Captain Warren, it turns out, was actually an accountant.
And the house at 62 North Water street may bear his name (along with the disingenuous title of captain), but the history of the building is not about Captain Warren. The once-stately home dates to the late 18th century and was the home of the Osborns, an old Edgartown family that traced its roots to the whaling era. Caroline Osborn Warren, Mr. Warren’s wife, inherited the house, and was a benefactor of the Edgartown Public Library next door.
And now her house sits in a crumbling state. In 2004 the town of Edgartown bought the building for $3.5 million, with the idea of using it to expand the library. But that plan fell through and now the town will seek requests for proposals for the house sometime in the next few weeks, town administrator Pamela Dolby said this week.
The minimum bid will be $2.5 million. Mrs. Dolby said the town has no plans to improve the house before the sale.
A neighbor, a town leader and one former owner lamented the home’s current condition.
“It’s an embarrassment to the town. It is,” said selectman Margaret Serpa. “It’s unfortunate. But we’ll move ahead.” she said. The plan to turn the Warren house into an annex for the town library has now been scrapped, and town leaders are hoping to relocate the library to the site of the old Edgartown School. And the Warren house will be sold.
Would-be buyers have their work cut out for them. The house stands out among North Water street’s collection of immaculately-preserved white whaling captains’ homes, bordered by flowers and white picket fences. The large white house, with two stories of porches, bay windows and a widow’s walk, is covered in peeling paint. Black shutters hang loose at odd angles, many of them missing slats. Weeds are growing up through the boards on the front porch.
“Now, this is what you call a fixer-upper,” a passerby said this week.
Inside, the building reeks of mold. There are cobwebs everywhere and holes in the ceilings and on the walls. Pieces of the ceilings are scattered on the floors. The library has been using the building for storage, and Christmas decorations and boxes of books are scattered about. There are signs of the property’s last life as an inn: room numbers and No Smoking signs, lots of bedrooms and bathrooms but no kitchen, a Do Not Disturb sign on the floor.
In the front foyer, light shines through stained glass windows lining the door. A curving staircase leads to the second and third floors, where there are several fireplaces, each in a different style. Little frescoes that appear to depict North Water street adorn each bathroom. Front bedrooms on the second and third floors offer views of the harbor, and on the third floor a small spiral staircase leads up to the widow’s walk.
A sign over the front door reads “The Captain Warren House circa 1850.”
But former owner John Chirgwin says not to take that sign at face value. He should know: he’s the one that gave Frederick Warren his posthumous promotion.
“He wasn’t a captain. I made him a captain,” Mr. Chirgwin told the Gazette. “I had the sign made.”
When Mr. Chirgwin was growing up, he said, captain was a term of respect for anyone older than 40. “It was nothing malicious.”
The “circa 1850” is also, well, wrong. “The sign has an incorrect date on it, that’s for sure,” Mr. Chirgwin said.
Gazette archives reveal a more accurate story about the house, told through the Osborn family.
In the 1790s, Mrs. Osborn’s grandfather, Henry, bought the Daggett House across North Water street from the Warren house, and the family later moved to the Warren house, which is said to be built in 1792.
The Osborns were an old Edgartown family; the dock at what is now the Edgartown Yacht Club was once called Osborn’s Wharf.
Caroline Osborn was born in Edgartown in May 1823, and raised in the Warren house, one of eight children. Her parents were Samuel and Mary T. (Cleveland) Osborn; Mary was a descendent of Gov. Thomas Mayhew.
Mrs. Warren attended the Edgartown Academy. According to a 1959 letter to the Gazette by her descendent Caroline Warren Osborn-Reynolds, Mrs. Warren’s schoolbooks and journals were found in an old wooden chest in the Timothy Coffin House. The books contained algebra and “multiplications of powers,” as well as this musing, dated September 20, 1849:
“If I should live to have my father’s roof (my own dear Island home),” she wrote, “Perhaps the pencillings of my thoughts may awake reflections and cause my heart to vibrate to past scenes and emotions.”
