18-month Demo Delay Imposed On Iconic Stage Harbor House

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

Starboard Light.  TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The historical commission imposed an 18-month demolition delay on the iconic Champlain Road home known as Starboard Light, but agreed on a shorter delay—six months—for several ancillary buildings and additions.

The commission asked owner Robert Mahoney to advertise the availability of the additions, which date from the early 1900s, so that they could be moved and preserved or salvaged. But because saving the main house, which may date from the early 1800s, is a priority, commissioners agreed that the additions could be demolished if it meant preserving the older structure.

Mahoney's attorney, William Litchfield, said one potential buyer is interested in preserving the three-quarter Cape house on the 154 Champlain Rd. property, which overlooks Stage Harbor, but only if the rear additions are removed. Having assurance from the commission that could be done will allow the person to work with other town boards to explore the parameters of new construction on the lot.

Two other parties are interested in moving the main house to another location and restoring it, Litchfield said. Mahoney bought the property a decade ago from the Fitzhugh family; it was featured in a 2013 documentary by Nicholas Fitzhugh called “Starboard Light,” about the family's struggle with the decision to sell the home. In the past several years, Litchfield said, Mahoney has tried to find a buyer who wanted to preserve the property as is but was not successful.

Members of the commission were not necessarily happy about the possibility of the additions being removed.

“Rounding the bend, I always loved the complex,” said Jane Moffett.

Removing the rear additions will “change the streetscape,” said Tim Smith. Ben Smolenski agreed, but said he was conflicted.

“If they move that house, then the streetscape is gone,” he said. Sandi Porter said she's willing to go along with sacrificing the additions; losing the main house “would really be a heartbreak,” she said.

“You've got to give something up to get something,” added Smith.

Two weeks ago Cape Cod Commission Preservation Planner Sarah Korjeff toured the buildings at the request of the historical commission, which wanted to determine if the additions were historically significant. She walked through the breezeway, rear kitchen addition and two outbuildings, the larger of which appeared to be two buildings attached together, while the smaller was likely an early carriage shed or one-car garage from the early 1900s, she wrote in an email to the commission. All appear in a 1938 aerial photo, she added, but they have been modified and don't retain many distinguishing features. “I think the clear significance of the property lies in the main house,” she wrote.

Commission member Donald Aikman said he was “torn,” because the additions were clearly more than 75 years old, the age at which buildings come under the commission's jurisdiction, but he saw them as less significant than the main house.

The house was reportedly built on Nantucket and floated to Chatham sometime in the mid 1800s. A demolition delay order was imposed in 2011 or 2012, Litchfield said, and has since expired, but Mahoney didn't demolish it then and has no intention of demolishing it now. The property has several complicating factors, including flood plain and zoning restrictions, and the prospective buyer wants to be able to address those knowing that the additions can be removed, thus Mahoney filed for a demolition permit to start the demolition delay process again.

Mahoney, who has a home behind Starboard Light, is likely to impose a height restriction on any new construction on the lot, Litchfield said. The zoning board of appeals may also impose other restrictions that could limit the property's redevelopment, he added.

While commission members unanimously voted that both the main house and additions are “historically significant,” they agreed to the shorter demolition delay period for the outbuildings.

Fitzhugh said it would be a shame for the any part of the building to be torn down. “To me it is one of the last bastions of what Chatham was,” he said. The property is a symbol, “something of deep value,” he said, not just to his family but to many people in town and many who have seen his film. But he understands the need to compromise and said allowing the additions to either be moved or razed was “reasonable.”

“It's about the best we can hope for,” he said.

One element of the kitchen addition that will be saved is a painting by Alice Stallknecht, known for her mural “Christ Preaching to the Multitude” and others now owned by the Chatham Historical Society and displayed at the Atwood Museum on Stage Harbor Road. She painted the fresco, which shows members of the Fitzhugh family taking in the view from the Stage Harbor side of the property, right on the wall of the kitchen. There are at least three individuals who want the painting, which Litchfield said could be removed intact. Coincidentally, Lou Horton, who lives in the Stallknecht home on Stage Harbor Road, said he is one of those interested in moving Starboard Light onto his property and preserving the structure.