The Bird's Nest is not a house quickly forgotten.
Built in the Highlands section of East Chop 130 years ago, around the time that the United States was celebrating its first century, the whimsical cottage is painted green and embellished with Victorian architectural details such as corbels, St. Andrew's crosses and a three-story tower. An octagonal cottage sits out back.
Time, however, has not been kind to the Bird's Nest. Maintenance has been neglected. The roof leaks. Rot has set in.
Owners Carol Dargan and Helen R. Hamilton believed the right thing to do was demolish the structure, which sits at 10 Dorothy West avenue, and build something new.
But the Bird's Nest is in Oak Bluffs, a town that two years ago passed a bylaw covering the preservation of historically significant buildings, more commonly known as the demolition delay bylaw.
Last summer, the Cottage City Historical Commission, which is charged with overseeing the bylaw, got wind of the planned demolition for the Bird's Nest.
Last week, following a public hearing, the commission voted 5-0 to invoke the bylaw and try to preserve the old cottage. The vote effectively halts any demolition of the structure without the permission of the commission for the next six months.
Mrs. Dargan said the board decision was disappointing.
"My biggest concern is safety," she said Tuesday. "Their biggest concern is historic preservation. I don't want to be combative. I want to be realistic."
But the concerns brought forward at last week's public hearing by Mrs. Dargan and her husband, Everett Dargan, failed to sway the commission. Helen Hamilton, Mrs. Dargan's aunt, died last November.
"We are here to look after the historic treasures of Oak Bluffs," commissioner David Wilson said at the hearing. "Over the last 18 months, we have had three tear-downs. The town can't afford to lose historic properties this way."
Now the question turns to whether a middle course can be steered: whether the structure can be moved off the property to another site, or whether most of the exterior can be preserved while the interior is upgraded.
The clock is ticking. If no compromise is found, Mrs. Dargan can move ahead this summer to demolish the house. She said she plans to retain the octagonal cottage, which is in better condition.
The Bird's Nest conflict also comes as the Cottage City historic district study committee explores the feasibility of expanding the historic district to East Chop. The proposal would come before this year's annual town meeting. A survey was recently sent around to East Chop property owners to gauge interest on the proposal.
"As the scarcity of land becomes more prevalent, and the cost of preserving older homes becomes a factor, many homeowners are looking toward demolition and the choice of less expensive housing with prefab construction as an option," the survey states. "East Chop is in danger of losing more of the architectural character of its neighborhoods as this situation becomes more apparent."
Mrs. Dargan and her aunt had initially envisioned making improvements to the existing cottage that would allow Mrs. Hamilton to stay there.
In an August 14 letter to the historical commission, Mrs. Dargan wrote: "I would like to bring my aunt back to Martha's Vineyard next year, but many structural changes would have to be made to her house before doing so. Mrs. Dargan wrote that she had met with contractors to discuss options for renovating the cottage, but found that the cost would exceed the cost of rebuilding.
"We are sensitive to the preservation of old houses and we would do our best to make sure the exterior of the house will fit comfortably into the surrounding neighborhood," she wrote.
On Sept. 21, Renee Balter, chairman of the historical commission, notified Mrs. Dargan that the demolition bylaw did apply to the cottage.
On Oct. 23, Mrs. Dargan said she had complied with the bylaw requirements, including hiring an engineer and arranging for architectural drawings.
"The added expenses of engineers and architect have made it even more difficult for me to consider restoration," she wrote. "I understand and appreciate the preservation of older houses, and I respect the function and the necessity of the historical committee.
"I now want to explore donating the house and look at other possibilities of replacement while still maintaining the character of the neighborhood," Mrs. Dargan wrote.
On Dec. 8, she wrote the commission again.
"My aunt was enthusiastic about finally being able to replace the house so that it would be safe and comfortable for the family," Mrs. Dargan wrote. "Many years had gone by without any repairs done because it was difficult for them financially.
"She loved the Vineyard and wanted her family to be around her. I promised her that I would help make that possible. Unfortunately, my aunt passed away last week."
Mrs. Dargan said she still was hoping to donate the house, but that a Vineyard firm had found that the structure was too risky to move. She also said she was not interested in selling the property.
That month the commission determined that the Bird's Nest was historically significant, setting the stage for a public hearing and a potential delay in any demolition.
In making its decision, the commission among other things referred to the 1978 survey of Oak Bluffs by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The state commission found the Bird's Nest significant, both as part of the Vineyard Highlands, a collection of seasonal cottages identified with the Baptist Camp Meeting that began meeting there in 1875, and as an example of what it termed expansive Camp Ground cottage construction.
A 1999 survey on properties in Oak Bluffs with cultural and historical significance to the African-American community did not include the Bird's Nest, but the survey did pinpoint 11 buildings in the highlands, all near the cottage.
They included the Powell House, the Dr. Cornelius N. Garland House and the Maxwell Cottage. The avenue, formerly known as Vineland avenue, was renamed for Miss West, a Highlands resident and one of the last surviving members of the Harlem Renaissance, who died in 1998. Miss West was a novelist and longtime columnist for the Vineyard Gazette.
The survey, which nominated a total of 21 buildings and six parks to the National Register of Historic Places, was co-sponsored by the state commission and the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
On Jan. 12, the Cottage City Historical Commission held its public hearing.
The Dargans, who have been coming to the Vineyard for 38 years, traveled from their year-round home in South Carolina to attend the hearing. They told how the plan to revive the cottage as a family gathering place had run into one stumbling block after another.
"We were sort of at our wit's end," Mr. Dargan said. "The cost of construction was going up. It put us in a big dilemma."
Barbara Baskin, a director of the East Chop Association, said the issues confronting the Dargans are the same issues that have faced other owners of Victorian cottages in Oak Bluffs, including herself.
"Where there's a will, there's a way," Ms. Baskin said. "Is the house today in such disrepair that it cannot be repaired? I would like you to think very hard before tearing it down."
Mrs. Dargan acknowledged the cost of a new structure was in the same area as renovating the existing cottage, but then she noted, "you still have a 100-year-old house . . . You're still going to have problems."
The said preservation route was made more difficult by the lack of regulatory or financial incentives from the town. In the end, the historical commission stood firm on preservation, voting 5-0 to invoke the six-month demolition delay.
Mrs. Balter praised the beauty of the building. "It's so incredibly wonderful, I would like to own it myself," she said.
"I think the loss of this property would be a terrible blow to Oak Bluffs," said commissioner David Wilson. "The house as it stands is what makes Oak Bluffs Oak Bluffs."