She did end up owning her father’s roof. She married Mr. Warren in 1855 at the Congregational Church in Edgartown in 1855. Little information could be found about Mr. Warren, except that he lived in Boston, and his family owned the Warren Steamship Line which sailed to and from Boston and Liverpool, England.
Dudley Cannada, a preservation architect who owns a historic home on North Water street, said his research showed that Mr. Warren was an accountant.
After her mother died in 1877, Mrs. Warren became the owner of the house, eventually buying out the other heirs. The home became known as the Warren House, or the Tower Cottage, in reference to a large four-story tower that was added to the front of the house, making it the tallest building around. The addition was taken down at an uncertain later date.
The house was built in the Federal style, Mr. Cannada said. Mrs. Warren added bay windows, and the property apparently included a large piece of land behind the library, where the Warrens had a large barn built for their horses and carriages. Mrs. Warren owned the land from the harbor to Pease’s Point Way in the early 1900s.
Mr. Warren died around 1900. In 1903, Mrs. Warren deeded the land next to her house (once a courthouse where public punishments took place) for a town library; philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated money for the building. A plaque inside the entrance to the library notes that the library was donated in memory of her husband.
A portrait of Mrs. Warren, a brunette with her hair in a braided chignon, clad in a low-backed dress, hangs in the entrance to the library.
Mrs. Warren died in 1910. In her will, she left $2,000 to the Congregational Church in memory of her father and mother, and $1,000 to the town in memory of her husband. She left the house to her nephew, Walter S. Osborn, and he and his family occupied it seasonally from 1910 to 1923.
The home was later purchased by the Chirgwin family, and served as an annex of the Colonial Inn, which Mr. Chirgwin’s grandfather built at the turn of the
century. Later, Mr. Chirgwin’s father bought the Daggett House and the Warren House, which served as an annex to the Daggett House. It had 16 rooms.
The Chirgwin family sold the building in 2004, and the new owners sold the building, along with the Daggett House. The Daggett House is now a private home.
And at that point, about 100 years after Mrs. Warren donated the land for the library, the Warren House has become bound up in the fate of the Edgartown Library. Plans to expand the library using the house proved not feasible. In 2007, the historic district approved demolition for the house, but the decision was reversed in 2010, when the historic district commission balked at the idea of the house becoming a parking lot for the library.
At the annual town meeting this spring, voters approved an entirely new library site at the old school, and gave the go-ahead to the selectmen to sell the Warren House.
The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust has expressed interest in taking over the Carnegie library.
But Chris Scott, executive director of the preservation trust, said that the Warren House doesn’t meet the trust’s standards for acquisition because it served no public purpose.
The property is assessed at $3.85 million.
The home is “not significant, it’s very significant,” said Mr. Cannada, who has a folder full of historic information of the house. “Because of who lived here, because of the Osborns — they were a leading family for four generations. I think it’s a very significant house, and it’s a big house, and it’s an old house.”
Mr. Cannada lives in the Capt. John Butler house just a few doors down North Water street. “This is a 300-year-old house,” he said. “It may take a lot of work, but it can be done. I’d like to see the house preserved.”
He continued: “I think North Water street is one of the finest collections of historic properties in North America... A row of amazing, important historic houses. One after another they are all old houses, early 1700s to mid 1800s. A phenomenal row of historic houses.
“I think that losing one is horrible.”
James Cisek, a member of the town historic district commission, said he too would like to see someone restore the house. “That would be a great thing,” he said. He said his commission would be unlikely to allow a complete demolition.
“There’s a lot of history to the house that we would like to keep,” he said. “Inside it’s still pretty much old architecture, mantels, woodwork, stairs.”
And like others, Mr. Cisek took note of the current state of the house. “The town has done absolutely nothing to it,” he said. “If you let anything go, it’s going to deteriorate . . . unless it’s so dilapidated that a gust of wind would knock it down, we want to preserve the historic houses in town.”
Mr. Chirgwin had a stronger view.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful that the town has allowed this place to become what looks like a haunted house,” he said. “I think that it probably should be sold to be a private residence to someone who’s willing to put the money in to bring it back to grandeur.”