Demolition Of Historic West Harwich Structure Proposed

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Historic preservation

The 1870s house that used to be owned by the Baptist Church along Route 28 in West Harwich is being considered for demolition. Property owner Sunrise Nominee Trust has filed a notice of intent for demolition with the historic district and historical commission. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH — The historic district and historical commission will be acting on a notice of intent for the demolition of a historic structure at 52 Route 28 in West Harwich. The structure, the former Capt. George Winchell Baker House, was built circa 1870.

The Route 28 corridor through West Harwich has been the focus of an initiative to establish a Captains' Row Historic District extending from the Herring River Bridge to the Dennis town line. There has been a lot of effort expended by residents of the area in researching the various captain's homes built more than 100 years ago along that section of Route 28.

J. Duncan Berry, one of the proponents of the Captains' Row Historic District, said his group is still working with the Massachusetts Historical Commission on the creation of a district. He said the state is “very enthusiastic” and has spoken to enlarging the district as requested by 40 percent.

He said a public relations initiative is planned to explain to property owners that the district will not impact property rights; rather it will allow the placement of plaques citing the historic value of buildings, and because of that recognized value it will allow tax rebates and materials discounting for renovations which comply with preservation standards.

“People have to understand the cultural value is the key to the economic value,” Berry said.

The historic assets inventory form on file with the Massachusetts Historical Commission states the house proposed for demolition was built for Capt. George Winchell Baker, circa 1870. Baker is described as the first captain of the schooner B. D. Chase. In 1850, he was engaged in coastal trade in the E.W. Baker.

“During the Civil War, he was acting ensign in the Navy. In 1868, he was in command of a government warship for several weeks. He received a spinal injury which resulted in blindness the last 10 years of his life ('Harwich Men of the Sea,' 1977:13). Baker lived in this house through the beginning of the 20th century,” the historical narrative prepared for the town in 1993 by Deirdre Brotherson reads.

Brotherson wrote that the building is a good example of a two-story, front gable Italianate style residence, a common building form in late 19th century Harwich. She pointed out the one-story porch on the east elevation was added circa 1920 and a one-story rear addition is more recent, probably circa 1990. The condition of the structure was considered “good” in the 1993 report.

When Brotherson did the historic inventory for the town, the building, which sits on .8 acre, belonged to the Baptist Church, located across Depot Street from the house. The owner/applicant for the demolition request is Sunrise Nominee Trust.

The historic assets inventory conducted in 1993 referred to the potential for a West Harwich historic district including properties from 215 Route 28 east to the Herring River. The inventory said the far west end of Route 28 was not included in the district because demolition and new construction has “severely diminished the integrity of this part of West Harwich.”

The inventory also states the district is being significant as a village center closely tied to the fishing and coasting trades. Ship building occurred in the village through the 19th century and many ship captains and others associated with the trade lived there, it states.

“The district retains integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association. Some new construction has occurred in the village but the number of contributing properties far outnumber the non-contributing properties,” the inventory states.

An earlier version of the MCC inventory dating back to 1974 cited county maps as showing the structure there before 1858 and refers to the dwelling as the “L. Baker's Boarding House.”

There was a structural building inspection and evaluation done on the property by Trinity Engineering Group. The report says the original house and additions are in a serious state of disrepair with broken windows exposing the interior of the building to the weather.

It further says the roof is deteriorating and roof plank sheathing is structurally compromised from exposure to moisture, and that water has damaged the ceilings and floor framing. Vandalism and animal infestation are also a problem.

“ I observed significant amounts of animal feces throughout the house which appears to be from an infestation of raccoons which is a serious health issue,” stated the report provided by David B. O'Neill, principal of Trinity Engineering Group, a Rhode Island-based company.

“Based upon my visual observations of the building and given the age, occupancy status and associated structural issues from exposure to the weather and vandalism, it is my engineering opinion that the building is structurally unsound and presents a life-safety issue and needs to be demolished. It is not economically feasible to make the repairs that would be required” to make the building livable.

The HD&HC will weigh whether or not to invoke the demolition delay bylaw, allowing up to a one-year stay in issuing a demolition permit to allow time to see if there are parties interested in saving or relocating the structure. The hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. in the town hall hearing room.