Options Limited For Saving Town's Historic Homes

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Historic preservation

Conserving open space can seem an easier task than preserving the town's built heritage. The Whites Lane Conservation Area abuts an historic home scheduled for a demolition hearing March 3.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS People who love old buildings and serve on historical commissions face a conflict. Their instinct is to preserve, but often they are required to facilitate demolition of historic structures.

“It's really discouraging,” said Ann Sinclair, chair of the historical commission. “After all, what is it that people love about Orleans? Houses, the old homes and the ocean.”

On Friday, March 3, at 4 p.m., the commission will hold a public hearing on a demolition request for a riverfront house at 29 Hensons Way. Parts of the home date to 1797, according to town records.

“That's pretty early,” Sinclair said. “There are not a lot of 1700s around. This house is near the water and they want to make the most of the property.”

The house, barn, and almost two acres of land were sold in December for $1,625,000. Garrett Dutton is listed on the demolition request as the new owner; he could not be reached for comment by press time.

“I've looked at the house,” Sinclair said. “I don't think it needs to be torn down, but I know they'll come in with a contractor who says it's in terrible shape, we can't save it.”

The commission has limited authority.

“We have to know what their plans are,” Sinclair said. “They can't just tear it down and leave (the lot) empty. The most we can do is put a one year's delay on the demolition. During that year, the owner and the commissioners try to get someone to move the building. There are not a lot of empty, flat lots around Orleans, and not many people are interested in moving these old buildings.”

Sinclair said the commission “is very lenient when it comes to people tearing down an ell, or two ells, or sometimes a barn, but we hate to see a whole house being torn down.”

But that's the temptation. The real estate listing for the property notes that “Extensive upland can potentially support new five-bedroom home and swimming pool; or extensive renovations/additions to the existing antique.” The listing describes the property, which abuts the Whites Lane Conservation Area, as “set amidst gently rolling lawns, towering trees, beach plum and marsh grass.” That's echoed by a line from the inventory done in 1989 by the Orleans Historical Society: “A former assessor termed this the loveliest Colonial Cape in Orleans with its expansive lawn and frontage on the river.”

Orleans Conservation Trust Director Elizabeth Migliore said OCT was interested in the neighboring property. “We had an initial conversation with the owners but were not able to negotiate a bargain sale,” she said.

Historian Bonnie Snow was among those who inventoried this and other properties almost three decades ago. She served on the historical commission for about 20 years.

“It is a dilemma,” she said. “The houses are valuable because they're old, but sometimes the restoration is going to be astronomical. As far as moving them, you try and pay to move and buy a lot to put it on. It's a very hard decision to make. I can understand both sides of it. I applaud anyone who has the patience, time and money to save them.”

Snow said the former owners, the Henson family, donated materials to the Orleans Historical Society, including some of Vernon Smith's silk work. Town records show Llewellyn L. Henson buying the property in 1911. Previous owners included James Charles, keeper of the Orleans Life Saving Station on Little Pochet Island.

As far as saving the town's historic buildings, Sinclair and her colleagues aren't ready to give up the fight.

“We have no local historic districts yet,” she said. “We tried to get one over 20 years ago and false information was spread about it and it didn't go forward. We're going to try again next year. We have consultants working with us who are doing work on the historic inventory. We hope to have all of our buildings that are historic and have interior integrity on our inventory.”

For now, Sinclair warned, “All the old houses that are on the water are in danger of this happening to them.”