BETTYE FOSTER BAKER
If Boston landscape architect Robert Morris Copeland were alive today, he would be pleased that the town he laid out and planned during the 19th century building boom in Oak Bluffs is holding fast to the heritage he created along with the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company as one of only a handful of seaside resorts in the Victorian style in the country.
Cape May, the nation’s oldest seaside resort, Avon-by-the-Sea, and perhaps others have this unique architecture in common, but only our picturesque Oak Bluffs has the religious heritage of the Camp Ground and Victorian architecture in abundance in its varied neighborhoods.
Just as important, Oak Bluffs has the distinction of being the first planned community in the country — a community which considered landscaped parks to be an essential element that would bind people to that heritage as they came together to form connections in its deepest sense.
The unique 19th century Camp Ground style, Carpenter Gothic architecture was highly influential in the design of smaller structures in the secular part of town as well as those high Victorian Queen Anne cottages we see along Ocean Park, Seaview, and East Chop and established for all time a place of historical significance that we all have come to love and appreciate.
Copeland would be especially proud, I believe, of Renee Balter, David Wilson, and their dedicated hard-working committees: year-round residents who continue to advance and articulate a vision of historical preservation and love of this beloved community. Their work speaks for itself. For them preservation and education go hand-in-hand as they work to hold onto our architectural heritage. Palpable changes are recognizable all over town and reflect the attainment of many goals they and their committees have worked so hard to achieve.
I spoke with both this week and what I have suspected now for the past two years is true. Their committees, with the support of the selectmen, commissions and department heads, are having a major impact on the quality of restorations in our town and the overall quality of life as they seek to maintain the town’s character.
Renee Balter, chairman of the Oak Bluffs historical commission and her fellow commission members, concentrate their efforts on buildings over a hundred years old that may be slated for demolition or restoration. This commission performed a major role in the 1980 centennial and formed again in 1998. Her goal is to work with home owners who are seeking to upgrade, demolish and/or repair existing historic structures while maintaining their Victorian character.
Demolition is rarely a desired outcome for these historic homes, so a great deal of diplomacy and compromise is required on both sides as they seek viable alternatives. Both David and Renee have praise for home owners whom they describe as highly cooperative and great to work with. “Generally,” Renee states, “Applicants are supportive of preserving this history and open to considering alternatives consistent with the character of the community.”
Since Renee’s committee’s reorganization they have reviewed more than 100 different projects. This year, one of the committee’s major projects is to continue the 1978 historical survey which was conducted under a grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The 1978 survey describes cottages within the historical district and records vital statistics on when they were built, initial owners, architectural elements and their significance within the religious and secular historical communities.
The individual cottage descriptions are maintained by street in the town clerk’s office and are an excellent resource for homeowners who may not have specific historical data on their homes. This work will be continued by Renee’s committee and volunteers. The Camp Ground surveyors have completed surveys on 320 properties with 900 yet to be done.
David Wilson, chair of the Cottage City Historical District Commission, also is an English teacher at the high school. David was born in Oak Bluffs and has both an historical and experiential view of the town which cannot be easily duplicated.
Because the goal of the committee is to preserve the historical heritage of the architecture of the town, his hard-working committee, of which he is extremely proud, has had considerable influence over more than one hundred project proposals since initiated in the fall of 2003. Before any exterior architectural changes can be made to homes within the historical district, plans must come before the commission and applicants must receive a certificate of appropriateness from the committee.
David’s view of his committee’s mission is simple. “I take the long view of preservation. Little things done well over time make all the difference.”
He believes that common sense and cost-effective choices can and do bring long-term benefit to all. Like Renee, his goal in preservation is to work with residents to assist them in understanding both the architectural significance of their properties in relationship to their proposed changes.
Commission regulations and restrictions play an important role. Applicants and the commission must come to an agreement consistent with the historical district guidelines. “Sometimes it is difficult,” David admits, but, “we’ve had great cooperation.” It is clear that David and his committee are able to make that positive connection that brings resolution to differing points of view and by so doing, create an environment where these goals become not only important but empowering to the community.
If you haven’t noticed the positive changes in our town which include the Victorian character of many new buildings (particularly those across from Union Chapel), continuing restorations and additions, I would suggest now that fall is here and fewer tourists are around, take a walk around town. I think you will agree that these two committees and the town government that supports their preservation efforts are having a major impact.
The town has several major project initiatives under way. Kerry Scott, chairman of the selectmen, who has an amazing ability to bring people together, has encouraged community input into all of these initiatives. It is gratifying to know that individuals will serve on these committees in spite of other major commitments to bring about an improved Oak Bluffs. Drop in on some of the committee meetings, volunteer to help and learn more about what these hard-working committees are accomplishing.
The East Chop home of Richard Taylor was the site for the Harvard Law School’s orientation cook-out for minority students and from my brief conversations with several first and second-year students and practicing alumni from Harvard and other law schools, this is a group of accomplished winners.
Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who sponsors the program, provides opportunities for students to interact with law firm associates, judges, and professors from such distinguished law schools as Yale and the University of Chicago and others. Richard Taylor has a long association with the Harvard law and business schools.
It is time for the annual Tivoli Day festival in Oak Bluffs on Saturday, Sept. 15 from noon to 5 p.m. This is a festival that the whole family will enjoy. All of the Circuit avenue stores will open their doors for the yearly street fair and block party. Come out and join the festivities. There will be live entertainment, food, arts and crafts. Admission is free. Call 508-693-1850 for more information.
The Oak Bluffs library now is implementing its fall schedule. Family Games Night will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 18 and 25 at 6 p.m. Come play board games with your friends and family.
On Wednesdays, Sept. 19 and 26, PreSchool Story Time will be held at 10:30 a.m. Come out and read, sing, maybe dance sometimes or play instruments and do a simple craft.
On Thursdays from 3:15 to 4:30 p.m., Dance, Dance Revolution will continue for ages 10 and up. Teens and tweens are also welcome.
The library has had to cancel a program previously scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 15, celebrating the birthday of author and illustrator Tomie DePaola. Children’s librarian Irene Tewksbury will not be holding story time on Saturday.
Age 6 to 10 Story Time is on hiatus until Friday, Sept. 28 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. This program will continue until the end of May. Children will read for the first half hour and do crafts created from the reading themes for the second half hour. You must attend reading in order to do crafts.
As I leave for winter, I would like to say what an absolutely wonderful spring and summer I’ve had writing the Oak Bluffs column. I now head for Pennsylvania and will return in May. Enjoy the winter and don’t forget to open your gifts.