Court Battle Keeps Historic Old Village Homes Vacant Another Summer

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Old Village

The Porches, one of three historic homes in Chatham's Old Village where women from the Philadelphia YWCA summered for years. The Boston YWCA is challenging the ownership of the homes in a court case that has dragged on for more than two years, leaving the homes vacant the past two summers. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – For the second year in a row, the historic Avis Chase cottages in the heart of the Old Village were vacant this summer.

“It's sad that they're not being used,” neighbor Ken Miller said of the cottages, two of which overlook Mill Pond.

Ownership of the homes – which have a combined assessed value of nearly $6 million – is currently tied up in a court battle between the former YWCA of Philadelphia, now known as the Avis Chase Women's Association of Philadelphia, and the Boston YWCA. In January 2015 ownership was awarded to the Boston YWCA, but an appeal of the decision by the Philadelphia group is pending.

According to Albert L. Piccerilli, the lawyer representing the Philadelphia group, briefs have been filed and the parties are awaiting a date for oral arguments before the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

Old Village residents worry that the ongoing legal dispute could jeopardize the condition of the three Water Street homes, all of which were built in the 1800s.

“We have no way of knowing what the upkeep has been,” said Winnie Lear, president of the Old Village Association. “The lack of information is somewhat startling.”

Beginning in 1959, the three homes – at 20, 25 and 52 Water St. – began hosting inner city women who belonged to the Philadelphia YWCA for one- and two-week-long vacations. Avis Chase, who also donated Chase Park to the town, was born in Chatham and always maintained a home here, though she lived much of the time in Philadelphia. When she died in 1953, she bequeathed the three houses to the Philadelphia Y “for the benefit, rest and recreation” of members of the organization. She also left most of her estate for the maintenance of the properties.

The Boston YWCA filed suit to gain ownership of the properties in 2012, two years after the Philadelphia YWCA had its membership in YWCA USA terminated. Boston claimed that Philadelphia was no longer operating as foreseen by Chase; a clause in her will had named the Boston organization as a successor if the Philadelphia group could not fulfill the purposes set forth for the cottages.

While the court ruled that the Avis Chase Women's Association, the successor to the Philadelphia YWCA, remained a viable nonprofit organization with a mission similar to the Y, it decided it was no longer using the cottages in accordance to the provisions of Chase's will. The ruling stated that ownership of the cottages was to be transferred to the Boston organization “contingent upon the condition that Boston utilize the cottages in accordance” to Chase's will.

According to Massachusetts Appeals Court records, final briefs in the appeal were filed July 25, and no court date has yet been set.

For more than 50 years, women from the Philadelphia YWCA got a respite from city life with a week or two at the Chase Cottages. An on-site administrator ran the houses, whose operation was so low key that many nearby residents did not even know about the program.

“There were always women walking into town,” recalled Lear, who lived down the street from the Chase Cottages most of her life. Seeing the homes vacant for a second summer is “worrisome,” she added.

“We're all very concerned,” said Old Village resident Nancy Koerner. “They're such priceless, beautiful properties.”

Lear said there is concern among neighborhood residents that should Boston assume ownership of the cottages, their use could grow more intense, since Boston is much closer than Philadelphia. Another concern is that the Boston organization could try to sell the properties. In court papers, lawyers for the Philadelphia group called the action “a vindictive campaign to steal ownership of the Chase Cottages.”

“There are all kinds of rumors that fly around here” regarding the future of the cottages, Miller said.

In 2012, a historic preservation restriction was placed on all three properties which prohibits demolition of the buildings or subdivision of the properties. Together the properties total 3.6 acres and include the largest open space areas in the tightly-packed Old Village, which is a National Register Historic District.

The home at 52 Water St., which was Avis Chase's mother's house and is known as the Mother's House, is the oldest of the three buildings. The Greek Revival/Italianate style home was originally built in 1810, according to town assessing records.

The most visible of the cottages is “The Porches,” a Second Empire-style building at 20 Water St. that sits on a bluff overlooking Mill Pond. Also known as the Captain Silmon Chase House, named for Avis Chase's husband, it was built in 1858 and was once a store operated by Mary Augustus young, Avis' mother. With its distinctive wrap-around veranda that was added in 1907, the building was Avis Chase's summer home for many years.

The 25 Water St. house, built about 1880, sometimes known as The Boathouse, was once located down on the shore of Mill Pond and was used as a boathouse and a bathhouse known as the Seaside Pavilion. It was moved to its present location by Chase in 1947 and remodeled as a guest house.

“Basically we're sitting and waiting and feeling very sad that these summer opportunities are being missed,” said Koerner. “We just want the properties to be maintained as Avis Chase wanted them to be.”

Attempts to contact the Boston YWCA were unsuccessful.