ORLEANS — There's at least one moment in the town's history that the historical commission would prefer not to preserve.
On May 14, 1996, town meeting considered amending the town bylaws to create the East Orleans Main Street Historic District for “the preservation and protection of the distinctive characteristics of buildings and places significant in the history of the town of Orleans and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or their architecture, and through the maintenance and improvement of settings for such buildings and places and the encouragement of design compatible therewith.”
The Cape Codder reported that Mark Norgeot drew appreciative laughs from voters when he said, “I actually slowed down and drove the 30 mile an hour speed limit to take a look around” between Tonset Road and the Barley Neck Inn. “I didn't see one single thing I didn't like there, and we got where we are with the present zoning.” He questioned the need for an historic district.
Other voices supported the change. Perhaps some voters had read a letter published that morning from the Barley Neck's owners, Joe and Kathy Lewis. “This area is zoned for business,” they wrote. “There is nothing in place to preserve the rural and residential charm of the area. There is nothing in place to preserve the character of the antique buildings used for commercial purposes and built long before current building codes existed... By declaring this area a significant historical district, the Massachusetts Historical Commission can help property owners in the district protect their investment the way they have helped us.”
The night of May 14, town meeting said no to the historic district concept with 124 for and 188 opposed. In the next two decades, a steady stream of demolitions and alterations of historic properties rose to such a level that it's now an unusual historical commission agenda that doesn't include such a request.
In response, the commission has been laying the groundwork for a stronger defense of the town's historic structures and spaces. On June 5, commission chairman Ron Petersen hosted a presentation on “Preserving Our Past, Enriching Our Future” at Snow Library. A slide show underscored the reach of the town's history, including much that happened before it became a town in 1797. That includes Native American habitation, visits by pre-Mayflower European sailors such as Gosnold and Champlain, and the famous wreck of the Sparrow-hawk in 1626.
Issac Snow, whose 1755 homestead is preserved, is credited with naming the town, and was its last living Revolutionary War survivor. A builder, miller, mariner, and shoemaker, he trained the militiamen who responded to the British attack at Rock Harbor during the War of 1812.
There are 52 pre-1797 houses in Orleans, according to the commission. In the centuries that followed, the “built environment” came to include such standouts as the Higgins Tavern, the downtown train station, the Southward Inn, and the Calvin Snow and Shattuck houses, all gone now. The property the commission calls its “poster child,” the Kenrick-Sparrow House, was demolished within the last year.
Two slides in the presentation appeared under the title “The Next to Go:” 21 Great Oak Rd. and 261 Tonset Rd.
“We cant' preserve everything, nor should we,” the commission has stated. “We must make room for progress and advancement as our town evolves. However, we should, selectively and judiciously, preserve those areas and structures that represent and elucidate our rich and varied history.”
Created by town meeting in 1965 “for the preservation, protection, and development” of the town's historical and archaeological assets, the commission, according to the presentation, has no inherent powers to accomplish that goal. What's required is “public understanding, appreciation for our heritage, and support for preserving important historic buildings” in a “bottom up, not top down approach.”
The commission does have a demolition delay option which can halt destruction of an historic building for up to a year while options are explored, but this step rarely results in a win. In addition, the commission has overseen a recent historic property survey and has been exploring varieties of historic districts.
In an email after the presentation, Petersen wrote, “The next step for Orleans would be to establish one or more historic districts to protect historically sensitive areas more effectively. We note that Orleans is one of the very few towns on Cape Cod to have never locally established a historic district, and that many Cape towns have several...Orleans does have a piece of the regional Old Kings Highway Historic District.”
The “most important factor in preserving our heritage (is) a knowledgeable and supportive public. That is the whole point of this series of presentations,” Petersen wrote. (Another is planned for September.) “We are considering proposing one of three types of historic districts (local district under Mass law, National Historic District, and Architectural Conservation District). Each has its pros and cons, both in their effectiveness and in their respective paths to approval. We are carefully considering each type of district, the location and size of our first attempt, and any lessons that can be learned from the 1996 attempt. At this stage, its all about 'winning hearts and minds' in protecting the very special heritage that we have in Orleans.”