CHATHAM – A request to demolish a historical house that was the subject of a 2013 documentary will go before the historical commission next month.
“Starboard Light” is the name of the circa 1860 house at 154 Champlain Rd., as well as the title a film by Nick Fitzhugh, whose family owned the property for decades before selling it in 2010. The house was a gathering place for several generations of the Fitzhugh family until it became impractical to maintain. What it means to let go of nearly a century of family memories forms the core of the film.
The historical commission will decide in a hearing scheduled for July 16 whether to declare the house historically significant and impose a demolition delay of up to 18 months.
The Fitzhugh family sold the house to neighbor Robert Mahoney, who owns a large home behind Starboard Light, who initially held on to the property. Last year, however, Mahoney put the Champlain Road property, which includes beachfront on Stage Harbor across the road, on the market for $3.5 million.
The three-quarter Cape, sometimes referred to as the Captain Fred Eldredge House, is located at a bend in Champlain Road and overlooks Stage Harbor. The views of the harbor from the house, and of the house from the harbor, are among the most iconic in town.
Attempts to contact Mahoney were unsuccessful. According to the demolition delay hearing application on file at the community development office, submitted by Rick Roy Construction, the owner has not been able to find a buyer interested in onsite rehabilitation. All alternatives have been and are being explored, according to the application, which promises that more information will be provided at the hearing.
No plans were filed with the application, said historical commission chairman Frank Messina. Often that indicates that an owner is hoping to secure demolition approval to make the property more salable. He noted that at one time the commission considered expanding a proposed Stage Harbor Road National Historic Register District nomination to include Champlain Road, but decided to concentrate the initial effort on Stage Harbor Road proper. While property owners along Stage Harbor Road rejected the nomination, the fact that the street was declared eligible for listing makes it possible to refer demolition projects to the Cape Cod Commission, Messina said.
Had Champlain Road been included in the nomination, the commission could have considered referring the Starboard Light demolition to the Cape Cod Commission. “At the time I think the commission was kind of new to this game and we didn't want to bite off more than we could chew,” Messina said.
At the very least, Messina hopes the commission can help find someone willing to move the house to another location. Ironically, the house is said to have originated on Nantucket and been flaked (taken apart board by board) and transported across Nantucket Sound. It is one of several in the neighborhood that may have been moved across the sound, according to the commission's historical inventory form on the house.
Either removal or demolition would be a loss, changing the appearance of the neighborhood.
“It will be a significant loss to that whole streetscape,” Messina said.
Fitzhugh agreed, saying the house is “very much a part of that corner, that view.” He said his father had been contacted by Mahoney asking if the family wanted to move the house to another location.
“We started to get an idea for what was going to happen,” he said. He and a cousin are exploring possibilities for moving the house. Moving the house would work if it remains near the water, where it’s been for more than a century and a half. “Otherwise there really is no point, in our view,” he said.
Fitzhugh said he's been contacted by a number of people concerned about the fate of the house, and while the possibility of it being demolished “feels awful,” the fact that there are some who feel connected to the house and its story is positive “not just for our house but for the community.”
Currently living in Brooklyn, Fitzhugh hasn't been back to Chatham in a few years but has heard about the changes that have happened, especially in the Stage Harbor Road area. It seems almost inevitable that the old, rambling structure will be replaced by a large, modern edifice as has happened elsewhere in the neighborhood. “That would be pretty hard,” he said. But there's also possibility in Starboard Light taking on a new life in another location.
“There's something sad about that,” Fitzhugh said, “but also something that interests me about it.”