This winter, the oldest building on the Edgartown harbor is getting a facelift.

And an actual lift.

The historic Vose family boathouse, built in 1899 and in the Vose family since 1904, has had the same wooden spiles for the past 120 years. But with fears of rising tides and increasingly potent winter storms, the family has decided to undertake a $200,000 renovation project to raise the building by a foot and replace the ancient, rotting wooden timbers on which it has rested for generations.

“It’s time,” said the family’s spokesman for the project, Warren Vose. “Some of the pilings go back to the original, but there isn’t much left of them. They just come down to a point a couple feet above the ground...If another Sandy came, we wouldn’t have a boathouse.”

Construction started in September, with master Edgartown dockbuilder Steve Ewing overseeing the project.

“It’s an iconic structure like the Memorial Wharf, the Reading Room, the Town Dock, the Yacht Club,” Mr. Ewing said. “They’re all part of the history of the town. I used to jump off it as a boy just like the other kids who would sneak in there in the harbor.”

Steve Ewing leads the project; as a boy he sneaked into the boathouse. — Mark Alan Lovewell

The unique architectural design of the boathouse dates back to the whims of its original owner, a successful pre-Hollywood stage actor, musician and comedian named Sol Smith Russell. Mr. Smith purchased a tract of land that extended back from the Edgartown harbor at the turn of the 20th century, building a two-story boathouse with a ribboned second-floor deck out on the water. When Mr. Smith died five years later, a successful piano manufacturer named Julien Vose purchased the boathouse and the adjoining land. Since then, it’s remained in the Vose family for four generations, a time-capsule of memories that has survived a century of hurricanes and development on the Edgartown Harbor.

“It’s really kind of rustic,” Mr. Vose said.

The bottom floor serves as an old-fashioned dressing room, while the top floor functions as a kitchen and parlor space. “We have not changed it much over the years,” he added. “I think any of our ancestors if they came back would feel right at home. We want to keep it the way it was.”

The boathouse has served as the centerpiece of family gatherings for nearly 75 of Julien Vose’s ancestors. Throughout the years, the family has also used the boathouse and adjoining land to host benefits for Island non-profits, such as Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard and Camp Jabberwocky.

Mr. Ewing appreciates the tradition, but also understands that maintaining the historic integrity of the structure is one of the hardest parts of the job.

“The uniqueness for us is the difficulty,” he said. “It’s a very top heavy structure.”

Boathouse was built in 1899 by Sol Smith Russell, a successful pre-Hollywood stage actor, musician and comedian. — Mark Alan Lovewell

One of the reasons Mr. Ewing is so familiar with the boathouse is that he worked on it over three decades ago and remembers the top-heaviness firsthand. During a 1981 repair project, the structure slid off its pilings and capsized in the water, remaining partially submerged for the entire summer. Although Mr. Ewing wasn’t involved with the capsizing, he saw the building fall off its hinges and was hired to raise and right it shortly thereafter.

“I looked over and saw the boathouse in the water, and I said, oh boy, that ain’t good,” Mr. Ewing recalled. “It’s kind of part of me in a way, or I feel a part of it.”

This time around, Mr. Ewing is doing everything he can to make sure the boathouse stays above the water, not in it. In order to replace the pilings and raise the structure, he’s hired Hayden Building Movers to slide the boathouse 40 feet closer to shore, where it will rest on a temporary dock while the construction ensues. The new pilings will be a foot taller and made from a dense South American tropical wood called Greenheart. After completion, the pilings from the temporary dock will be used to rebuild the walkway that extends from the boathouse to the beach.

It’s a big project for a historic structure that hasn’t had so much as a new railing in the past century and a quarter. That’s what makes Mr. Ewing a little jittery.

“There were some scary moments,” Mr. Ewing said. “In the beginning she didn’t want to move. She’s been sitting in the same place for a while. She was reluctant to take that trip to shore.”

To slide the building, Mr. Ewing said the movers “grabbed her by the armpits” and “rolled her” onto the dock. In other words, they used the protruding second floor deck as steadying handles, carefully moving the boathouse to its winter home. Now that it’s stable, Mr. Ewing says he’s had a chance to breathe, and to think about the more minor details of the project: the new floor, the new deck, the new skirt pier, and the new dock.

Just a few waves away the Edgartown Yacht Club is also being raised to prepare for sea level rise.

“Once it’s done and back in place, I can stop and reflect on what it actually means,” Mr. Ewing said. “But for now, it’s a job.”

Luckily he has John Packer’s bargemen to help cap the pilings and boatbuilder Rick Brown to finish the woodwork on the building. Mr. Ewing hopes to have the boathouse on the new pilings by the end of the week, although he needs to find a two-day weather window for the move.

Coincidentally, the Vose boathouse isn’t the only historic structure on the Edgartown Harbor undergoing a massive renovation. A few wharves north, the Edgartown Yacht Club, built in 1927, is being raised two feet. The projects are on completely different scales — the yacht club’s renovation will cost approximately $7.5 million and use hydraulics and steel beams to raise the structure — but the goal is the same: to respond the threat of rising sea levels.

Like the Yacht Club, Mr. Ewing plans to have the project done by the end of the summer. In the meantime, he’s enjoying the process of preserving a piece of Edgartown’s history.

“I’ve written poems about this building,” Mr. Ewing said. “It’s kind of alive.”