On Nantucket, a legal maneuver to protect historic houses from destruction

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On an island where the average home sale topped $4 million last year, Ginger Andrews' scallop shanty is a golden ticket.

If she had any inclination, Ms. Andrews, a fourth-generation Nantucket resident, could sell the waterfront structure next week for a life-changing amount of money. The prospect is intoxicating, at least for some of her acquaintances.

“They'll say, 'You could have a chef!'” Ms. Andrews said. “'Or, 'Don't you want to travel around the world?'”

But she has a different goal: to defend her weather-beaten 19th-century shack against buyers who would tear apart its unadorned interior, install modern designs and luxuries, and erase a stark heritage that has already largely disappeared from the island, 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. .

With no children to pass the property to, Ms. Andrews has resorted to a little-known legal maneuver that is having a moment on Nantucket and other parts of New England. She attaches a preservation restriction to her deed, requiring any future owner to preserve the structure's essential features. She also intends to ensure that the scallops, who have long shucked their catch in her cramped kitchen, can continue to use the building, the last operating shanty at Old North Wharf.

“It's my way of looking at the tide of development here and saying, 'Stop,'” said Andrews, 69, standing in the kitchenette one morning last month as a small heater worked to keep out the cold. “It's the last vestige of the working boardwalk.”

To the tourists who swarm its wide brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets each summer, Nantucket seems like an incredibly complete time capsule, packed with pristine examples of colonial and federal architecture. Elegant mansions built by 19th-century whaling captains give way to warm brick facades, carefully restored. The public library, with its imposing white columns, is a masterpiece of Greek Revival style.

Yet behind the perfect exteriors, a steady erosion of history has been going on for years, preservationists say, as ultra-wealthy newcomers have redone the interiors of old homes, erasing walls, staircases, fireplaces, doors and centuries-old windows.

The trend first raised alarm in 2000, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Nantucket one of the most endangered historic places in the country. He cited the demolition of old structures, the removal of original interiors and new construction that was not in keeping with the character of the island.

While all of Nantucket is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (the largest listing in the country, encompassing 5,000 structures), local officials have the authority to protect only the exterior of buildings. As more homeowners have sacrificed original interiors in favor of new floor plans and amenities, more longtime residents are considering preservation restrictions as a last resort to hold on to history.

After adding about one new restricted deed each year for the past two decades, the island now has five pending, said Mary Bergman, director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust, which administers the deed restriction program. A similar regional effort, led by the nonprofit group Historic New England, last year added six homes in four states to its list of 125 protected properties, matching its previous record, said Carissa Demore, preservation services team leader. of the organization.

The numbers are small, but they may reflect evolving attitudes, preservation leaders said.

“Over time, the old house, with its integrity and authenticity, will be the rarest, and perhaps the most desirable,” Bergman said. “There's something deeply appealing about keeping something real, and that seems to be increasingly important to young people raised in the digital age.”

Philip Carpenter, 74, a retired builder, grew up appreciating old things. His father, an antiques dealer, and his mother, a collector, bought a house on Fair Street in Nantucket in 1962 for $12,000, he said, and carefully preserved its original features. With its five fireplaces, interior wood shutters and classic Greek Revival carved staircases, it remains “remarkably intact” nearly two centuries after its construction, he said.

After watching numerous new neighbors tear up the interiors of their historic homes, and crying each time, Carpenter said she had no hesitation in imposing a preservation restriction on the home she inherited from her parents, even after friends who work in real estate would warn you. would decrease the value of the property.

“There are things more important than money,” he said, “and we are losing that sensitivity.”

Peter Dorsey, a real estate broker specializing in older homes north of Boston, said a deed restriction could improve a home's value for the right buyer by ensuring its historical significance. “It complicates things in a good way,” he said, “because it ensures that the buyers are the right people.”

Like Mr. Carpenter, Ms. Andrews is grateful to her older family members for teaching her the value of the past. Her grandfather, a Nantucket fisherman, bought the gray-shingled shack above the harbor around 1906. Mrs. Andrews learned to shell scallops there and played “king of the hill” on the mound of discarded shells outside.

When he inherited the building in 2000, the wooden stilts on which it sits were rotting and sinking. While she was shoring it up (renting space to scallops who shucked their catch there), the surrounding dock was changing rapidly. Other former waterfront buildings sold for millions and were transformed into luxury cottages with coveted boat slips.

Welcoming visitors on a calm, sunny winter's day, Ms Andrews said she hoped to turn her shanty into a working coastal area museum, with working scallops as one of the attractions. In the kitchen, where orange rubber aprons hang on hooks next to the wooden-latched front door, she described the art of peeling scallops with infectious zeal.

Not that scallop fishing is any more romantic. “It's hard work in the cold,” said Ms. Andrews, an ornithologist, artist and writer who fished in her youth. “You have to resign yourself to having snot running down your face all day.”

Of course, the island's sky-high housing costs have endangered more than just the historic architecture. Permanent residents, including fishermen, workers and city employees, have fought to remain on the island, an issue that to many seems more pressing than the preservation of old houses.

As the housing crisis has intensified across the country, more conservationists have sought to collaborate with housing advocates, including on Nantucket. There, leaders plan to purchase a former historically protected lifesaving station to use as workforce housing, and a “home recycling” program relocates and repurposes old homes that have been slated for demolition.

Michela Murphy, vice president of the historic district commission in Provincetown, another high-priced resort on the tip of Cape Cod, sees the two goals as inseparable.

“Our job is not only to protect the structures, but also the culture and way of life,” he said. “If we can't house our workers, the people who keep the city running, we will end up with a place that is unsustainable.”

Well aware of the need on Nantucket, Ms. Andrews said she has made plans to give up the house she lives in, a 300-year-old property inherited from her family, for use as affordable housing after she leaves.

At a cost of between $5,000 and $20,000 for each easement, much of which goes to paying lawyers, safeguarding history is not cheap. The Nantucket Preservation Trust monitors deed restrictions once they are in place and hires experts to inspect protected properties annually to ensure no impermissible changes have been made. Thanks to successful fundraising, the trust is prepared to go to court if anyone attempts a prohibited construction project.

Four years after Mr. Carpenter initiated the restriction at his Nantucket home, the legal settlement passed state review and is awaiting city approval. He said he had opted for “draconian” measures, prohibiting future owners from installing insulation or replacing the original clapboards.

(Updates will be allowed in the kitchen and bathrooms, as is the case in most of these deals.)

His three adult children, who will inherit the property, weren't entirely thrilled with his decision, Carpenter said, “but it's non-negotiable.”

When the legal documents are signed, expect to feel a great deal of relief.

“I will feel like I am leaving the legacy I want to leave,” he said. “It's a beautiful old summer house, and that's what it will be.”



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