As readers may have noticed, I am often attracted to unusual houses. The house at 32 Planting Field Way in Edgartown is certainly unusual for the Vineyard. First of all, it was built in 1905, a time when not many houses were being built on the Island. It was also located way out of town, on the Shurtleff farm.

The back story of how this house became the homestead of a young couple is also an unlikely one. The bride had a famous architect as a cousin, who just happened to be designing the Edgartown library during the previous summer. The groom’s father had a large amount to land to make use of on the far end of town.

The young couple were Jessie Smith and Charles Shurtleff, who were married in Boston on June 8, 1904. They met at the Harbor View Hotel, according to Jessie and Charles’s grand-daughter, Patricia. Jessie was working at the hotel and staying with her Aunt Carrie, a fairly recent widow who lived two doors down from the hotel. Charles was working in town, living at home with his family.

The Shurtleffs were relative newcomers to the Vineyard but certainly not to Massachusetts. Charles’ father bought all the land belonging to Thomas Coffin from his heirs as well as smaller tracts from others which eventually added up to over 500 acres scattered around Edgartown. His earliest purchase was in 1879. He and his family lived in the old Coffin house (across Shurtleff Way) which has only recently been sold out of the family.

Jessie’s grandfather was Josiah H. Smith, a member of the Pohogonut Smith clan and her grandmother, Isabelle Mayhew Smith, was the daughter of William Mayhew of Chilmark. But most important for this story is that her cousin was the architect Frank Alden. The house is, I think, the one remaining private home designed by Alden in his hometown of Edgartown. The Sol Smith Russell/Vose house (1899) was destroyed by fire in November of 1908, and only its boathouse remains. The Carnegie Library survives, although no longer as a library. Most of Alden’s other creations as the principal of his two firms, Longfellow, Alden, and Harlow (later Alden and Harlow) are located in Boston, Cambridge, Pittsburgh and Sewickley. In each place the surviving buildings have been the subject of architectural articles and reviews.

The house was very modern for its day, particularly so for the Vineyard whose streetscape remained fairly static for many years. While there are some Victorian Queen Anne style houses situated about Edgartown, at least three of them are variations of the same design. Its original interior remains intact, except for a remodeled bathroom upstairs. A modern addition has been tacked on the back, which does not pretend to be a “restoration” but rather is totally different and reflects the mid-century modern period when it was built. No one has painted the woodwork, changed out the doors, added track lighting, or otherwise changed the original ambience.

The construction of the house was local, and contained one of the first purpose-built bathrooms in the town. John Mayhew, who was the original plumber for the Harbor View, was probably the plumber in this instance too. The pipes are ingeniously designed on the wall of the back staircase to be accessible without ruining the plaster. The double height bay window for the dining room and the bedroom directly above it are hallmarks of an Alden house.

Another unusual feature is the corner fireplace in the living room. A member of the family has said that the fireplace was built from a kit. It is terra-cotta tile, not a regular feature of Edgartown houses but common in Alden houses. It also reflects the influence Henry H. Richardson had on Frank Alden, whose first and only job working for anyone but himself was at the Richardson atelier. He was sent to Pittsburgh in 1885 to supervise the building of Richardson’s masterpiece, the Allegheny County Courthouse and jail.

Frank Alden was at the height of his career in the early 1900s, but he managed to stay close to home long enough to design a jewel box of a library for his hometown, and a house for his favorite cousin.