State Agency Asked To Rule On Monomoy Theatre's National Register Eligibility

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

After fleshing out the history of the buildings on the Monomoy Theatre property, the Chatham Historical Commission is seeking a determination of the property's eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The historical commission has asked the Massachusetts Historical Commission to determine if the Monomoy Theatre property is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

If the state agency issues a positive determination, it will be up to the new owner of the Main Street property to make a formal nomination to the federal National Park Service, which maintains the National Register.

“This is nothing more than getting our nose under the tent,” Frank Messina, chairman of the Chatham Historical Commission, said of the April 16 letter to Michael Steinitz, deputy state historic preservation officer and direction of the Massachusetts Historical Commission's preservation planning division.

Greg Clark of Alexandra Properties of Newton is set to take ownership of the 776 Main St. campus next week. He has said that the company's goal is to list the property on the National Register and renovate and modernize the theater, eventually opening it as a year-round community arts center. He has yet to file specific plans with the town or to reveal plans for the other five buildings on the property, as well as a small house at 70 Depot Rd., which is included in the sale.

Run as a summer theater since 1938, the Monomoy Theatre was leased most recently by the University of Hartford. Town inspectors found numerous health and safety issues in housing on the campus last summer, and the university declined to renew its lease following a dispute over responsibility for fixing the problems with the property's owner, the Steindler Family Trust. After rejecting theater supporters' offer to buy the property, the trust put the nearly three-acre parcel up for sale for $3.95 million.

In 2011 the local commission completed a Massachusetts Historical Commission archive form, known as a Form B, for the Monomoy property which includes a statement that the theater building and the double Greek Revival home there meet three of the four criteria for listing on the National Register. Preservation Consultant Eric Dray found some discrepancies in that document, and working with Messina and Robert Davis, author of “A History of the Monomoy Theatre,” completed an inventory form continuation sheet fleshing out and correcting the history of the two buildings as well as adding information about four other structures on the property.

According to Messina, Dray believed that while the two main structures were likely eligible for National Register listing, adding the additional buildings, including the scene and costume shops, would help improve the case for nomination.

“Those outbuildings are all part of the genre of the theater,” Messina said.

According to the updated inventory form, local businessman Washington Taylor probably built the main house on the property in 1861. Because it is a double Greek Revival house, it is possible an earlier Taylor home across the street was moved and joined onto a newer house, part of which served as a general store.

An ice house was moved from a nearby pond sometimes before 1880 (both the ice house and the double house are shown on the 1880 Barnstable County Atlas) and its post and beam construction indicates that it may be the oldest building on the property, according to the form. The former ice house is now the theater's lobby and box office. A workshop was added to the back of the ice house after the property was purchased by Stella Gill in 1922. She established a toy factory there, and it is now the main auditorium, which was enlarged and upgraded after artist Harold Dunbar purchased the property in 1935 and opened a community arts center. The Chatham Band rehearsed there and dance socials were held; it also became the home of the Chatham Drama Guild.

Mary Winslow, a trained set designer whose family owned the United Shoe Company and the Boston Herald, purchased the property in 1938 and “transformed the property into a fully equipped professional theater,” according to the inventory form. She built the scene and costume shop buildings and a bunkhouse, which may have been a converted garage moved to the site. She operated a summer stock theater for nearly two decades.

After Winslow's death in 1957, Elizabeth Baker, a Chatham summer resident and wife of Ohio University president John Baker, bought the property to house the university's summer theater program. Beginning in 1958, a company of students drawn from schools around the country put on eight shows in 10 weeks, living and working on the property.

The final building added to the campus was a former gas station that was moved from Main Street in 1990 and converted to living quarters for students. The one-and-a-half-story hip-roof building dates from the early to mid 20th century, according to the inventory form.

Despite the more detailed historical information, “This is not a slam dunk,” Messina warned. He wasn't sure how long it would take to get a response from the state commission, but said when eligibility determinations were requested for the Stage Harbor and South Chatham neighborhoods, a ruling took a couple of months. As in those cases, he expects the commission will visit the property before making a determination.

In an email to The Chronicle, Clark said he had spoken to Messina about the request to MHC. “Alexandra Properties fully supports the application,” he wrote.