Tearing down old buildings is most often cheaper than restoring them, so the sale of two antique houses to private buyers this week marks a positive turn for historic preservation on the Vineyard.
The Old Parsonage in West Tisbury, a seventeenth century farmhouse believed to be the second oldest home on the Island, and the Warren House, an eighteenth century merchant’s home on North Water street in Edgartown, are both in urgent need of extensive renovations.
All the more reason to celebrate the purchase of each by seasonal residents, Eric Burns and Bonnie Lafave and Jeffrey Wolk, who intend to restore the properties for their own enjoyment as single-family homes.
Owned continuously by members of the Whiting family since the 1800s, the Old Parsonage sits just outside the center of the West Tisbury village on a knoll overlooking Parsonage Pond. Siblings Tara and Daniel Whiting are the most recent stewards for the house in a long line of Whitings. The two have done their best through the years to keep up with the endless maintenance demands that are familiar to the owner of every antique house. Recognizing that they were unable to stay ahead in the race against the ravages of time, they finally made the wrenching decision to sell the house that once served as the parsonage for the Congregational Church of West Tisbury. It was not an easy decision and the Whitings siblings will not get rich from this deal; the property sold for six hundred thousand dollars, well below its assessed value. But factor in the hundreds of thousands of dollars the new owners now face to restore the old house and it’s easy to conclude that the Old Parsonage may have sold for a fair price, but was hardly a bargain.
Eight miles down the road in Edgartown, the so-called Capt. Warren House dates to the heyday of the whaling era. In fact, Mr. Warren was a merchant and certified public accountant who acquired the house through his wife, a member of the Osborn family. In more recent years the house was used as an annex to the Daggett House, then moved briefly into private ownership.
In 2004, the town of Edgartown acquired the house for three and a half million dollars when a petition was put before the town meeting and accepted by voters. At the time the town intended to use the Warren House as an annex to the public library. But the plans later turned out to be unfeasible and while the town worked to put the new library plans back on track, the Warren House deteriorated into an embarrassing eyesore.
The two and a half million-dollar sale of the house this week was done through a public bidding process, and in the end the town will lose well over a million dollars on the deal. In hindsight, the purchase was a costly error for the town and one that holds multiple lessons about the perils of democracy by petition and the problems inherent in towns owning old homes.
Consider now the historic Engley house off Middle Road in Chilmark, which is owned by that town and is now in a state of disuse and severe disrepair. The fate of the house will be determined by the outcome of a tangled court case between the town with a would-be private owner who agreed to take the house some six years ago as part of a complicated land swap, but later decided to back out of the deal. It will be up to a judge to decide whether to compel the deal to go forward or allow it to be dissolved. Hopefully it is not too late to save the Engley house, the tenth oldest house in Chilmark. Preserving architecture that is synonymous with Island history is a worthy enterprise, but it doesn’t come cheaply. The Vineyard is fortunate to have the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which does a spectacular job of managing and maintaining eighteen landmark properties. Having private owners willing to invest in our shared past is another gift to the Island.