The West Tisbury historic district commission agreed this week that it will not allow the demolition of the Old Parsonage house in West Tisbury.
Owners Tara and Daniel Whiting have made a preliminary request to tear down the house which dates to the 1600s and overlooks Parsonage Pond on State Road.
In a meeting on Monday members of the commission urged Ms. Whiting to withdraw her application for a certificate of hardship, intended to buttress the need to raze the house.
“I don’t think the house should be demolished, Tara,” historic district commission member Nancy Dole told Ms. Whiting. “I don’t think that the house can’t be preserved. I think that the historic value of that house is so tremendously overwhelming . . . You wouldn’t have my support at a hearing for this.”
The sentiment was shared by other commission members.
“Obviously this would be a terrible loss to everyone,” said historic district commission chairman Sean Conley.
Last month the Whitings began preliminary talks with the commission to tear down the 17th century house, citing financial hardship after a contractor estimated that the house would need $1.75 million in repairs. The original section of the house which dates to the 1670s is thought to have been built by Josiah Standish, the son of Myles Standish. Parts of the early construction style are still visible in the gunstock posts in the oldest sections of the house. The history of the house includes decades of use as a parsonage for the West Tisbury Congregational Church; it has been in the Whiting family since the 1800s. Tara and Daniel inherited the property from their father.
On Monday, Ms. Dole said the Whitings’ claim of financial hardship would be difficult to prove. The Massachusetts Historical Commission recommends that local historic commissions ask certain questions when ruling on matters of hardship, including whether the applicant has tried to sell the property at a reasonable price if he or she lacks the financial means to renovate and preserve the property.
“One of the problems is that if you can sell the house for more money than you have invested in it, it might be difficult to say you had a hardship,” Ms. Dole said. “You’re looking at a $1.75 million rehab — anyone would have a financial hardship — but that’s not really what they’re talking about,” she added.
Ms. Whiting’s friend Cathleen Vincent, who attended the meeting, had another interpretation.
“You should spend the winter there and see if you still think that it’s not a hardship living there, because it’s pretty tough,” she said.
Ms. Whiting admitted that she is now inclined toward preserving the house, although she was unsure what form the preservation would take.
“At this point my brother and I were really leaning toward pursuing the idea of being able to build something [else on the property] and somehow gifting the house to whatever entity would want to see this preserved,” Ms. Whiting said.
In order to build another structure on the property the Whitings would need a zoning variance, a move Mr. Conley said he would support, although it would be up to the zoning board of appeals, not the historic commission, to decide. But Ms. Dole said first the Whitings must withdraw their application for demolition based on hardship.
As for the fate of the house, the commission discussed a wide range of ideas, including possible ownership by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, a nonprofit that owns historic buildings that are actively used as businesses or nonprofits. The trust owns Alley’s General Store, the Grange Hall and the former West Tisbury Library in the town village, among others.
Reached by telephone following the meeting, trust executive director Chris Scott said ownership of the Parsonage house by his organization is a long shot.
“If it were an outright gift we’d certainly look at it,” Mr. Scott said. “I will say that in general little satellite museums don’t work; they’re not financially viable, but I would never preempt the dialogue. The house has always been a private residence and the preservation trust tends to get involved with very public landmarks like Alley’s or the Grange Hall, the Whaling Church or the Flying Horses.”
On Monday historic district commission member Lanny McDowell admitted the scope of the conversation was outside of the commission’s purview but the historic nature of the building required it.
“Even though it’s not our job or our mandate to fix this — it’s our job to rule on your application . . . what comes up for a lot of us is what can we think of to get out of this situation — not dealing with the application but how do we save this building,” he said, adding:
“If I knew the person to go to right now who would lay out all those possibilities for you with the numbers that are attached to them I’d tell you, and I bet that person is out there but I don’t know who it is yet.”
Later in the week Mr. Conley said that person may be an unexpected patron from Greenwich, Conn.
“Yesterday morning a summer person called me interested in helping out,” he said on Wednesday, not disclosing the person’s name. “She wanted to start a group to raise money to renovate the property. I was blown away.”
As of yesterday Ms. Whiting had not withdrawn her application.
“You have to want to save it because nobody will do it for you except you,” Ms. Dole told Ms. Whiting at Monday’s meeting. “It’s a hard one.”