From a single act of philanthropy in 1975 that saved an iconic Edgartown home, the organization now known as the Vineyard Trust has grown into a major nonprofit that maintains and manages 20 historic properties in four Island towns.

Though Islanders and Island visitors are well acquainted with many of its historic buildings, including the Old Whaling Church and The Carnegie in Edgartown, the Flying Horses Carousel and Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs and Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury, less is known about the organization itself.

With the resignation earlier this month of executive director Funi Burdick for altering public funding requests, the Trust finds itself under unprecedented scrutiny.

Headquartered in the Dr. Daniel Fisher house on Edgartown’s Main street, its original property, the Trust now has an annual budget of more than $2 million and assets valued at over $21 million, according to its Form 990 federal tax filing for 2019, the most recent year that is publicly available.

Income for the Trust comes from donations, fundraisers like its signature Taste of the Vineyard party, rental fees and leases. Some of its properties, including the Old Whaling Church and Grange Hall in West Tisbury, are rented by the day for weddings and community activities, others — including the Vineyard Gazette building in Edgartown — are leased to long-term tenants.

A little-known feature of the Trust’s organizational structure is its majority ownership of the North Water Street Corporation, a for-profit entity created in 1946 by Vineyard Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough to preserve the Village Green from development, decades before the federal tax code created a separate category for nonprofits.

At meetings covered by the Gazette in 1956 and 1965, corporation members restated its primary purpose as helping to maintain the architecture, natural beauty and character of Edgartown.

The Trust itself was founded 46 years ago as the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Preservation Society with a gift from Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. that funded the restoration of the 1840 federal-style Fisher house. Its mission, then as now, was to preserve and protect historically significant properties.

In 1980, board member and Edgartown businessman Robert Carroll hatched a plan for the society to merge with the North Water Street Corporation. The society granted tax deductions to corporation shareholders equal to their pro-rata interest in the corporation. Because not every shareholder agreed to take part, the Trust ended up with majority interest, but was not able to absorb the entity completely.

Assessors records show that North Water Street Corporation now owns commercially rented buildings at 12 North Water street and 37 Main street in Edgartown, as well as the Village Green and a parking lot at 24 Winter street. All holdings of the North Water Street Corporation are listed on the Trust’s website as landmarks, with no indication of separate ownership.

In 2008, the corporation took out a $750,000 mortgage on 12 North Water street with Martha’s Vineyard Bank, according to documents filed with the Registry of Deeds and signed by Mr. Carroll, then president of the corporation.

In a recent interview with the Gazette, Patrick Ahearn, who is both chairman of the Trust and president of the North Water Street Corporation, drew a distinction between the two entities.

“These are two separate corporations and two separate issues,” Mr. Ahearn said. “The corporation’s purpose is to acquire, own, operate and sell real estate. There’s nothing about any preservation purposes.”

He said that the Trust now holds approximately 70 per cent of the corporation’s shares. The other shares are either owned by the Hall family, according to Mr. Ahearn, or are considered lost shares. 

Earlier this year, tenants in 12 North Water street balked after the Trust presented them with new leases that included rent hikes. The Trust ultimately postponed any increase for one year, Mr. Ahearn said, adding that the Trust has since worked with tenants to come up with a long-term plan, emphasizing the corporation’s for-profit status.

“The income stream has to be there to preserve the buildings,” he said.

Mr. Ahearn also said the corporation owns one of the oldest buildings on the Edgartown harbor, the small Osborne Wharf located at 45 Dock street, where the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard was replaced as a tenant by a Landvest real estate office. However, Edgartown assessors’ records list the owner as the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust.

Since its founding, the Trust has undergone two name changes. In 1992, having acquired several more properties, the Preservation Society became the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, hired Chris Scott, the founding director of the state office for historic landscape preservation, as its executive director and entered into an active period of identifying and preserving properties.

Interviewed at the time by the Gazette, then-chairman of the organization Carole M. Berger, said the changes reflected a new image for the organization.

“Preservation means architectural heritage,” she said. “But preservation must be tied to use. It’s not enough just to paint it and preserve it and look at it. It’s how these places fit into this century and where we are now.”

When Mr. Scott retired in 2017, Ms. Burdick was named to replace him. A year later, trustees voted to change the name of the organization to Vineyard Trust.

The mission of the Trust is spelled out in its bylaws, which have been amended several times since 1975, most recently in 2017. Its stated objective, is “to the greatest extent practicable, preserve and protect historically significant buildings, properties and related open space which it may acquire or over which it may exercise control in order to preserve the character and scenic qualities of the towns in which such properties are located.”

The bylaws provide for not fewer than 24 trustees, to be comprised “in major part of public officials, community leaders, and persons who are knowledgeable as to the historical or architectural significance of buildings on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.”

Currently, the Trust website lists 61 trustees, including 15 life trustees, who have voting rights. There are three additional non-voting honorary trustees.