The House the Houghs Built

Has the importance of history and the preservation of old architecture in the Island community fallen down a rabbit hole?

It would certainly seem so, and the scant public outrage over the proposed demolition of the Hough house on Pierce Lane in Edgartown is just the latest example.

Henry and Betty Hough, the late publishers and editors of this newspaper, built their house on a quiet lane in the historic village of Edgartown in Nineteen Twenty-Nine. The house was drawn by an architect who had designed other buildings on the Vineyard, and he had a practiced eye for the vernacular homes in Edgartown. These homes range from very old Capes (there are examples of full, three quarter and half Capes throughout downtown Edgartown) to the federal and Greek revival homes built by whaling captains who were the wealthy class of their era.

Today’s wealthy class appears to have forgotten the past and their role as stewards of the classic old houses in our towns.

Examples abound.

In Vineyard Haven an old house on the inner harbor was completely demolished and replaced with a sprawling new home beginning two years ago.

In Chilmark a prerevolutionary house is slated for demolition.

In Edgartown an old house on High street was demolished last year and completely replaced with a colonial reproduction.

And now the Hough house is set for the same fate. History takes many forms; the Hough house has been renovated and expanded more than once under subsequent owners. But the home has remained as the place where a renowned writer and country editor who made a lasting impact on community journalism did much of his work. The Houghs were also fearless campaigners for things they believed in, which included conservation and preservation.

So it is especially ironic that the new owners of the house would want to tear it down. And they do have the right to demolish, because although situated in the village, the house lies outside the Edgartown historic district, which is narrowly drawn.

But there are reasons to save old homes that reach beyond what some may consider solely sentimental, reasons that should appeal to the new and presumably socially conscious wealthy class of the Vineyard. By restoring an old house, you can go green.

“Never before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods,” wrote Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a New York Times op-ed in April of this year. Mr. Moe was writing about pending federal tax credits and other so-called green advantages attached to restoring and modernizing old houses. “Experience has shown that virtually any older or historic house can become more energy efficient without losing its character,” Mr. Moe wrote.

He also pointed out the downside of demolition: “Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction. Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.”

And if that is not enough to convince, then consider the story of the house that Engel and Mark Goff bought in Healdsburg, Calif., in Sonoma County last month. Listed at just over a million and a half dollars, for a cool million they bought a home that had not been maintained for fifty years. “It needs love,” Mr. Goff told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat for a story. “It’s a lost child and it’s a fascinating building that makes you want to try and fix it.”

Perhaps in light of all this, the new owners, who paid more than four million for the Hough house, will reconsider their plan to erase every trace of its fascinating history.