New Group Focuses On Saving Historic Buildings

By: Tim Wood

The effort to save this 1930s-era windmill-shaped cottage led Ellen Briggs to form Protect Our Past, which aims to preserve historic buildings. It's first project is a documentary film focusing on saving old buildings. FILE PHOTO

Benefit Screening Of 'One Big Home' Saturday

CHATHAM – The process Ellen Briggs went through to save a 1930s-era windmill-shaped summer home built by her uncle along the shore of Chatham Harbor was long and complicated, involving permissions from multiple boards and negotiations with neighbors and contractors. But it worked, and today the restored building sits behind her home, just a few hundred yards from its original location.

Briggs thought the story would make a good documentary. Her involvement also showed her that other historic buildings in town weren't as lucky as the windmill house.

In January she went to see the documentary “One Big Home” at the Chatham Orpheum Theatre. She asked director Thomas Bena, who was speaking to the audience via Skype, if he'd be interested in a film about saving historic houses.

“His eyes lit up and he said contact me. And so I did.” She traveled to Martha's Vineyard and met with Bena, the founder of the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival, and Oliver Becker, the festival's director of production.

“I really love it when people want to use my film as a catalyst to help with any kind of community project,” said Bena in a conference call Monday. He was sympathetic to Briggs' concerns; Martha's Vineyard is experiencing the same loss of old homes, which also factors into the story he tells in “One Big Home.”

“We see it here on the Vineyard on a monthly basis, if not more often,” said Becker.

In February Briggs hosted a gathering of about 30 people involved in efforts to preserve historic homes. “It was clear that I had a foundation to begin an organization,” she said.

The result is Protect Our Past, which will launch this Saturday with a screening of “One Big Home” at the Orpheum. Bena and Becker will conduct a discussion following the 9:30 a.m. showing, along with Nick Fitzhugh, whose film “Starboard Light” tells the story of his family's wrenching decision to sell an old Chatham home that had they'd owned for generations (see story, page 10).

The event will be the group's first fundraiser in its effort to make a documentary that focuses on the loss of historic homes not only in Chatham but across the Cape and Islands and the nation.

“We want to create awareness that we have a heritage which deserves preserving,” Briggs said.

“One Big Home” took Bena a decade to make and tracks his evolution from a carpenter working on huge mega-mansions to an advocate for limiting the size of houses. He said he'd condensed its message into a single line: “There really is no downside in placing reasonable limits on development.” The key word, he added, is “reasonable,” and the issue is certainly subjective and has to reflect the intent and interests of the community. “But we all know there is a tremendous downside to unfettered development,” he said.

In Chilmark, there's been no downside to regulations limiting house size. “If anything, there's been an upside,” he said. “They've preserved a sense of place.”

The Chatham Planning Board has begun discussions about regulating house size; earlier this summer the board met with officials from Truro, which implemented a zoning bylaw restricting square footage. Bena said it's important that support come from within the community. But he also urges those screening his film to not just encourage like-minded people to attend, but to invite developers, architects, planning and zoning officials. “Then the post-film conversation becomes useful.”

Such a dialog is what Briggs hopes Protect Our Past will encourage and lead to agreement among residents and officials—not just in Chatham but everywhere the issue has been raised—that something has to be done to save old homes and limit the size of new ones.

“It's complicated,” she allowed, “and because it's complicated this documentary is needed to be able to explain what the options are and to get people excited that we can do this.”

The film is “early in the journey,” said Becker, with the emphasis at this stage on finding the story within the complex issue of historic preservation. The filmmakers want to cast a wider net, out of concern that if there is too much emphasis on Chatham, the story won't resonate with a larger audience. But there are plenty of examples of the struggle to save old buildings throughout the country (some are detailed on the group's website, protectourpast.org). Becker lived in Los Angeles for a decade and said even though historic buildings there aren't as old as on the Cape, many important structures are being lost to new development.

“Each community has their own version of this,” he said.

Bena added that he is not looking to make an advocacy film. “I want to dig into why is it bad,” he said.

Even though historic buildings are being lost at an alarming pace, in Chatham and elsewhere, Briggs said she also wants to avoid being negative and concentrate on what's being saved.

“So many people have this feeling that it can be a lost cause, and it doesn't have to be,” she said. The windmill cottage is the perfect example. “A passion for saving it is why we have it. If it's important enough, you'll find a way.”

Protect Our Past is currently in the process of obtaining nonprofit status, and in the meantime is operating under the umbrella of the Center for Independent Documentaries. Eventually, Briggs hopes the group will expand to fulfill its mission statement of promoting education and raising awareness of local architectural legacy and preserving historic buildings, landscapes and landmarks. An author and radio host with a background in advertising and production, Briggs is putting her all into the effort.

“What happens in a community is a reflection of the people of the community,” she said. “Tear-downs and mega houses are not a reflection of me at all. We can't save it all, but we have to make an effort.” She encouraged anyone interested in the project to visit the website or contact her at ellen@protectourpast.org.

“One Big Home”

At the Chatham Orpheum Theatre

Saturday, Sept. 21, 9:30 a.m.

Tickets: $20, at chathamorpheum.org, or at the door