The Luce name is one of the most prolific on the Vineyard, and of all the towns Tisbury has the most Luces. (Remember that once Tisbury and West Tisbury were one large town.) The Luce genealogy is much more complex than that of the Mayhews and its progenitors have made their mark far beyond the Vineyard. There are many Luce houses extant on the Vineyard, but the one I am going to talk about today is about to change hands.
Summer people often wonder about our winter activities. One of my favorite things to do is go to house sales. I nearly always buy something I don’t really need, but I get to see the inside of houses that I am curious about since most of the sales involve the settling of an estate. Buying some memento is squaring my curiosity with a sense of paying for what I want to see. Therefore, I was so excited to find out that the John Luce House, one of my favorite Tisbury houses, was the scene of a house sale.
This time I got a beautiful Chinese blue and white lamp. I am hoping it is from Gump’s in San Francisco, as that is where Peter Luce, one of the last owners, lived. Many, many others lined up for an appointment, some with the same degree of curiosity as myself. We were not disappointed. There was so much stuff that Rush and Fisher had to sell out the furniture from the main part of the house so they could use the floor space to display later, the items from two sheds and the attic. That accumulation is the result of one family living in the house for almost 150 years. One of the most unusual things found in the attic was a very long wooden ladder that had to be removed through the attic window. It is now going to be used at Chicken Alley to display items.
This tall yellow house, called Phantom Heights by some, was built in 1866 by John Luce, a descendant of Jonathan Luce. John Luce was born on the Island but lived in Brooklyn as an adult. He and his wife Susan had two children, John Burroughs Luce and Susan Amelia Luce. John had assembled a large parcel for an in-town house. There were three parcels making up the four-plus acre Luce lot which has remained intact down to this day. In 1866 this would have been on the outskirts of town, but today it is right in the center of things. In 1901, Susan A. Luce, John’s widow sold the house and land to her son John B. Luce. This is the last deed we will see until the Luce heirs’ deed to the new owner is recorded. John A. and his wife Elizabeth returned to the Vineyard to live full time when he was a relatively young man. He was an electrical engineer who was in on the beginning of the electrical age.
The house has been well maintained and retains its post-bellum charm. Twin parlors, a dining room at the back of the house, a library/den and an antique bath, a butler’s pantry, a kitchen, still with a coal stove, remain. The curved staircase with a niche for a statue or vase at the top is still enchanting. A flotilla of chandeliers was strung up in the hallway below. . . and it was hard to imagine which one actually belonged there. I would have voted for the cranberry glass one myself.
At the time the house was built, the Luces’ neighbor on the right would have been Benjamin Clough, the sea captain who, when he was a young cabin boy aged 14, rescued his ship from the cannibals who had killed the captain. Clough brought the ship safely home to the Vineyard. The life of a broker in Brooklyn must have seemed tame indeed to John’s children. William and Priscilla. Priscilla, who married Daniel Alisio, stayed on the Vineyard and died here not all that long ago.
The last Luce residents of the house were William’s two sons John B. Luce and Peter H. Luce. They returned to the Island every summer to visit their grandmother Elizabeth. John became an Episcopal priest and from 1965 to 1973 was a canon of the East Los Angeles diocese of the church. He became a champion of Hispanic rights and was a friend of Caesar Chavez during that turbulent time. He later was the resident canon of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York city, and died there in 2012. His brother Peter H. Luce died in 2007. He had returned to the Island from San Francisco in the late 1980s and became a well-known figure here in dramatic and artistic circles. His name lives on in the Peter H. Luce Play Readers circle at the Vineyard Haven senior center.
(The Luce house and the 4.1-acre parcel it sits on was listed for sale for $1.3 million. A purchase and sale agreement was executed in December.)