CHATHAM – Lacking a plan for redevelopment of the former Monomoy Theatre property, the historic business district commission last week denied requests to demolish five of the seven buildings at 766 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd.
“I feel very uncomfortable approving a demolition of anything down there without a comprehensive plan,” said Chairman Dan Sylver.
There were previous plans for redevelopment of the property, which included 24 condominiums and restoration of the former theater building and the historic Washington Taylor House, but those were pre-empted when voters at a special town meeting last month shot down a proposed zoning change. At the Nov. 18 HBDC hearing, Greg Clark, whose Chatham Productions LLC purchased the 2.7-acre property in September 2019, said that other than restoration of the two historic structures, redevelopment options were still being evaluated and there was no specific plan at this time.
“We don't intend to have that for a while,” he said.
There is no intention to reuse any of the five buildings targeted for demolition, all of which are in poor condition, said Victoria Clark.
“Because of the way the media has portrayed us so far, we're trying to keep some things under wraps, because there has been a lot of negativity surrounding the project to begin with,” she said. “We're not trying to advertise what is happening until we get further enough along in the organization and planning process.”
Greg Clark said later in the week that he planned to appeal the denial. Under the commission's regulations, the board of selectmen hears appeals of HBDC decisions, which must be filed within 14 days.
The commission doesn't often approve demolition without knowing what will replace the razed structures, said Sylver. “We have done it, but rarely,” he said. Commissioner Sam Streibert said the buildings on the Monomoy Theatre property contributed to “a unified purpose,” and given the prominent downtown location, he was reluctant to “wipe the slate clean” without a plan for its future.
“We'd like to know what the systemic purpose for the property is,” he said. “That's what we're holding out for.”
For more than 80 years, the property served as a summer theater. Since the 1950s it trained theater students, first under Ohio University and more recently the University of Hartford. It closed in 2018 after health and safety violations were found by the town, and the university and then-owners the Steindler family could not come to an agreement on renovations. The Steindlers sold the property to Clark, a Newton-based developer who has a summer home in town, for $3.65 million.
The centerpiece of the property is the 1861 Washington Taylor House, and the theater, a portion of which is said to date from 1800. No matter what happens on the property, those buildings will be restored, said the Clarks.
All five buildings proposed for demolition – a cottage at 70 Depot Rd. and a shed, scene shop, refreshment center/costume shop, and apartment building on the Main Street property – are more than 70 years old, the Clarks said, but a review of the Chatham Historical Society files and other data failed to turn up any information that qualify the structures historically or architecturally significant. All are in “extreme disrepair.”
“We know we're not going to use these buildings,” said Greg Clark. “No matter what we do on that property, we have no intention of reusing them.”
The previous plans call for incorporating the scene shop into new construction on the east side of the theater, but now that building is slated for demolition, said commissioner Steve DeBoer. “I don't know why it was good enough then but it's not good enough now,” he said.
The scene shop, located behind the theater, is unsteady, the roof bowed, and would not survive a move, said Greg Clark. It was never “good enough...We would have had to rebuild it completely even under the plan we submitted a year ago.”
The apartment building, located behind the theater and used as a dormitory and dressing rooms, was built in the 1920s as a gas station nearby on Main Street. Town funds were used to relocate it in the 1990s, Sylver said.
“Apparently it is not just an old shack that someone put out in the woods,” he said.
The entire exterior of the building has been renovated and bears no resemblance to its historic appearance, said Victoria Clark. It was also one of the buildings cited by the town for health and safety violations, she said.
Historic inventory forms completed by the historical commission in the 1990s relate a colorful history for the cottage at 70 Depot Rd. It was allegedly an ice cream shop on North Beach and moved first to the Old Village and then to this location. Victoria Clark said those stories were just “folklore” and there was no documentation to support the building's history. The Massachusetts Historical Commission rejected the information in the form, she added.
Historical commission chairman Frank Messina agreed that much of the town's history could be considered folklore because it relies on anecdotes and word of mouth. “Chatham doesn't have a good history in terms of its records,” he said. While not commenting on whether or not the buildings should be razed, he agreed they were in “very bad repair” and said that an individual who had been interested in moving the 70 Depot Rd. cottage declined after looking at it and finding that its condition was too poor.
The commission's insistence that there be plans in place is outside of the scope of its jurisdiction, said Greg Clark. “We don't plan on putting anything in place of those buildings on Main Street, I can tell you that definitely,” he said. If new construction is eventually proposed, it would follow HBDC guidelines, added Victoria Clark.
But those assurances did not mollify commission members.
“This is the most unusual large-scale project” he's seen, said Streibert, “with a plan first and then no plan. I find that very disturbing.”
“I think we should know what's going to go there before the demolition,” said vice chair Darci Sequin.
The commission denied all five demolition requests. As of Tuesday, an appeal of the HBDC's decision had yet to be filed with the board of selectmen. Silver noted during the hearing that selectmen have never overturned an HBDC decision.
The Clarks petitioned to hold the special town meeting to create a Main Street Theater Overlay District, which would have waived certain zoning regulations in order to create a year-round community arts center including the theater, a wine bar, dorm rooms for a summer theater program, and condominiums near the Depot Road side of the property. In an outdoor meeting at the adjacent Veterans Field, voters unanimously rejected the change. Under zoning law, the owners cannot return with a similar proposal for two years, and must conform to what is allowed in the general business two district that currently applies to the property.