Engineers Examine Old Coast Guard Boathouse

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local History , Historic preservation

The Gold Medal lifeboat CG36500 sits alongside the pier at the Stage Harbor Coast Guard boathouse in this undated photograph. Efforts are underway to move the boathouse back to Chatham. FILE PHOTO

Historic Register Designation To Be Sought

CHATHAM – Town officials have asked engineers working on the new shellfish upwelling building at 90 Bridge St. to assess the former Stage Harbor Coast Guard boathouse's condition, as well as the feasibility of the historic structure's use as a shellfish grow-out facility.

“We've asked them to do some due diligence, see what condition it's in, would it serve our purposes, what it would take to rehabilitate the building and get it down here,” said Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson.

That last task – what it will take to get the boathouse to Chatham – is key to the entire endeavor.

Currently, the structure is sitting at a marina in Hull, where it taken about a year ago from Quincy. It landed there after contractor Jay Cashman removed it from the shore of Stage Harbor in 2009 and barged it to his Quincy shipyard. Last month the boathouse was scheduled to be auctioned, but local resident David Doherty brokered a deal to remove it from the auction and purchase the structure in hopes of returning it to town.

While Doherty said he has an agreement to buy the boathouse for $10,000, how it will get back to Chatham and how the money to pay the cost of the journey – which could be upwards of $250,000 – will be raised are uncertain.

But if that can be arranged, the historic boathouse may have new life as a shellfish upwelling facility directly across Stage Harbor from where it sat for more than 70 years.

Built in 1936 with a long pier that extended from the shores of Stage Island into the harbor, the boathouse in the 1950s sheltered the Gold Medal lifeboat CG36500, famous for the rescue of the crew of the Pendleton in 1952. Considered the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history, the event was featured in the 2016 motion picture “The Finest Hours.”

Its association with the CG36500, owned by the Centers for Culture and History, may provide additional impetus to save the structure. The historical commission plans to request that the Massachusetts Historical Commission declare the boathouse eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. When the structure was threatened with demolition in 2009, the commission declared it historically significant, even though it did not meet the usual criteria of being more than 75 years old. It has now crossed that threshold, and Frank Messina, chairman of the local commission, said with the connection to the CG36500 – which is listed on the National Register – it should meet the criteria for listing. The only thing that could be a concern is that the boathouse is no longer in its original location, he said.

“It's always an issue when something is moved,” said Messina.

At its Nov. 17 meeting, the commission will vote to reaffirm the boathouse's historical significance and authorize the hiring of a preservation consultant to put together the paperwork to submit to the state commission.

A designation, Messina said, will help in making the case for Community Preservation Act funds as well as state money and other grants to move and/or rehabilitate the structure.

Harbormaster Stuart Smith met engineers from GEI Consultants and owner's project manager Rich Pomroy in Hull last Wednesday to inspect the boathouse. From a distance, the structure looked like it was in tough shape, Smith said, but on closer inspection, “we were collectively surprised what good condition it was in,” he said. “It just goes to how it was built.”

The building needs a new roof, repairs to trim and doorways and possible replacement of dormers, but is “in better condition than I thought, and certainly salvageable,” Smith said.

The open interior lends itself to repurposing to house a shellfish upweller, he said, and the height allows a second floor. “It is within inches of the same exact footprint of the building being designed” as a new upweller, he said. There were concerns about the aesthetic appearance of the proposed upweller on the town property along the Mitchell River, but the traditional design of the boathouse might satisfy those critics, Smith added.

Rehabilitating the boathouse as an upweller will probably not cost less than the $3.4 million estimate of a new building, Smith said. But it would have the benefit of preserving a significant piece of Chatham history.

“I think it has value,” he said. “What better way to spend community preservation money?”

Duncanson said it will take the engineers about two weeks to prepare an assessment of the Coast Guard boathouse. Initial reports he received are that the building “seems to be in pretty good shape, considering it's been sitting in a parking lot for 10 years,” he said. Right now the new upwelling building is in the early design stage, and that work will continue while officials discuss the Coast Guard boathouse. At some point, if officials give the go-ahead, the consultants could work up cost estimates on retrofitting the boathouse to compare costs with a new building. Whichever option is chosen, the project will require extensive permitting because the building will be located partially over the water, said Duncanson. Construction will be at least a year or more away, he said.

Doherty, who is working with Messina and several other residents, is exploring options for transporting the boathouse to Chatham. The key, he said, is securing a location for it once it arrives back in town.