South Chatham National Historic District Nomination Gets Positive Reception

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

This map from the 1880 Barnstable County Atlas shows that South Chatham was recognized as a separate and distinct village by that date.

CHATHAM – Barring unforeseen objections, it looks like smooth sailing for the proposal to nominate South Chatham as a National Register Historic District.

There were few questions and no objections raised to the plan at a public informational meeting last week sponsored by the historical commission and the South Chatham Village Association, attended by about 25 neighborhood residents. At the end of the session, held at the annex, almost all raised their hands when asked if they supported the nomination.

Three times the South Chatham Village Association has met and endorsed the nomination, president Chad Yates noted. The nomination recognizes “the specialness and uniqueness of South Chatham,” he said.

“It's come from residents of South Chatham requesting that the historical commission and the town give us that recognition,” Yates said.

South Chatham has been a unique village since about 1730, said historical commission chairman Frank Messina, who is also a resident of South Chatham. The commission has done a historic inventory of the historic homes in the area, more than 100 of which are considered contributing to the district.

“This is a further way to acknowledge it and give it an honorarium at the national level,” he said of the neighborhood.

The setting and sense of place is an important factor in a National Register District, said historical consultant Eric Dray. While not every building is historic or a contributing structure, there is a cohesiveness to the village, he said.

“South Chatham has been a distinct and important historic place for a long time,” he said.

While being listed as a National Register Historic District creates a sense of “community pride,” Dray said it has few impacts on individual owners. Restoration of business properties can qualify for state and federal tax credits, but private owners have few restrictions.

“It was never intended to be a device to protect resources,” he said. “It really was about honoring and recognizing and educating people about special places.”

There are two exceptions in South Chatham. Properties along Route 28 fall under the jurisdiction of the historic business district commission, which has authority to review exterior changes to buildings. And the Cape Cod Commission has the authority to review—and even prohibit—demolition of contributing structures. The local historical commission can also refer alterations that impact the historical significance of a contributing structure to the Cape Cod Commission. That rarely happens, however, Messina said. Only two or three projects in the Old Village, which is also a National Register Historic District, have been referred to the commission after 20 years.

“The vast majority of people who have a historic structure of this level of significance don't want to see it demolished,” said Cape Cod Commission Preservation Planner Sarah Korjeff.

Historic district listing, she said, is “a way to provide some protection for these resources that are not just important to us because they're historic and they're old and they speak to our history, but because they play a critical role in cultural tourism and the arts and the cultural economy of the Cape, and the economy as a whole.”

The Massachusetts Historical Commission, which administers the National Register in the state, has already determined that South Chatham is eligible for listing. The next step in the process is preparing a detailed nomination form for submission to the state commission, which will then hold a meeting for property owners in the district. If more than half oppose, the nomination will not move ahead, Dray said. If most support the nomination, it will be voted on by the state historical commission and forwarded to the National Park Service to be added to the National Historic Register.

There were a few questions about specific properties at the meeting, but the vast majority of those attending supported moving on to the next step in the process.