.
“Going up in the attic was interesting,” said Mrs. Carpenter. “The weird thing was, there was no real personal stuff. Nothing to show what the [past owners and residents] were like, which is always what I want to know. I did some research in the probate court, which is always revealing. Went over to the museum, and that’s where I got those pictures.”
Photographs of Sarah Joy Mayhew and Charles Mayhew, son of the builder of the house, hung in worn frames. A few items of cutlery and other heirlooms lay in a wooden cabinet with glass doors. When the volunteers found battered but serviceable old desks or chairs in the house, they kept and repaired them, reasoning that the fact that they were probably Mayhew pieces made them valuable no matter their condition.
Finer pieces — including a dining room table and a set of reproduction Chippendale chairs donated by Polly Brown, as well as lamps and Windsor chairs given by Sandy and Dan McCormick — came from congregants and friends. Visitors on Sunday were also surprised to learn how many items were picked up from consignment and thrift shops both on the Island and on the mainland.
Mrs. Carpenter paid $25 for a cheery rug at the Second Hand Store in Edgartown that now lies in a study. At the Chicken Alley Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven, Bess Stone gave a sofa that Chrissie Haslet of Chappaquiddick created a new slipcover for. The result is an Edgartown waterfront home kept in the old style, but also enlivened and brightened, a rarity in a time of renovations that amount more to reconstructions or completely new buildings.
“We tried to make it look like a home, to make it true to its original nature,” said Mrs. Carpenter. “You want it to be warm and you want to be dry and you want it to be nice.”