Night at the Cliffs: Homestead Is Ready to Shine for Aquinnah

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By JULIA WELLS

The ghosts are quiet these days - if you believe in such things - but at the Vanderhoop homestead the screen door still bangs and the old wood sash windows rattle with the specter of a new future.

Purchased last year by the town of Aquinnah and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank in a joint acquisition, the historic homestead is now set for its first fund-raising event.

The event will kick off a $300,000 restoration project aimed at converting the homestead to a museum and cultural center.

Titled Living Legacies, the evening will include refreshments and music at twilight atop the historic clay cliffs whose geology defines this tiny town in the westernmost reaches of the Vineyard.

The event will be held next Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. Admission is $25 per person, and there are extra options for those who wish to lighten their wallet a little more: $50 buys a course of shingles, $100 buys two courses of shingles and $500 buys three windows.

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"This is the perfect home for the center and living history. We are an active and living Indian community here," said Adriana Ignacio, a member of the Aquinnah Cultural Center, a nonprofit organization formed by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The center will lease the homestead from the town to operate the cultural center.

Aquinnah is home to the only federally recognized tribe in the commonwealth.

"If you look at the fabric of our town, it's both tribal and nontribal - so much has been said this year about the two separate government entities, but this is something that is about all the town members and is not a question of government," said Derrill Bazzy, a member of the town community preservation committee.

Mr. Bazzy, Ms. Ignacio and Mary Elizabeth Pratt, another member of the committee, gathered at the homestead last week to talk about the project.

A gusty southwest wind blew around the old house, which dates back to the late 1800s and was built by Edwin DeVries, a whaling captain and the only Wampanoag ever elected to the state legislature. The homestead later remained in the Vanderhoop family for several generations until the purchase by the town and the land bank last year. Purchase price was $1.9 million; the town contributed $218,000 and now carries a small mortgage which is paid using money from the Community Preservation Act.

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Today the land bank owns three and a half acres of the homestead property and holds a conservation restriction on another three acres around the homestead. The town owns the house and a quarter of an acre around it.

The plan calls for opening the cultural center in the summer of 2006.

The house is said to be haunted and over the years there have been many stories, some scary, some not-so-scary. But last week the members of the homestead fund-raising committee left much of the old lore aside, preferring instead to focus their attention on the present - and the future.

"The collaborative aspect of this is important - it buys back an old partnership of the old museum," Mr. Bazzy said. Many Vineyard residents remember the museum that was located at the the cliffs for more than 40 years. The Gay Head museum was housed in an old inn and located in the circle at the Cliffs. Financial problems forced its closure in the late 1960s, according to accounts in the Gazette.

Ms. Ignacio said most of the artifacts from the old museum went back into closets and attics, and the plan now includes collecting things again for display.

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But the center envisions far more than just a museum - Ms. Ignacio said a wide range of educational events is also planned for the center, including lectures, classes and demonstrations.

"It just feels to me very positive to be creating a new entity," Ms. Pratt said.

But restoration is the first step.

A thorough inspection of the old home - donated by home inspector Donald Cronig - revealed that the building is structurally sound, so the restoration for use as a seasonal building will be relatively straightforward.

"It's an old drafty building, so there are no moisture issues, no insect and animal issues," Mr. Bazzy said.

The punch list includes new shingles, a new roof on the old glassed-in sun room (the original roof was built from driftwood), lead paint removal, fresh paint and some window replacement. A wood deck off the south side of the house that was built in the 1980s will be removed and replaced with something more historically appropriate, like an earth and stone patio at ground level.

"We see this as a Humphrey's-style renovation," Mr. Bazzy said, referring to the classic old Island building that houses Humphrey's Bakeshop in North Tisbury, with its painted open-stud interior and slanting floors.

The grounds around the house include a natural amphitheatre on the lawn and some unusual old plantings. Along one side of the house stands a healthy copse of American elm trees, stunted by the harsh climate but lush and green, perhaps protected from the ravages of Dutch elm disease by their geographic isolation.

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At the head of the the driveway a handful of stray orange day lilies nod in the high grass.

Mr. Bazzy said the group hopes to begin work on the house in the fall. Community work days will be organized, and another fundraiser is planned for August.

The group has a bit of seed money - some $10,000 has been collected through grants from the Permanent Endowment Fund of Martha's Vineyard and also the Samuel Rubin Foundation.

Mr. Bazzy underscored the living history theme. "History is still here - it's now," he said.