CHATHAM – “We're losing homes at a significant rate.”
Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina was speaking at a hearing for yet another demolition of a home on Stage Harbor Road, but was talking more generally about why the town adopted and the commission often enforces a delay on the razing of buildings determined to be historically significant.
“We want to make owners stop and think about it,” he said at the commission's June 19 hearing. The commission isn't always successful, but even convincing an owner to save only the most historic portions of an old home can help preserve a historic streetscape.
That was what the commission was trying to do with the home at 356 Stage Harbor Rd., a 146-year-old three-quarter Cape known as the George Taylor House. Although changes have been made to the structure over the years, and it is in poor condition, commissioners said it still retains its historical significance.
“Notwithstanding the renovations, the core of the house is still there,” said Messina.
Attorney Andrew Singer, representing owners Ocinneide Properties 2 of Lewes, Del., said extensive investigation was made into renovating or moving the structure, but “ultimately none of that worked.” Instead, the owners are proposing to demolish the circa 1872 building and build a new Greek Revival-style home on the lot. Commissioners, however, say the home's historic nature demanded more effort, and voted unanimously to impose an 18-month demolition delay.
“We'd like you to go back and take another look,” said Messina.
Singer argued that in its current condition, the building's historical integrity was compromised by several additions, including a wrap-around porch. The windows and doors are not original, the chimney has been altered and dormers changed the original roof. A poor foundation replacement in the 1940s or '50s has left the house “basically sitting in the dirt,” he said. A possible relocation of the structure fell through, he added, and a structural analysis by architects determined that restoration was not feasible.
“The structure just doesn't lend itself to that,” he said. Because of the efforts that had already been made to investigate saving or moving the house, he asked for a shorter demolition delay. “They're not just coming in and saying we're going to tear this thing down, give us 18 months and we're out of here,” Singer said. “They looked at it. They spent many, many months studying what could be done.” John Ingwersen of Ad-Architects of Orleans said the firm has done extensive work on historical buildings in the area – including restoration of the Mayflower Shop and an adjacent Greek Revival building – and would not recommend demolition if the building could be saved.
“It's not in our background to just say let's just take the damn thing down,” he said.
The building, which is across the road from the Atwood House and Museum, reflects a “cottagey” look that was common on the road during the 1870s, Messina said. What's being proposed to replace it is “something that's completely different from what's there right now.” Commissioner Jane Moffett asked the architects to revisit the plans and design something more consistent with the homes in the immediate vicinity.
A year ago the commission proposed that the Stage Harbor Road area be nominated as a National Register Historic District, and the neighborhood was determined to be eligible for listing by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Homeowners, however, rejected the idea, and one of their rationales was that a Historic District designation would negatively impact their property values. Remarking on the dilapidated condition of the home at 356 Stage Harbor Rd., commissioner Robert Oliver said that is more likely to lower property values. He said he felt badly supporting an 18-month delay, because he expects the house to deteriorate further and become an eyesore.
“That's unfortunate,” he said. “However, that's not our purview.”
Also at that June 19 meeting, the commission voted not to impose a demolition delay on a proposal to alter a circa 1880 home at 239 Stage Harbor Rd. The work involves a new foundation and no significant alteration of the structure. Messina complimented the owners for preserving the building, but warned that the process of lifting an old house to install a new foundation can result in unexpected discoveries. Several years ago, a similar plan for the old Atwood Farm building just down the street resulted in its demolition after substantial deterioration was found when the building was lifted and the building commissioner determined the structure was unsafe.
“We'd like to ask you to proceed cautiously,” Messina said.
The commission also did not vote to impose a demolition delay on alterations planned for a circa 1850s home at 35 Shattuck Place. Architect Chris Cannon said the house was originally a shop located in the Old Village before being moved to the current location of the Cape Cod Five bank on Main Street and then to its present spot, which is behind the public parking lot in back of the The Chatham Squire. The building has had many additions over the years, and owners want to remove a vestibule, expand the building and add a porch along the front but don't plan to alter the original structure, he said.
While the commission found the changes would not substantially alter the building's historical significance, Messina said he was concerned that the porch would change the look of the house and asked Cannon to revisit that design element.