The Kellys of Ocean Park

When the Oak Bluffs fireworks end with the bursting of a pair of glittering, pyrotechnic palm trees this month, the Martha’s Vineyard Swing Band will begin to play on the porch of 93 Ocean Avenue. And John and Sharon Kelly will celebrate 29 years of summer living on the perimeter of Ocean Park.

In Oak Bluffs, at the turn of the last century, the houses that line Ocean Park had earned the nickname Millionaire’s Row. Philip Corbin, who made his fortune in locks, built what is now a favorite sightseer’s stop – the Peter Norton house – a few doors down from the home belonging to John and Sharon Kelly. The Ingraham Clock Company family once owned an adjacent house, and the Leavitt house next door to the Kellys belonged to the George Weed family, who made their money in automobile snow chains. But many of these turn-of-the-century showpieces had deteriorated into shabby wrecks in recent years. Sharon and John Kelly turned what was a fading Victorian grande dame back into a gem through big dreams, an abiding respect for the past, and plenty of hands-on hard work.

Their story begins in 1977 when Sharon, then twenty-nine, had just earned her pilot’s license. With dreams of ranging across the East Coast on airborne adventures, she and John, then thirty, landed at Martha’s Vineyard for the first time. It was the Fourth of July weekend, and they rented what they now suspect was the last available room at a long-gone Vineyard Haven motel called The Wave’s Edge.

“It had a lovely view of the school- bus parking lot,” remembers Sharon, who owns The Secret Garden in Oak Bluffs. The lock on the door didn’t open, so they climbed in through a window. Heading to Oak Bluffs on rented bikes, they stopped at the Flying Horses carousel. Sharon snagged the brass ring on her first ride, a good omen. Soon the couple, who had met as seventh graders in Ansonia, Connecticut, were riding past the grand house on the park that would become their summer home. It had a for-sale sign propped in front, and John turned to his wife, saying, “I always wanted a house like this.” Sharon did not share her husband’s enthusiasm. With her new pilot’s license in hand, she was not ready to settle down.

After lunch at Edgartown’s Colonial Inn, the Kellys walked into realtor Harlan Gibbs’s office. He told them a sales agreement for the Ocean Park house had just fallen through, but when they looked at the spec sheet and saw the price – a fraction of its value now – Sharon asked if Gibbs had any place smaller. They made an appointment to visit a house on Narragansett Avenue near Ocean Park the next day. Meanwhile, John, now a senior underwriter for the Bisys Group in Hartford, talked excitedly about the tax advantages and potential rental income if they bought 93 Ocean Avenue.
“I don’t want to be tied down to one place,” Sharon insisted.

“Well, it’s not right to waste the man’s time,” John said. The next day the cottage they saw on Narragansett didn’t appeal to them, and Gibbs asked the Kellys if they minded stopping by 93 Ocean Avenue. They could walk through the house while he talked with owner Marcia Schlatter.
“You have to promise to keep your mouth shut,” Sharon warned John. They wandered through the run-down, old-fashioned kitchen, the billiard room, a dining hall with turn-of-the-century murals, and the grand-scale living room with views across the park to Nantucket Sound. They reached the master bedroom suite on the second floor. The couple hadn’t said a word to each other. Then Sharon said, “I wonder how much they want for a deposit.”

“She did a complete about-face,” John says. “The house just reached out and grabbed us off the street,” Sharon says now. They stepped into Gibbs’s car for the ride back to their motel, and when they told him, “We want to give you a deposit,” he slammed on the brakes. Oak Bluffs wasn’t fashionable, and Gibbs knew how slow the market was.

Dating from 1850, four identical cottages sat on the lot where the house stands now, two facing the park and two on adjacent Samoset Avenue. Owners began to enlarge the home by putting two cottages together, as was common in those days. The other two vanished.

The Kellys’ next-door neighbor, the late Connie Leavitt (whose daughter Betty represents the third generation of Leavitts to occupy the Leavitt house) recalled when major renovations began on the Kelly House in 1914. She filled in many of the gaps in the history of the house for the Kellys, regaling them with stories of the parties held there. Edward Claypool of Indianapolis had sold the house to an Attleboro jewelry manufacturer named David Makepeace, who refurbished it in grand style. His daughters Lulu Kershaw and Edna French were listed as inheritors when Makepeace’s estate went through probate in 1946. Every owner left his mark on the house. From an architectural standpoint, 93 Ocean Avenue is now a charmingly eclectic mix of Carpenter Gothic, stick-style Victorian, and Italianate styles.

The Kellys closed on their new house in the fall of 1977. They didn’t have a clue what they were getting into. “We were babes in the woods,” Sharon says. There were holes in the dining-room ceiling from a winter when the pipes burst, and the floor underneath looked as wavy as an old-fashioned washboard. It didn’t help that both the Kellys’ mothers came to visit during a northeaster. The balcony doors in the front bedroom blew open, and no one could get them shut. “They thought we were totally crazy,” Sharon says. “I realized this place was a wreck. What were we thinking?” At that point, it was just a matter of survival.

