Oak Bluffs Presses Historic District to Protect Architectural Heritage


It's not heartless developers or steel wrecking balls that scare a group of historic preservationists in Oak Bluffs, but a combination of other factors that sound far more innocuous - low interest rates, a new sewer system and a surge in real estate values.

These ingredients set the stage for a building and renovation boom that, left unchecked, could ruin the town's architectural legacy.

At least, that's what worries members of a new committee in Oak Bluffs whose goal is to rescue an entire neighborhood before it's too late. Simply put, they want to establish the town's first historic district.

"We're the only town without one, which is nuts," said Skip Finley, a member of the historic district study committee.

Oak Bluffs is indeed trailing the pack. Edgartown, Tisbury and West Tisbury have passed bylaws specifically aimed at protecting historic homes and neighborhoods.

But now, Oak Bluffs is poised to catch up. Voters at the annual town meeting on April 8 will be asked to approve the creation of the Cottage City Historic District, a 75-acre swath of town encompassing 386 houses and 12 parks.

Much of the proposed area is commonly known as the Copeland District, named after Morris Copeland, the designer who laid out the system of curving streets and parks back in 1871. It is a neighborhood not only beloved by its inhabitants, but also revered by folks who have bothered to crack open the history books.

"We all share this tremendous feeling of pride in that neighborhood," said Renee Balter, chairman of the committee charged with mapping out the district and drafting the regulations that would guide most exterior work done on properties.

Kyle Carson, who bought a house on Massasoit street back in 1994, called the neighborhood "a work of art" and argued that its Victorian-era houses built in the Gothic or Italianate style are in dire need of protection.

"If you want a suburban home, you don't need to go to a Victorian neighborhood," he said. "There are other places where you can have sliding glass doors and octagon-shaped windows."

You can easily detect the passion in people's voices when they speak of what Mr. Copeland achieved more than a century ago. Phil Regan, an architect and a member of the historic district study committee, said the town has already lost many valuable artifacts by failing to impose rules sooner.

"There's never been much of an effort at stewardship, and we've let a lot slip away," he said.

Houses have been leveled and rare examples of craftsmanship tossed into dumpsters, but the goal now is halt any further destruction. Committee members have compiled an almanac of historical facts to make a case for preserving the neighborhood. Consider the following:

The neighborhood is widely considered one of the first planned communities in the country. Its meandering streets and small parks bear the influence of Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park. Among the illustrious visitors who once walked this neighborhood were President Grant, Alexander Graham Bell and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

For the better part of the last century, the neighborhood became a national destination for black political leaders, writers and artists. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. both visited friends there.

The proposed district is also notable because of its variety, ranging from so-called high Victorian mansions to gingerbread cottages. "It's a remarkable and unique collection of Victorian era homes," said Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns the Flying Horses Carousel and Union Chapel - both buildings slated for protection in the district.

"We've got this legacy here of a planned Victorian neighborhood wrapping around parks," he added. "It's one of the first in the country, and there's a wonderful scale to it."

But with such obvious historic significance, the question is why is the town only now stepping in to preserve it?

Committee members point to one event that they contend turned apathy into action - the 36 electric panel boxes erected all over the neighborhood two years ago to run grinder pumps for the new sewer system. The boxes, made of shiny aluminum, measure some five-by-six feet, look like commercial-sized refrigerators and infuriated residents who viewed them as eyesores that had no place in a neighborhood of historic houses.

"Those utility boxes put us over the edge. There are seven on Narragansett alone," said Mrs. Balter. "But they galvanized the neighborhood."

When the committee polled residents of the proposed district in a survey last summer, the responses proved the point. Of the 88 residents who filled out a survey, all but two supported efforts to protect the historically significant neighborhood. And when asked if they had witnessed any objectionable building projects, 16 people specifically mentioned the sewer boxes.

If the historic district had been in place back when engineers were planning the sewer system, Mrs. Balter said, those utility would have never found their way onto sidewalks and front yards in the Copeland area.

More than a decade ago, Oak Bluffs backed the creation of a district of critical planning concern (DCPC) for the Copeland District through the Martha's Vineyard Commission. That move was supposed to protect the neighborhood, but it never really worked, said Mrs. Balter.

"Not all projects were referred to the review committee," she said.

But under the new proposed bylaw, all projects would face scrutiny by the Cottage City Historic District Commission. The regulations for the new district would be similar to those in the other Island towns. Selectmen would appoint a seven-member commission to review any plans for new construction or renovation to buildings in the district.

Architectural guidelines would allow new houses to be set closer to the street, in keeping with their neighbors. In some cases, they would allow decorative towers to be built even if they exceeded height restriction and permit lower porch railings if they didn't pose safety risks.

The commission will not regulate paint colors and will only deal with exterior work that can be be viewed from a public way. But they will look closely at design details such as roof pitches and extended eaves. They will likely frown on plans that call for exposed decks and steer homeowners toward covered porches and just about anything that fits the neighborhood vernacular.

"The commission is not there to penalize people," said Mrs. Balter. "We really want to help people do what is considered a help to the district."

With an official historic district in place, the town would also be eligible for grant funding to support preservation efforts. Coincidentally, the Camp Meeting Association is in the midst of a process to win designation of the Camp Ground as a national historic landmark.

But for now, the focus of historically-minded residents is squarely on winning support for the new district. Next Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Cottager's Corner is the last of a lecture series geared toward building support and raising awareness of the historical treasures in town.

Richard Leonard, the president of Martha's Vineyard Cooperative Bank, and architect Mark Hutker will talk about the new bank branch under construction by the Flying Horses. The project is an example of new construction intentionally designed to fit into the historical setting.

Also, this Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the selectmen's meeting in the Oak Bluffs School, the historic district study committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed bylaw, fielding questions and looking for comments from the public.

The committee can expect enthusiastic support from both current and former residents of the proposed district.

"The way this gentleman Copeland laid this all out, it just turned out to be a jewel," said Douglas Peckham, who lives with his wife on Pennacook. "There's such variety in the way the streets meander, and yet there's still order. These wonderful rhythms that go on from Ocean Park and radiate out."

Mr. Finley can easily recall growing up in the summertime in the neighborhood. "We knew all the families who owned the houses. We spent countless hours sitting on those porches," he said. "People would walk by and you'd have a conversation. Tourists would come by and take pictures. There was a kind of vibe to it."