Twin Cottage, Landmark on East Chop, Is Up for Possible Demolition, Owners Say
By MANDY LOCKE
East Chop residents mourned the end of an era this week - reacting to news that an old Victorian in the heart of Oak Bluffs' Highlands district may fall to a wrecking ball in the coming months.
Twin Cottage - built in 1872 by a whaling captain for his two daughters - is known for hosting performances by a notable African-American theatre troupe throughout the middle part of the last century. The mirror-image cottages, linked by a central tower and widow's walk, offered the perfect stage for the late Elizabeth White, Twin Cottage owner and theatre aficionado, to orchestrate classics ranging from William Shakespeare's Othello to Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.
"The house should be designated a historic landmark just by virtue of the people who have been there. It's criminal to annihilate that from the landscape. From here on out, our history becomes a distant memory," said Craig Dripps, president of the East Chop Association and third-generation resident on East Chop Drive.
A decade after Mrs. White's death and less than a year after the death of her only son, Richard Dixon Jr., the home is now in the hands of his widow, Audrey, and their only daughter, Deborah Toledo. The two are currently settling Mr. Dixon's estate and deliberating over the fate of Twin Cottage. Demolition tops their list of options.
"I won't deny that one of the possible outcomes is that it comes down. We are thoroughly exploring the feasibility of that," said Mrs. Toledo, reached at her home in Houston this week. Island contractor Ed Charter said he's been contacted by the family about installing a modular home.
"Mother wants to move to the Island permanently, and the house is not winterized. That's at the nexus of this problem," Mrs. Toledo said.
Twin Cottage has seen better days. The once vibrant, salmon-pink trim dulled long ago. A few cedar shingles dangle around the balconies. Old paint bubbles on the intricate porch railings.
"What you see on the outside is just the tip of the iceberg. It would take a hefty six-figure dollar amount, maybe seven, to restore it," said Mrs. Toledo, who spent every summer in her grandmother's Vineyard home and married her husband, Jose Toledo, on the porch of Twin Cottage.
But the house's roof line is straight as an arrow - an indication that the interior support is sound, said Steve Dandeneau, a contractor for Squash Meadow Construction, which specializes in Victorian-period restoration. Except for alterations to the porch - done by Mrs. White to widen the stage for her Shearer Summer Theatre - the home is virtually unaltered from its 1872 form.
"This house belongs in a museum. You can't duplicate this," said Mr. Dandeneau, who has worked on several restorations in the East Chop area.
"All of these homes are coming to the age when they need a lot of work. They are at the point in which it's cheaper to tear them down and start over. There's an amazing amount of pressure on these properties. When it comes down to dollars and cents, people are yielding to the teardown. In 20 years, this place could entirely lose its feel," he added.
Twin Cottage, completed by sea Capt. J.S. Atwood for his two daughters, once enjoyed sweeping views of Vineyard Sound, though the house is stands 500 yards away from shore. A stand of 40-foot pines, oaks and cedars now block any water view from this Elliot Place address. An almost haunting blend of Queen Anne and Gothic architecture, the home was one of the first to join the Highlands, an 1869 outgrowth of the Camp Ground. The Highlands became a haven for the growing number of Baptists summering in the Methodist stronghold.
After the sea captain's daughters died just after the turn of the century, the house remained empty for several years. Sometime after World War II, an attempt to restore Twin Cottage by an Oak Bluffs woman failed. Some said the house was haunted.
Mrs. White, who long coveted the abandoned home during her summers on the Island, bought Twin Cottage in 1951 on a whim without even inspecting the plumbing. The home reminded her of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and she thought it perfect for her summer theatre adventures. A third-generation member of the Charles Shearer family, Mrs. White's roots are most firmly planted in the nearby Shearer Cottage - a vibrant guest house that became a destination for many prominent African-Americans throughout much of the century.
If Twin Cottage's walls could talk, they'd describe warm summer nights of hundreds of Island residents and guests - from every class, color and creed - gathering near the foot of the front porch to watch Ms. White's performances.
"On many August evenings over a 10-year period, some 200 people, black and white, filled the park under the pines and stars at night. They paid a small admission price of $2 to be enthralled by Liz White's innovative stage productions," said Robert C. Hayden in his book, African-Americans on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Mr. Hayden, a summer resident and historian, said this week the true value of Twin Cottage during the 1950s and 1960s was the home's ability to bring together people from all backgrounds and places.
Mrs. White stored trunks full of stage lights and costumes in the upstairs closets of Twin Cottage. According to her niece, Gail Jackson, who spent many a summer day rehearsing with the Shearer Summer Theatre group, Mrs. White cast many of the neighborhood's children in her productions. The Twin Cottage presented the perfect backdrop for a rendition of West Side Story; the Sharks hovered on one set of balconies while the Jets stood their ground on the other.
"No one knew what to do with kids our age. We'd started hanging out on Circuit avenue. [Mrs. White] started doing summer projects and rehearsed the hell out of us. It was a fascinating place, and she was a fascinating woman," said Ms. Jackson, whose sister and mother still operate the Shearer Cottage.
The most famous of Mrs. White's summer theatre accomplishments was Othello, a performance so inspiring to cast, crew and director that Mrs. White took the show to Harlem that winter. Her production of the classic Shakespeare play also led to the theatre enthusiast's first blush with film - a project that consumed her from 1961 to 1980. The resulting film, completed with an entirely black cast, is set predominantly on the Vineyard, with Twin Cottage's sitting room serving as Desdemona's bed chamber.
News of the potential razing of Twin Cottage made its way into discussions at the Oak Bluffs Historical Commission meeting last week - a new town board charged with keeping the historic integrity of the town's Copeland district. Voted in at the annual town meeting this year, the historical commission has no purview over homes in the East Chop area.
"It's extremely hard to figure out our inventory in that area. There are so many dirt roads. We thought it better to bring a defined area to the town meeting this year. I'm sure we'll be back," said Susan Thompson, a member of the commission and a resident in the Highlands area.
Historical commission members - powerless to stop a demolition - were saddened to learn that the Twin Cottage may soon be lost.
"This would be a tremendous loss to the town of Oak Bluffs and the heritage of the black community. There's a responsibility that comes along with owning a house with this much history involved. It's not easy for anyone," said Renee Balter, a member of the Oak Bluffs Historical Commission and an East Chop resident.
It is understood that the family has refused at least one offer to buy the home. So far, suggestions to build a new house on abutting land and leave the Twin Cottage intact have been dismissed.
"It would be very sad to have the house standing there, not owned by anyone in our family and not accessible to [my mother]. She's not really seriously contemplating that option," said Mrs. Toledo.
"A lot of people's initial reaction has been, ‘Oh, what a shame.' We're not completely hardened to that sentiment. But while people say that, my question is, ‘Well, what about my mother?' We are strongly committed to keeping the property in the family," she added.