Second Stage Harbor Rd. Demo Halted

By: Tim Wood

The house at 372 Stage Harbor Rd. was included on a draft map of a historic district for the neighborhood. TOWN OF CHATHAM GRAPHIC

CHATHAM – The proposed demolition of a home along Stage Harbor Road was halted by the historical commission last week, the second time in recent months the group has put a hold on plans to raze a historic structure in the neighborhood.

The action comes as the commission prepares for a meeting Saturday of Stage Harbor Road property owners to discuss the creation of a National Historic Register District in the neighborhood.

In a June letter, Betsy Friedberg, National Register Director for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, notified the historical commission that the Stage Harbor Road neighborhood meets the eligibility requirements for listing as a National Register Historic District. The area features “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,” she wrote. The district would encompass approximately 34 contributing houses over 29 acres stretching from Cross Street to Bridge Street, although the exact boundaries have yet to be determined.

Saturday's meeting with property owners, scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at the Atwood House and Museum on Stage Harbor Road – one of the oldest houses on the street and home to the Chatham Historical Society – is one of the first steps in the process toward establishing a National Historic District. If a majority of property owners support the district, the Massachusetts Historical Commission forwards the nomination to the National Park Service.

The determination that the neighborhood is eligible for listing on the National Register means that the commission could refer proposed demolitions or significant alterations to the Cape Cod Commission, chairman Frank Messina said during an Aug. 15 demolition delay hearing on a plan to raze the house at 391 Stage Harbor Rd. “I don't want to do that, but that is an option that we have,” Messina said.

Both the owners of the house, Robert and Elizabeth Potter of Winchester, and their architect, Chris Cannon, argued that the building was not historically significant. Cannon said the owners began looking at replacing the house, built sometime between 1910 and 1920, four years ago. It is in poor condition, with sagging roof, floors and ballooning walls, he said. They were initially under the impression that it was not historically significant, and Cannon argued it did not meet the criteria for that designation. Although it is “marginally” in the Queen Anne architectural style, it is from the end of that period and lacks significant distinctive features. Imposing a demolition delay, Cannon added, would be “a stretch.”

Even though the house might not be the best example of its architectural type, it is still significant in terms of the cohesion of the neighborhood, Messina said.

“It doesn't have to fit into a box for something to be historically significant,” he said. If the commission allowed its demolition, “every stick of that house will be gone.”

Several neighbors supported the demolition proposal, saying that the new house Cannon designed was more in keeping with the neighborhood architecturally. Abutter Sam Weisman said the Potters are good neighbors and he'd hate to see them leave because the house doesn't work for their family.

“A neighborhood isn't just the wood and bricks, it's the people,” he said. If the Potters can't carry out their plan, they, or a subsequent owner, may be back with the same proposal in a few years, he suggested.

Making repairs to the house would cost nearly $100,000, Cannon said. Builder Bob Stello said he didn't think the structure could withstand being moved off the site.

The commission voted 4-3 to impose an 18-month demolition delay, which Messina said is designed to provide time for the owners to “take another hard look at it to see if you can save most if not all [of the house] and make it livable.” The owners can return to the commission any time during that period with a proposal to incorporate the original building into new construction, save a portion of the building, or move it, and if the plan is accepted, the delay can be lifted.

With the eligibility determination by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the commission could also refer the matter to the Cape Cod Commission. While all the local commission can do is delay demolition, the commission could prevent it.

Earlier this year the commission imposed a demolition delay on an 1864 house at 271 Stage Harbor Rd. Messina said the commission has been trying to work with the owner to find alternatives to tearing down the house.

The proposal for a historic district for the Stage Harbor Road neighborhood has been discussed for several years, but the pace of alterations and demolitions that officials fear will alter the historic character of the neighborhood has increased recently, prompting the commission to take steps to make the idea a reality. At last May's annual town meeting, voters approved community preservation funds to cover the cost of a consultant to help prepare the nomination.

A historic district nomination for South Chatham is also in the works, and public meeting of residents of the neighborhood is scheduled for next month.