Old Houses, Living History

There is something sad about an old house being torn down; it’s like a friendship that suddenly disappears, leaving behind only memories and melancholy.

With the proliferation of tear-downs showing no sign of letup, the three down-Island towns would be wise to reexamine both the rules and the boundaries of their respective historic districts. It may be that boundaries should be expanded — a case in point is downtown Edgartown where the historic district boundaries have seen no change since the district was adopted twenty years ago. The Edgartown historic district widely embraces the harborfront, but the district boundary ends at Cooke street on the south and Morse street on the north. Fuller street, High street and the southern ends of South Summer and School streets are not included in its boundaries.

An architectural inventory done in downtown Edgartown in the 1970s found that the town had some of the purest examples of New England architecture.

The town historic district bylaw notes that the wide range of styles includes early English, Log Cabin, early and late Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic revival, Victorian interpretations of Empire, turn-of-the-century Store Front, Queen Anne and some Ranch. “This rich mix of styles is the result of the taste, economic status and interest of past generations and forms of Edgartown’s visual history,” the bylaw states. It also notes:

“It is not the intention of the historic district bylaw to create a ‘Williamsburg’ type town but simply to preserve our own diverse architectural heritage.”

Sadly, many of these old houses have not been well maintained over the years and are in deteriorating condition, making them attractive candidates for tear-downs. The old Smith house in Edgartown that came down a few weeks ago in a cloud of powder post beetle dust, is a good example. Located on High street, the house was outside the boundaries of the historic district, and by most accounts was probably too far gone to save anyway.

It is of course more cost effective to tear down than restore a sagging old building. But people who buy houses in the down-Island towns carry an extra responsibility to maintain, and sometimes restore their old houses. Indeed, the historic architecture is probably what attracted these residents to the village in the first place.

Town leaders in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven — which all have richly historic and widely differing architectural vernacular — must be the gatekeepers and strongly back their historic district commissions, even if it means going to court to defend their decisions. They also must be sure that these districts are doing the job they were intended to do — preserve the old buildings that are a living reminder of Island history.