Home demolitions — in particular historic home demolitions — have flooded local review authorities in recent months, testing historic commissions, architects and homeowners as they weigh the importance of character and preservation in a rapidly changing Island real estate market.
Home at Beecher Park in Oak Bluffs slated for replacement.
— Ray Ewing
The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which has authority to review the demolition of historic homes over 100 years old as developments of regional impact, has seen a significant recent uptick in demolition referrals since the pandemic began, often meeting weekly instead of bi-weekly to handle the load.
Island towns have referred 11 historic home demolitions to the MVC since the fall of 2020 when large-scale construction resumed, including the Harman House on the Edgartown harbor, five cottages in Oak Bluffs and a summer cottage on the Edgartown Great Pond. Nine of those have come since April of this year. “There’s been a recent wave,” said commission DRI coordinator Alex Elvin.
The homes have much in common. Nearly all are mid-sized, eclectic summer homes dating to the turn of the 20th century, with unique historical features, peculiar room layouts and little insulation. What they lack in master suites or modern wiring they make up for in colorful wainscoting and window panes. They have few amenities, but are functional and often close to code. While homeowner/applicants range from year-round Islanders to new seasonal residents, nearly every proposed replacement structure has been larger than the original home.
In interviews, commissioners, commission staff, building inspectors and members of town historic commissions pointed to different factors to explain the spike in teardowns — although all hinted that it could be a side effect of the pandemic, which has caused real estate prices to skyrocket and inventory to collapse. In turn, buyers purchased properties planning future teardowns or extensive renovations, particularly as the Vineyard became a popular pandemic refuge.
Historic commissions are faced with an unprecedented backlog, grappling with legitimate desires to winterize old properties as the Island becomes more year-round, and requests to build something quite different in their place.
“The property is worth more than the house,” explained Pam Melrose, who serves as chairman of the Oak Bluffs historic commission. “But you can’t put the house back once it is taken down.”
New owners of Harman house on Katama Bay want to replace it.
— Mark Alan Lovewell
In Edgartown, building inspector Reade Milne said there have been 16 full demolition requests since January of 2020, and already 12 in 2021 — significantly more than the 11 requests in 2018 and eight requests in 2019. Ms. Milne said most, if not all, of the requests were to demolish a smaller home in order to build a larger structure on the same property.
“There has definitely been an uptick in demos,” Ms. Milne wrote to the Gazette in an email. “Anecdotally I have seen a trend towards demolishing smaller homes in typically year-round neighborhoods (…….