Historical Society Moves Ahead with $25 Million Building Plan


The Martha's Vineyard Historical Society is pursuing an ambitious plan to triple its exhibition and storage space in a project that could cost about $25 million.

Society executive director Matthew Stackpole yesterday said that, if all goes according to plan, construction of the society's new museum could begin on its property in West Tisbury in 2009, with an opening in June 2010.

Driving the plan, Mr. Stackpole said, are the historic materials and artifacts that the society has been collecting since its formation in 1923.

The good news, he said, is that the society has a wonderful collection dating back to early Wampanoag and colonial European times. It's the kind of collection that the Library of Congress seeks out for arctic whaling images.

The not-so-good news is that that collection is housed among the society's buildings in a sometimes jumbled or cramped state, often lacking climate protection.

"This collection needs attention," Mr. Stackpole said. "It's growing. New things come along every day. We have no space to put them. It's the collection that counts."


At present, the society's Martha's Vineyard Museum exhibition and collection is housed in a series of buildings on its campus at the corner of School and Cooke streets in downtown Edgartown. Mr. Stackpole estimated the buildings collectively have 10,000 square feet of space.

The society wants to build a complex of about 30,000 square feet on 10 acres that it owns off State Road in West Tisbury. Purchased by the society four years ago for $1 million, the property sits between the Polly Hill Arboretum and the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society.

Mr. Stackpole said the complex would include a library, a permanent collection space, an education space, which would be built as an adjunct to either the library or permanent expansion space, a temporary collection space, collection storage space, a lobby with a reception area and a gift shop, and what he called a land and sea building to house boats from the museum collection and agricultural implements on loan from the agricultural society. Society offices would be situated next to corresponding spaces in the complex.

Mr. Stackpole said designers now are contemplating whether to place the collection storage in a separate building aboveground, or to place it underneath several other buildings at the site. One possible option is to design part of the storage space so that its contents also could be viewed by museumgoers.

Conceptual plans now call for the spaces to be connected together around a courtyard, save the land and sea building, which would stand by itself to the rear of the complex. All the building spaces, again with the exception of the land and sea building, would be climate-controlled.

Mr. Stackpole said the society is willing to abide delays in the construction of the new complex, which it sees as a one-time, multi-generational chance to properly house the museum collection.

"We're not going to do it until we can do it right," he said.

The historical society received an anonymous gift of $1.5 million toward the purchase of the land and the planning for a new museum complex.


To set the project in motion, the society joined with the arboretum and the agricultural society to buy a 25-acre parcel off State Road for $2.5 million. Four years ago, the historical society put forward $1 million for a 10-acre section of the property, with the arboretum acquiring 10 acres next to its existing State Road property and the agricultural society adding five acres to its holdings.

Mr. Stackpole yesterday said the historical society is in the so-called quiet phase of its capital campaign, where the nonprofit organization is reaching out to potential large donors.

By the summer of 2008, Mr. Stackpole said, the society hopes to announce that 50 to 70 per cent of the estimated project cost has been raised.

The society then will launch a public appeal for the remainder of the money needed to complete the project.

A couple of wild cards are in play as society officials consider the proposed new museum.

One is the planned sale of most of the society's buildings and land at the Cooke and School street campus. The society needs to use the proceeds toward the West Tisbury project.

Mr. Stackpole said market conditions at the time of sale will determine how much money the society can realize on the sale of the campus. He said that although the sale will generate some money toward the West Tisbury museum, society officials want to avoid placing too much confidence in any prospective sum.

Mr. Stackpole said the society does plan to retain the Thomas Cooke house on Cooke street (named for the family) as an example of a historic Vineyard home. Built in 1765, and used today as a museum for visitors the house never has had electricity or running water.

Another wild card is the final price of building the new complex. Mr. Stackpole said museum construction experts who have advised the society said the project price tag likely will accommodate inflation between today and the onset and completion of construction. But future inflation and final building costs remain unknowns.

Current plans for the new museum complex represent a scaling back of the initial concept, which included a lecture hall, a cafe and a permanent art gallery space.

Mr. Stackpole said the museum's board of directors decided to concentrate on the museum's core mission of exhibiting and storing its collection, which also shaved the estimated project cost from $30 to $25 million.

Mr. Stackpole said the size of the parcel, 10 acres, also could allow for future housing of museum workers.

The society has been working with a design team selected after a request for proposals. The team includes the Gund architectural partnership of Cambridge, the business advisory firm of Herb Sprouse Associates of Cambridge, and Museum Design Associates of Cambridge. Landscape designer Michael Van Valkenburgh, a summer resident of Chilmark, has worked with the design team.

Mr. Stackpole said the timing is working out in the society's favor, seeing that Martha's Vineyard Hospital plans to conclude its $42 million capital campaign for the renovation and expansion of its Oak Bluffs facility by the end of the year. He said the society would not have wanted to compete directly against the hospital.

But even with a scaled-back project, $25 million is a lot of money; the hospital's $42 million campaign is the largest in the Island's history and has been arduous.

But Mr. Stackpole said the society would not embark on its campaign if it doubted its success. "The people on this Island value their Island history," he said.