Iconic 'Starboard Light' House Will Be Restored; Commission Lifts Demo Delay Order

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

The iconic Starboard Lighthouse house will be preserved at its existing location overlooking Stage Harbor. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – For 13 years, Robert Moss admired the old house at 154 Champlain Rd., where the street bends at a right angle and commands a panoramic view of Stage Harbor. He walked past it whenever he was in town, and often encountered people taking photos or just enjoying the view.

“It's just such an enjoyable spot,” he said.

Five years ago Moss offered to buy the historic home, known as Starboard Light, and finally came to an agreement with owner Robert Mahoney last summer. Last month, the historical commission agreed to lift a demolition delay order it had placed on the iconic building after accepting Moss' plan to save the nearly 190-year-old Cape.

Moss intends to move the house 37 feet to the east onto a new foundation, for the most part keeping intact the appearance of the property from the street and from the water. The rear section, which was built around the 1940s and was determined by the commission to not be historically significant, will be removed, and new “Nantucket” style construction will be added that Moss said will blend with the original building.

“The whole idea is when you drive by, it's the exact house everyone has seen for 190 years,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

His plans have several more stops before being finalized. Moss will be before the zoning board of appeals seeking a special permit today (Thursday, Jan. 9) at 4 p.m., and will be back before the conservation commission on Jan. 13. If there are no complications, he expects to lift and move the house in March and complete the project in about eight months.

Nick Fitzhugh's documentary “Starboard Light” told the story of the decision by the filmmaker's family to sell the house, which has been on the scenic corner since 1830, and may have been built even earlier and moved there. Issues of family and home were explored in the movie as the Fitzhughs wrestled with the sale of the property that has served as a family gathering spot for generations. Mahoney bought the house to preserve the view from his home directly behind Starboard Light, as the house was known. It was on and off the market for several years, but failed to attract a buyer at least partially due to Mahoney's imposition of height restrictions on any new construction.

“It forces you into building a smaller house than would normally be done on a lot with this value and location,” said Moss, a retired builder and developer who lives in Southborough. The challenge of preserving such an iconic building, either by restoration or moving it to another location, may also have been daunting, he added.

His plans went through several iterations before the final version that met with approval by both Mahoney and the historical commission. While he wanted to keep the original building on the site, Moss initially wanted to move it back behind new construction, but that would have changed the streetscape.

“They really wanted to preserve that,” he said of the commission, which imposed the demolition delay to ensure that the house would not be demolished while ways to save it were explored.

Commission members praised Moss for his sensitivity to the building's historical integrity and his cooperation.

“We don't always see that,” said commission member Steve Burlingame.

With more and more historic homes being demolished or altered beyond recognition, saving this structure “means a lot to us,” said commissioner Jane Moffett.

Dealing with the commission was a positive experience for him, said Moss. “Everyone bent a bit and it all ended well,” he said.

Moss said he intends to restore the exterior of Starboard Light, using historically accurate but new windows and trim. It will be placed on a concrete foundation which will be faced with brick to resemble the current brick foundation. The chimney will be rebuilt and will not function, but it will be reproduced to the exact dimension and appearance of the original, he said. The interior will be converted to two bedrooms.

He even plans to preserve the existing white picket fence which he said is “part of the whole character of the house.” A wall mural in the sections that will be demolished will also be preserved. The three-by-six-foot mural will not be easy to preserve because it is painted right onto the wall, but it is a “good piece of history to preserve,” he said. The mural is thought to have been painted by Alice Stallknecht, who painted the “Christ Preaching to the Multitude” mural at the Atwood House and who lived nearby, but it is not signed.