A public hearing before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission late last week saw strong support for tearing down the historic Denniston House in Oak Bluffs, which has stirred debate for years.
The commission is reviewing the demolition request as a development of regional impact (DRI), in part because the house is over 100 years old and considered historically significant. Built in 1895 as a mission to help Portuguese immigrants assimilate into U.S. culture, the house in the 1920s became the Bradley Memorial Church, considered to be the first primarily African-American church on the Island. The Rev. Oscar Denniston, who founded the church, lived in an upstairs apartment with his family.
Plans by the Island Affordable Housing Fund some time ago to convert the building to a mixed-use affordable housing project collapsed when the trust ran into financial trouble. In 2011 the property was sold at auction for $495,000 to a group.
Applicant Matt Viaggio is now the sole owner. Mr. Viaggio told the commission last Thursday that he has no current plans for the property, which stands at the corner of Masonic and Dukes County avenues and includes both commercially and residentially-zoned land.
There is little disagreement as to whether the house is historic. The Oak Bluffs historical commission twice identified it as “preferably preserved” — in 2010 and 2015 — and it is included on the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail. It also appears in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, an online database for historic properties in the commonwealth.
Town historical commission chairman Pam Melrose said the property is one of the most historic she has dealt with in her time on the commission, and argued for either preserving the house or in some way honoring its history.
But others said they are ready for a new chapter.
Pat Tankard, a resident of Dukes County avenue whose family has lived on the Vineyard since the 1960s, downplayed the historical significance of the property, especially as a church to African Americans. “That building has never been of any significance to anyone in my family, or anyone I knew,” she said. She also noted the many years the town has spent arguing over what to do with the property. “We need to move on,” she said.
Renee Balter, a member of the Oak Bluffs Association, suggested that opposition to tearing the building down had less to do with historic preservation than with a concern over future uses of the property. She said the town could benefit from more commercial activity outside the downtown area, where most businesses are located. She added that Mr. Viaggio has shown an interest in mixed-use development on the property, which she said could be an ideal outcome.
Others expressed hopes for a new beginning.
Brian Packish, a member of the town planning board, spoke about his own Portuguese roots in the neighborhood and efforts in the past to relocate the Denniston house, which he said was not worth saving given its condition. “It’s time to let it go and let the neighborhood move forward,” he said, “hopefully in a direction that’s very similar but new.” He added that any new development larger than 500 square feet in the B1 commercial district would need to come before an Oak Bluffs site plan review committee.
Commissioners agreed that a plaque honoring the history of the building would be appropriate for the site. Mr. Viaggio agreed to make that a formal offer to the MVC, and said he had already agreed to install such a plaque during a meeting with the Island NAACP shortly after he took ownership of the property.
Amy Billings, who serves on the town parks and recreation committee, said the building’s past is already preserved to some degree in books, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum collection and elsewhere. “The history is not going to be lost,” she said.
Commissioner Linda Sibley closed the hearing. The demolition request now heads to the MVC land use planning committee for review on Jan. 23.