ORLEANS — If the Orleans Historical Commission gets its way, one of the oldest buildings in Orleans will be preserved either in its current location or a new location.
The seven-member board voted unanimously at its virtual Aug. 26 meeting to impose a 12-month demolition delay on the front building at 12 West Rd.
The building is “one of a handful of properties in Orleans that is still standing that was built before our incorporation as a town,” said Ron Petersen, chair of the commission. The building, a three-quarter Cape, has been dated to circa 1795, two years before the town was incorporated. “It’s a visible representation of an important part of the evolution of the landscape we occupy here today.”
Petitioner Todd Thayer has asked to demolish the structure “due to its maturity and demising condition,” according to the notice of intent Thayer’s attorney Benjamin E. Zehnder of La Tanzi, Spaulding and Landreth filed with the town in July. The notice also highlights that the building is located in the general business zoning district. “Petitioner is in the process of preparing a business plan for this business-zoned lot.”
The Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, a database of historic properties, refers to the house as the M. Long House, based on an 1858 map. Built in what was once a rural district, the building is now just past Orleans Auto Center. When the house was examined in 1981, it had a split rail fence and foundation plantings consisting of apple trees and lilacs. It was then used as a residence and gift shop. “Unfortunately, it is in a business zone which is ready to explode with development this year,” the report noted. Nearly 40 years later, the house is still standing and home to Collins Galleries. A second building on the 0.47-acre lot, which serves as Alice Mongeau Gallery and Studio, was built in about 1950 and listed as a garage. It is not subject to the demolition delay.
The house is significant for its late 18th century date and also because it was reportedly a tavern during the War of 1812, when the town was attacked by the British.
“I can literally imagine the Orleans militia in December of 1814, after they repelled the assault on Orleans, returning to that tavern for a pint or two,” Petersen said in an interview last week. Petersen is well-known as a local lecturer on Orleans history. The town was attacked by the British on Dec. 19, 1814, in what is known as “The Battle of Orleans.”
As well as the tavern connection, the house is significant because it was built during the period known as “Orleans before Orleans”— the time when Orleans was still a part of the town of Eastham, Petersen said.
While Petersen recognizes that the town has to make room for progress, the commission’s goal is to “preserve as much important history of the town that we can.” He listed a number of houses that have recently been torn down. “One by one they’re falling by the wayside,” he said. “Dropping to the bulldozer’s blade.” About 50 18th century houses remain in town, he said, adding that the town is in the process of compiling a compendium of them. A very few houses remain from the pre-1776 period. The house at 31 Canal Rd. is believed to be the town’s oldest house, built in 1723 from the timbers and framing of the town’s original meeting house that may date from the mid-17th century.
During the Aug. 26 meeting, Zehnder noted that the commission imposed a 12-month demolition delay on the house in 2010. Because it was not demolished within two years after the delay expired, the owner was required to reapply for a demolition permit.
“Conditions have changed,” Zehnder said. “What Todd is trying to do is plan for use of the property in the short term, medium term, future when sewers come in. It’s commercially zoned in an area with increasing commercial development. This property has utility and capital significance in terms of location.” He added that Thayer does not have “specific plans” on what might be constructed at the site and that Thayer is willing to make the house available to anyone who might want to remove it from the site.
“This is really just a strategy to plan in advance,” Thayer added.
Member John Harter dubbed the owner’s appearance before the board “a clarion call.”
“The owner of this building would really like it to be preserved but not on his property, so let’s get together and do that. We’re at a demolition delay hearing not because we want to demolish but we need that checked off the list for development.”
Zehnder agreed that that was an accurate assessment.
The commissioners referred to various sources such as the Cape Cod Commission, which has a demolition delay network that puts preservationists together with endangered buildings that might be preserved by moving them to a new site.
“The reality is, if somebody is interested in that building, preserving it, I’m all for it. It just has to be worked out the right way,” Thayer said.
Petersen added that “preservation in place is always preferable. Moving a historic property is a distant second best.”