CHATHAM – The historic Coast Guard boathouse that once sat on the shore of Stage Harbor is now the subject of a legal battle in the town of Hull.
The 30-by-60-foot boathouse once sheltered the famous CG36500 motor lifeboat used to rescue the crew of the Pendleton on Feb. 18, 1952, still considered the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history. Like the CG36500, which ended up under the ownership of the Orleans Historical Society after the Chatham Historical Society passed on its acquisition, the boathouse now appears to have been passed along to another community. But unlike the rescue boat, the boathouse will most likely never return to these shores.
The boathouse was moved to Quincy in 2009 and recently found its way last year to a commercial marine operation one the shores of Hull. Property owner Michael McDevitt said he plans to restore the boathouse and use it for boat storage and other marine activites, but the town has taken him to court for failing to get the proper permits.
While the boathouse, which dates from 1936, is in tough shape, McDevitt said he plans to fix it up and is going through the permitting process to keep it on the 125 Main St. property. He is fighting the town's contention that the building is illegal; he says because it is up on rollers and not permanently attached to the property, it cannot be considered a building. The case awaits a ruling in Plymouth Superior Court.
Hull Building Commissioner Bartley Kelly said the building was placed on the property without a building permit and requires a number of other town approvals, including conservation and planning board site plan approval. McDevitt has applied to the planning board but has “a number of hurdles to jump through,” he said. A site plan review public hearing before the Hull Planning Board was scheduled to held Wednesday; McDevitt asked for a continuance to Feb. 12.
The boathouse and its 300-foot marine railway were built on the south shore of Stage Island. Decommissioned in the 1970s, the town turned down an offer to buy the structure and the .18-acre lot at 150 Stage Island Rd. for $1.
For years the boathouse and pier lingered unused and in deteriorating condition. Sporadic efforts to permit use of the pier continually failed, and as its condition grew worse, it was condemned by the town and eventually removed by the owner of the property. A plan to build a single-family house on the land called for demolition of the boathouse; members of the town's historical commission made a number efforts to save it. At the time, however, the structure did not meet the 75-year threshold for invoking the town's demolition delay bylaw.
The commission worked with Harbormaster Stuart Smith and then-Chatham Bars Inn manager Paul Zuest to find a new location for the boathouse. Plans to put it on CBI's beach just south of the fish pier parking lot seemed hopeful but “just fell apart,” said current historical commission chairman Frank Messina.
“We just ran into a buzzsaw” of regulations that made the plan impractical, he said.
David Doherty, who was then a trustee of the Chatham Conservation Foundation, then contacted Boston-based contractor Jay Cashman, who leases property on Strong Island from the Foundation. After having a positive relationship with the Coast Guard for many years, Cashman agreed to help preserve the historic boathouse, he said in an email. The idea was to remove and store the structure while efforts continued to find a new home for it in Chatham.
In March 2009, Cashman brought a 350-ton crane to Stage Harbor, lifted the boathouse onto a barge and shipped it to his marine yard in the Quincy Shipyard. The operation cost $175,000, he said.
Doherty investigated several other sites in town, including town land along the Morris Island Road causeway and behind the parking lot at Harding's Beach, but to no avail.
“It was very frustrating,” he said Monday.
“It's a shame we couldn't make it work,” added Messina.
The boathouse languished in the Quincy Shipyard until a few years ago, when Cashman considered donating it as a rowing center for the Quincy public schools. But the proposed site was “too desolate,” he said, and he decided a fireproof building would be a better choice.
Last year a member of the McDevitt family, which runs a number of marine-based businesses, asked one of Cashman's managers about moving the building to waterfront property in Hull and using it as a garage and office, Cashman said.
“I thought this was a great idea,” Cashman wrote in the email, “that the building was able to continue to be useful to the waterfront community.”
The 1,793-square-foot boathouse has been at the McDevitt property since last July, ironically just down the street from the Point Allerton Coast Guard Station. Several businesses are located on the property, including a Boston Harbor island tour business, Acushnet Marine and Jo's Nautical Bar, a restaurant and tavern.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, McDevitt said his sisters ran the vessels that took the boathouse from Chatham to Quincy and that Cashman loaned him a crane and barge to take it from Quincy to Hull. Along with using the building for boat storage, he said he may add a museum dedicated to the Coast Guard. His father served in the Coast Guard, and Hull is a “Coast Guard community. That boathouse fits in beautifully.”
He said he's had a foundation plan done and is working through the permitting process to keep the building on the property, but acknowledge “there's a lot of hurdles” to go through. He's also asking the zoning board of appeals in Hull to overturn the building commissioner's violation notice and allow the building to stay on the property without accruing fines while the permit process plays out.
“We're trying to save the building. It's a beautiful building,” he said.
At this point it's unlikely that the boathouse will find its way back to Chatham, Doherty said. Even if it was available, the expense of transporting it back is a significant factor, but “more importantly,” he said, “there's no place to put it.”