National Historic District Eligibility: Stage Harbor Yes, South Chatham Maybe

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local History

The Mercelia Evelyn Eldridge Kelley House, the only building in South Chatham currently on the National Register of Historic Places. A state historical commission official will be in town next week to inspect the area to determine if it is eligible for listing as a National Register district. THOMAS KELLEY PHOTO

CHATHAM – Stage Harbor Road appears to meet the criteria as a National Historic Register District, but a determination on South Chatham's eligibility will have to await a site visit by a Massachusetts Historical Commission official.

Betsy Friedberg, National Register Director for the commission, will be in town July 19 to tour both areas.

In April the town's historical commission requested an opinion of the eligibility of both areas as potential National Register districts. In discussions over the past several years, both areas were identified as high priorities for listing in order to provide an additional layer of protection to historic structures. At last May's annual town meeting, community preservation funds were appropriated to prepare National Register nominations.

In Barnstable County, changes – including additions and demolition – to contributing structures in National Historic Districts,or those deemed eligible for listing on the National Register, can be referred by local historical commissions to the Cape Cod Commission for more stringent review. Just being declared eligible for listing on the National Register can trigger higher levels of review, as local officials learned when the Mitchell River Drawbridge was declared eligible for listing after the state proposed replacing the bridge. That resulted in additional review and the eventual agreement to replace the old wooden bridge with a new structure with timber decking and a concrete substructure, rather than the all-concrete structure originally proposed.

The Cape Cod Commission has the authority to deny projects for eligible and contributing structures, while the commission is limited to invoking the town's demolition delay bylaw, which can put work on hold for up to 18 months.

In her June 26 letter to the historical commission, Friedberg wrote that historical inventory forms for the Stage Harbor Road area updated by the town's consultant, Eric Dray, “confirms the presence of an eligible area of largely intact houses from the 18th through the early 20th century, many associated with the development of Chatham as a maritime community, and then its evolution to a summer resort community.” The area includes approximately 34 contributing houses over 29 acres stretching from the intersection with Cross Street to Bridge Street. Those exact boundaries need to be confirmed, Friedberg wrote, but they are not likely to change much.

“The district retains integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association,” and meets two of the criteria for National Register listing, she wrote: it is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history and embodies distinctive characteristics that together represent a significant and distinguishable entity.

Whether Friedberg's letter means that the historical commission can now refer projects within the Stage Harbor Road area to the Cape Cod Commission is uncertain, said Sarah Korjeff. She planned to consult with the commission's regulatory staff to determine if they consider the letter a determination that the Stage Harbor area is eligible for the National Register.

Several alterations and demolitions in the Stage Harbor Road neighborhood have come before the commission in recent years, and one demolition delay is currently in effect. Some residents have also periodically raised the prospect of a historic district designation for the roadway, which is one of the town's oldest roads. The historical inventory road notes that it has always led to the “stage” or dock at the southern end (where a town landing currently exists). It is home to the Atwood House and Museum, owned by the Chatham Historical Society, built in 1752 by Joseph Atwood, who at one time owned much of the surrounding land (at one time the road was known as Atwood Street because so many Atwoods lived along it). The neighborhood has a mix of traditional Cape-style homes as well as elaborate and unusual Greek Revival style homes, like the Levi Atwood House at 180 Stage Harbor Rd., and examples of Italianate and Gothic Revival architecture.

While South Chatham's architectural resources are just as rich, it also includes many noncontributing structures and more recent commercial in-fill, Friedberg noted in her letter.

“A site visit would be necessary to assess the area's potential eligibility for National Register listing,” she wrote.

The town's nomination defined the district as stretching from the Bethel Cemetery at the Harwich town line east to Cockle Cove Road, including a number of contributing structures along Pleasant Street and Forest Beach Road. Those could potentially be part of the district, Friedberg wrote.

There may be as many as 100 buildings in South Chatham eligible for inclusion in an historic district. They range from traditional Capes, some as early as 1735 to Gothic Revival, Italianate the Greek Revival style structures from the 19th and early 20th century. The Mercelia Evelyn Eldridge Kelley House at 1610 Main St., a two-story Italianate style building dating from 1872, is already listed on the National Register.

South Chatham residents have supported a historic district in the neighborhood. Friedberg encouraged the commission to share National Register information with property owners in both neighborhoods, since they are “an important part of the nomination process.”

Before the state review board of the Massachusetts Historical Commission votes on a proposed National Register nomination, a public meeting of residents and property owners is held. If a majority of property owners do not object, the state commission can then recommend a nomination to the National Park Service, which maintains the National Register. According to a Massachusetts Historical Commission fact sheet, even if a majority of property owners object, the National Park Service could formally determine the properties are eligible for listing, although an actual listing will not occur.

Messina noted that South Chatham differs from the Stage Harbor Road area in one important way: properties along Route 28 are currently included in the town's historic business district, which has more restrictive regulations than the historical commission. Historically significant homes on Pleasant Street and Forest Beach Road, as well as Stage Harbor Road, don't enjoy that added level of protection.

Messina said he looks forward to meeting with Friedberg next week and moving ahead with the process.

“We can only make recommendations,” he said. “It's up to the Massachusetts Historical Commission to actual formalize it.”