House At Center Of Documentary Goes On The Market

By: Tim Wood

The antique house at 154 Champlain Rd., known as “Starboard Light,” is for sale. The house was featured in a 2013 documentary about a family's decision to sell their summer home.

CHATHAM – The antique house that is at the center of the documentary “Starboard Light” is on the market.

Located at 154 Champlain Rd., where the waterfront street bends north, the late 18thcentury house overlooks Stage Harbor and includes beachfront south of the roadway. The one-and-a-half story three-quarter Cape was said to have been moved to the site from Nantucket.

Appraised by the town's assessing department at $2,575,000, the 1,967-square-foot, six-bedroom house is on the market for $3.5 million.

The 2013 documentary “Starboard Light” tells the story of the Fitzhugh family's decision to sell the summer home, which had been in the family since 1925. The central gathering space for several generations, it was no longer economically viable to maintain. Nick Fitzhugh chronicles what it meant for his family to let go of nearly a century of memories represented by the house. The central question of the film is does a family make a house or does a house make a family?

“The story and to some degree the house are something that continues to move viewers, and that's great,” Fitzhugh said in a telephone interview.

The Fitzhugh family sold the house to Robert Mahoney, who owns the property directly behind Starboard Light at 186 Champlain Rd. He placed a deed restriction on the property limiting the height of any future construction, reportedly to protect the view of Stage Harbor from his 186 Champlain Rd. home. Messages left at Mahoney's Wellesley home were not returned.

Fitzhugh said he'd been told by a realtor after Mahoney bought the property for $3.4 million in 2010 that the new owner planned to sell it, but decided to hold on to it after seeing the documentary. “Which was wonderful to hear, because that's what we wanted. If it wasn't going to be with us, we wanted somebody to be using it and appreciating it,” he said.

It's uncertain how much the house has been used, although Fitzhugh said he's in contact with a caretaker who looks after the structure. If the condition has deteriorated, that does not bode well for how a new owner might approach redevelopment of the property. Often owners say they need to tear down old homes because their condition does not warrant restoration or the layout isn't optimal for modern lifestyles. Given the cost of properties like this one, and its desirable location, Frank Messina, chairman of the town's historical commission, can't see a buyer continuing to use the original structure and its rambling additions as it is currently.

“Every historic structure can't become a museum,” he said, but adaptations can be made; the oldest section, for instance, could be saved, and a new addition built to meet modern needs. “Maybe we'll find a white knight to protect it,” Messina said of the antique home.

Other than the town's demolition delay bylaw, which allows the commission to put a hold on the razing of an historically significant home for up to 18 months, there are really no other protections in place. Messina said there was discussion about extending a proposed Stage Harbor Road National Register Historic District along Champlain Road, which he felt would be deemed eligible for listing “in a heartbeat.” However, with a majority of property owners opposed, the historic district proposal was stopped in its tracks.

Demolition has not been proposed for Starboard Light at this time. Messina, not one to mince words, said the town needs more tools to prevent continued loss of its historical heritage through the razing and replacement of old homes. “I think Chatham has to double down” and develop local ordinances to foster preservation.

Fitzhugh doesn't know what condition the property is in, but if it ends up being torn down, he hopes whatever replaces it honors the spirit of the original, “so it ends up being a bit of a cross of what came before and what is to come,” he said.

“I feel like we get into trouble in many ways by completely ignoring history,” he said.

Fitzhugh's father has a small house in town that “allows the family to keep a toe in Chatham, which is nice, and important,” he said. He noted that changes to historic properties like Starboard Light have “much larger ramification than just that property.” There's a larger impact on the community as a whole, “the kind of place that Chatham and the Cape and any other place is.”

“Starboard Light” can currently be viewed on Netflix and iTunes and at www.thestarboardlight.com. It is also shown on PBS a few times a year, Fitzhugh said.