History was on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Thursday night when a public hearing opened on a major renovation plan for Shearer Cottage, the richly storied Oak Bluffs inn where African American history on Martha’s Vineyard has its roots.

Opened in 1912 by Charles and Henrietta Shearer, the inn catered to African American vacationers who at the time were not welcome at other resort hotels. Since then the inn has been continuously owned by Shearer descendants. It is featured in a permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and is the first stop on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.

Owners Eric and Lee Van Allen have submitted plans to substantially renovate and modernize the building, expanding from the current configuration of six efficiencies to 15 guest rooms.

Nestled in the highlands section of Oak Bluffs, the red-painted cottage is actually three properties that straddle Morgan and Highland avenues. The properties are adjacent to Baptist Temple Park, an East Chop Association public parkland.

The renovation project is under review by the MVC as a development of regional impact (DRI). During a staff presentation Thursday, commission DRI coordinator Alex Elvin recounted the rich history of the inn, whose notable guests over the years included prominent African American businessmen and politicians. The inn was listed in the Green Book as a safe accommodation for African American travelers, and was the location of a summer theatre. It historically has accommodated overnight guests and small private gatherings, including weddings, reunions, conferences, and cultural events.

The original 12 guest rooms were later converted to six efficiencies with room for 22 guests, according to commission documents. Mr. Van Allen plans to gut-renovate the main building and demolish some of the other buildings on the properties, replacing them with a newly designed facility with 10 suites and two apartments and a maxium capacity of 48 guests.

Mr. Van Allen and his architect Chuck Sullivan presented the project and answered questions from commissioners.

The cottage is featured in the Smithsonian's permanent exhibit on African American history in Washington, DC, and is the first stop on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard. — Ray Ewing

Mr. Van Allen described plans to attract small, high-end groups for private conferences, lectures and other events to the new facility, which he said will continue to respect the long-held Shearer Cottage traditions, staying in harmony with the natural surroundings and neighborhood.

Historic photographs were shown, new elevations were aired, and Mr. Sullivan expanded on the details, including parking (which will be reconfigured but not increased) and new kitchen facilities (which will be designed for caterers and private chefs). As for whether the building is architecturally significant, Mr. Sullivan said it has been changed a great deal over the years.

“It’s hard to say . . . [the structure that’s there now] is quite a bit different from the original structure,” he said. “We tried to take the best from what we see, some open railings, some gingerbread . . . it was most likely a typical gingerbread cottage with two rooms on each floor, no porch, no side buildings — that’s what 99 per cent of the cottages were.” He added:

“There may be items uncovered during demolition that they will want to save or duplicate — the Van Allens have been involved with this property for a long time and they want to save, so that’s the goal.”

Commissioner Fred Hancock had a question. “Will it stay red?” he said, referring to the signature barn-red color of the cottage-inn.

Mr. Van Allen jumped in, adding more history notes.

“This is a question my family has grappled with,” he said. “When did it become red? Not in 1912 when it opened . . . I want to say that my Aunt Sadie, she painted the inn red after my great-grandparents passed away. It isn’t the original color but it’s the color everyone knows who is alive.” He continued:

“We’ve put a lot of resources into branding the inn for the foreseeable future. In the new branding scheme . . . red is not a color. There are a lot of people who like the red, but if you want to move into a more high end market . . . we’re probably not going to keep the red.”

At the local level the project will also need a special permit from the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals.

During a staff presentation, the MVC's Mr. Elvin flagged wastewater as a key issue. The property lies in the Oak Bluffs harbor watershed and has an onsite septic disposal system; under the new plan the inn would exceed its allowable nitrogen load. An IA (innovative/alternative) nitrogen removing septic system would be recommended, Mr. Elvin said. But Mr. Sullivan demurred on the point. “The intent is not to run this business year round, Eric can speak more to it,” he said.

The commission has received 23 letters to date, all supporting the plan, including one from the Martha’s Vineyard Museusm.

“There is no Island history without Oak Bluffs, and there is no Oak Bluffs history without Shearer Cottage,” museum executive director Heather Seger wrote in part.

With many details still unsettled, the hearing was continued to Nov. 18.

“We’re going to have to come to grips with the nitrogen,” commissioner Doug Sederholm said.