On John’s first weekend at 93 Ocean Avenue, Sharon got stranded on the mainland with a friend. “In a new house, you don’t even know where the light switches are,” he says. “I remember trying to find my way downstairs in the dark.” He made a fire in the fireplace and downed two stiff scotches.
Beginning to imagine they were trapped in some sort of Mr. Blandings remake, the couple poured money into repairs and restoration. For five years, they leased the house in summer to help offset the costs. When the first renters showed up, nine children tumbled out of the family’s car with nine bicycles.

“We said to ourselves, ‘Oh, my God,’” Sharon recalls, wondering what would happen to what had become her dream house. The renters proved as disciplined as a marine platoon. The Kellys came to regard them as a sort of latter-day von Trapp family.

That the Kellys’ off-Island residence in Connecticut was a condominium helped, since they didn’t have two houses to work on nor children to distract them. Their salvation, however, was John’s father, Frank, who came up regularly from Connecticut with a retired friend, Ray Maile, to help with the restoration for the first three or four years. The two older men put up sheetrock, made doorways where none existed, and installed windows, while John served as gofer and cook.

“They didn’t charge me a dime,” John says, still shaking his head. Soon the Kellys hooked up with the Reagan brothers – Oak Bluffs carpenters John, Bill, and Bob Reagan, whose mother still runs the Attleboro House and who had grown up in a house on Ocean Park. Bill Reagan lives in a replica of a Victorian cottage that he built on Pequot Avenue.

From the start, the Kellys had seen postcards of their house with a tower – it blew down in the Hurricane of 1938 – so they enlisted the drafting skills of friend and Oak Bluffs summer resident Charlotte Kanavel, who sketched a model. Then they put the Reagans to work. The tower was finished in 1987. The crew has since completed most of the renovations at 93 Ocean Avenue, including a back porch overlooking the garden, John’s favorite place to sit. An amateur pianist, he also enjoys the corner of the living room that holds a baby grand, tinkling the ivories and looking out at the park and the water.

“The Reagans have done really first-class work with a lot of historical sensitivity,” John says. And the Kellys did their homework. They discovered authentic glass-plate negatives of the house and read extensively. John subscribed to Old House Journal for years.

Evidence of how the original cottages were put together remains in the step-down floors of the then-unfinished back bedrooms, which Sharon speculates served as the servants’ quarters. Many of the rooms still have old-fashioned canvas ceilings. Original wicker furniture graces the living room, while the six bedrooms upstairs have Victorian bedsteads and dressers that came with the house. The master bathroom has its original parquet wooden floor and plumbing fixtures, including a claw-foot bathtub. Down the hall is a genuine water closet, outfitted with the original pull-chain, overhead tank toilet.

The tower that blew down in the 1938 hurricane went back up in 1987, complete with mahogany woodwork by Vineyard Haven master carpenter Sturgis Entwistle. The stairway is so narrow that furniture for this eagle-aerie room had to be set in place by the Reagan brothers before it was finished. When Sharon discovered the pattern of the antique wallpaper she’d ordered didn’t fit under the windows, she made the Reagans revise their plans and raise the frames.

Sharon took an adult-education course and made the stained-glass windows now installed in the billiard room, where the restored 1897 billiard table provides the centerpiece. She also wallpapered the master-bedroom suite, using authentic, un-pre-pasted, untrimmed paper. John has collected and framed old-fashioned sheet music and other vintage items, such as a World War I recruiting poster.

“One of the nice things about this house is that it has a real historic air to it, because it has never been truly modernized,” he says. “It’s like stepping back in time.” Kitchen renovations, supervised by John Kheary of Keyland Kitchens, illustrate how the Kellys want to maintain historical accuracy without sacrificing modern efficiency. A refrigerator sits in the same alcove where the original icebox was located, probably with outside access for ice deliveries. Decorative, white-enameled tin covers the ceiling, and the walls have old-fashioned wainscoting. The pantry still has its original built-in shelving and drawers.

Sharon laughs at the thought of what will happen if a future owner tries to remove the tower chairs for upholstering. Often in the house by herself when John is at work during the week, she doesn’t feel a need to fill the house with guests. “I feel like I inhabit all the rooms,” she says. But she doesn’t like making beds, so she sleeps in a different one every night until her husband returns.

As often happens with Oak Bluffs Victorian houses, a man bicycling with his wife stops to tell the Kellys he had spent summers in their house during the mid-1930s with his grandmother. He remembers how the family maid, terrified of thunderstorms, would walk through the house with a lit candle to keep away the spirits when the weather turned bad. “This house is not haunted,” Sharon insists. “But we see it as a great opportunity, because a house like this needs a good ghost.”

The fireworks-party tradition began in 1990. Samoset Avenue neighbors Charles and Elaine Pinderhughes, accomplished ballroom dancers, were among the first guests. Deciding the Kellys’ dance skills needed a tune-up, the Pinderhugheses volunteered to give lessons.

“That September we went over to their house every day at noon for an hour or so,” John says. “I called it ballroom boot camp.” When Hurricane Bob hit in August the next year, there was no electricity, but the party went on as scheduled. So if you head to Ocean Park for the fireworks this year, look for the glorious white mansion on the park where the sounds of a swing band will drift through the soft evening air. Unless you look closely at the dancers on the porch, you’ll think you’re looking at a turn-of-the-century movie set.

Comments (1)

Lisa and Bob
Cohoes NY
We live that house we have stayed there the last 2 years. Awesome location!!
August 16, 2019 - 9:03pm