Many of us here in Edgartown have been watching with fascination as the home known as the Whale House on South Water street has been raised from its foundation, excavated from beneath and enlarged on its north side. A true feat of engineering. Much work remains to be done and it will surely be a wonder when it is finished.
But the whale is not there anymore. Indeed, most of the old house is not there.
It is not a really old house as houses go on the Vineyard, but its construction date of 1890 (as stated in various advertisements for the house) makes it old by most standards in the country. (Factor in Texas where they sell “used houses” at a discount.) It certainly fits into the neighborhood and has been owned on its current site by a very few families, all summer people. Sometimes people forget that not every nice house near the harbor was owned by a sea captain.
The house also was evidently moved from somewhere else to its current address. A 1948 plan shows no house where 101 currently sits now. The land was sold by Charles Mayhew to John B. Osborn of Boston. At the time it was still part of the original Mayhew home lot and was sold as a larger piece of land. Over time the Mayhews sold off pieces around the edges of their own homestead; the remaining parcel is now the Mayhew Parsonage at 75 South Water street.
Why 101 South Water street had the whale on it is often a matter of conjecture. It is not because of Captain Ahab — that distinction belongs to Patricia Neal’s former home. In fact the whale has only been on the house since 1975 and was placed there by Stanley Washburn Jr.
The Washburns, who have just sold the house, were from an interesting family who had earned fortunes and lost and earned them again in tumultuous times in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The grandfather of the two Washburn brothers was a longtime congressman from Minnesota and a principal in the Pillsbury Flour Company. His son Stanley Washburn married Alice Langhorne of Virginia who owned a house at 6 Pease’s Point way with three whales on the front of it. Their sons Stanley Jr. and C. Langhorne spent childhood summers there and had varied, creative and interesting careers after their service in World War II. In 1975 each one bought a house in Edgartown. Langhorne bought another house on Pease’s Point Way near the Eel Pond and Stanley Jr. bought the house on South Water street. Just before they bought their individual houses, Stanley sold their mother’s house at 6 Pease’s Point Way. It still had those whales on the front of it that the new owner did not like, and he told Stanley to take them away. Thus, one whale came to adorn the facade of Stanley’s house on South Water street, where it seemed quite at home and became a point of reference for those who admired the house.
Stanley was the longtime public relations and marketing director of Pan-American Airways and fully enjoyed the many benefits of that position. He and his wife Anna Bell loved cats. People still remember how they would rescue the cats from the streets of New York city and elsewhere and fly them to the Vineyard for rest, recreation and neutering. ABell, as she was known, would place display ads in the Gazette with Alison Shaw photographs of a different cat each week in order to find the cats good homes. She asked for no special favors and paid for all the ads herself. The business manager was always glad to see her.
She was the founder of P.A.W.S. on the Vineyard and was one of the first people to recognize that feral cats could be captured, neutered and released back into their preferred life if need be. Homeless cats, not feral ones, were the ones she found homes for with Alison’s winsome pictures. But she always managed to keep a number of the cats for herself. She is to this day nationally recognized by cat lovers as a champion for this cause.
Stanley died in 2005 and Langhorne in 2011 and for a while ABell continued to come to the Island in the summers. But alas, no longer.
My husband and I will miss seeing ABell and her old well-kept Mercedes with the FELINE license plate. We are not the only ones. Maybe the whale could be replaced with a cat!
Gerret Conover Jr. of LandVest was the exclusive agent on the sale of the house by the Washburn family for $2.9 million in April 2013 to Michael and Bernadine Caruso, directors of the Claudio Trust.