CHATHAM – David Burnie grew up here, and the changes he's seen over the years haven't all been positive. So when the opportunity came to preserve a part of the town's history, he didn't hesitate.
“I didn't want to change it,” he said of the house at 17 Seaview St., which overlooks Sears Park and Main Street. “I think it's a beautiful-looking house.”
Burnie, co-owner of Coastline Construction, is completely renovating the Greek Revival home, which served as the parsonage of the First Congregational Church of Chatham when it was built (in either 1850, according to the town assessing records, or between 1860 and 1863, according to the historical commission's historic inventory form). He said the approximately 160-year-old building is in good structural condition, and most of the deterioration seen on the exterior is cosmetic (much of the trim and other elements are original, he said). The building was lifted last week so that a new foundation could be installed, revealing a well-preserved substructure.
“The bones of the house are really good,” said Burnie.
The builder decided to restore the home rather than tear it down and start from scratch, even though that would be more economical. That's too often the route taken these days, as a drive down Stage Harbor Road or almost any other street in town shows. Burnie said he doesn't like how that approach has changed the town. His love of old buildings, the visible location of the house and its adjacency to the Port Royal House—which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places—gives it a special prominence in town, and comes with a responsibility, he said.
“I just felt it was worth it,” he said of renovation over demolition.
The previous owners of the house, Richard and Marie Soffey, were also looking for a buyer who would preserve the old building they bought in 1979, where they ran an antique store and real estate office. At a zoning board of appeals hearing in February, Richard Soffey said Burnie was the only buyer who was willing to restore the house and not tear it down.
“That was important to them,” Burnie said.
Along with a new foundation, repairs to exterior elements, a new roof and shingles and new historically accurate doors and windows, Burnie plans to put a small garage/addition at the rear and will add a wrap-around farmer's porch. Because the 14,298-square-foot lot is partially in the general business district, it went before the historic business district commission in January. Unlike the historical commission, which can only impose delays on proposed demolition of historical buildings, the HBDC has the authority to either approve or disapprove of exterior changes on any building within the town's business districts. While where there was some concern expressed about the impact the porch would have on the building's historic facade, it was approved by the commission. At the zoning board hearing, several abutters objected to the “country farm house” appearance the porch would add. The ZBA also approved the project.
Burnie said his research turned up an old photo of the house with a flat porch along the front. Porches were not unusual for Greek Revival-style homes, he added, and it fits in with the neighborhood; many of the homes along Seaview Street have one type of porch or another, he pointed out.
The historical inventory form describes the structure as a “three-bay gable-end Greek Revival/Italianate style house,” with two and a half stories and two chimneys on the center ridge. The entryway on the let side is framed by pilasters and headed “by what appears to be a recent pediment.”
“This house is a standard example of a common mid to late 19th century dwelling type,” the form reads, adding that the two-and-a-half-story height is “somewhat unusual” in town.
The home, the form continues, was built by local carpenter Sam Mayo to replace an earlier parsonage that had been located next to the original Congregational Church at what is now Union Cemetery. That parsonage burned down in 1860, destroying more than 150 years of the town's vital records.
Ministers lived in the home for about 100 years until it was sold by the church and used as a private home.
While the interior is well-preserved (Burnie said there were only two layers of wallpaper inside), the layout will be renovated to make more modern living space, and it will be updated to meet current codes. “But we didn't have to tear it apart to do that,” he commented, “which is good.”
The entire project is expected to take 10 to 12 months. Burnie, a Chatham High School graduate who now lives in Harwich, said he's worked on antique and historic homes in Harwich, Orleans, Sandwich and elsewhere, would rather spend the time and money to restore an old house than build a new one.
“We enjoy it because the new houses are just boxes,” he said.