The Old Humphreys House, Anew

This architectural standout in West Tisbury, with its combination of styles outside and in, has recently been renovated and serves as a second home for a couple of filmmakers and their young family.

Bart Humphreys’s old house may or may not be haunted. If it is, a likely spectral visitor might be the ghost of Bart Humphreys himself. The baker, famous for decades of managing his family’s eponymous bakery on State Road in West Tisbury (just opposite the historic oak tree by the turnoff onto North Road), lived and died in the white clapboard house that was only a couple of dozen feet from the bakery’s door. For years after he handed over management of the bakery to family members, he was a fixture in its sitting area, holding court in one of its institutional green wooden chairs, but in the last months of his life, he rarely left his room on his house’s third floor.

Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, who bought the house in 2006 with his wife, Kristen, says that while members of the Humphreys’s extended family who spent time living in the house have reported ghost sightings on the premises, he and his family haven’t sensed anything supernatural.

“We keep a full refrigerator though,” he quips, “in case they’re hungry.”

If they’re hungry, they might be more inclined to savor the ghosts of glazed donuts, butter crunch cookies, and jelly bombs, for surely if anything haunts the premises, it’s the collective memory of all the baked delicacies enjoyed there over decades by seasonal Islanders and year-rounders alike. The original Humphreys was a beloved Island institution, and many were saddened to see it go.

“We considered keeping it open,” says Jeff, “but having a commercial enterprise right next to our house seemed problematic.” Parking, for example, had always been tight at Humphreys, and traffic complications were not uncommon. In the end, equipment inside the bakery was offered to family members, and the building was torn down. (For the record, the Humphreys bakery tradition lives on at locations in Vineyard Haven and seasonally in Edgartown.) Part of the Kusama-Hintes’ circular driveway now covers the spot where the original bakery building once stood, reinforcing an observer’s awareness of how close the buildings had been to each other.

The house – built in 1875 by David Bartlett Mayhew, along with a barn behind it, at a total cost of $3,500 – stands out in its neighborhood. Three stories high, the structure has a hipped roof and gable dormers typical of the Queen Anne style; arched windows in the dormers and eave brackets that are Gothic style; and bay windows and decorative posts on the porches that recall the Gothic-revival era. The house is included in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, which has a website that allows the public to search the state historical commission’s database for information on historic properties. “This house,” states the website, “with its combination of styles and its size is uncommon for West Tisbury but not so for the Island in general.” Jeff notes that the house was constructed shortly after the major building boom in Cottage City (what is now Oak Bluffs) and reflects some of the stylistic elements commonly found there.

Curiously, the old structure that houses part of the nearby Bayberry Inn originally was located where the Kusama-Hintes’ house now stands. In our time, what is now the inn might have been a teardown, but in 1875, David Mayhew simply had that structure lifted and moved to a different location, while he built his new house on the old foundation.

David Mayhew, who married a Cottle and was county commissioner for a time, had exquisite taste in interior details. His double-doored front entrance, for example, was fashioned of African mahogany with window panels of etched glass (damaged over the years), which Jeff plans to replicate. The newel post at the base of the staircase on the first floor, made of mahogany with walnut trim stained quite dark, is so beautifully crafted that the Kusama-Hintes had its design duplicated in the living room’s fireplace surround and mantelpiece.

But the house, when they first acquired it, was in a state of what Jeff euphemistically refers to as “benign neglect.” He and his wife had been coming to the Vineyard together since 2003, though Kristen has a longer history here as a seasonal visitor, including several summers as an au pair in her youth. When they decided to buy property on the Island, they were looking for something small, with a little garden and a yard for children to play in – something with some historical interest but not requiring too much work. Well, as the saying goes, “The best laid plans”

The Kusama-Hintes bought two adjacent parcels of land comprising eight acres and including the house, bakery, and barn, a big field in the back, a wide swath of arable land to the right of the house, and some forested areas. The property behind the house runs down to Mill Brook.

When they first toured the house, says Jeff, “it looked like something out of Appalachia.” Plaster was falling off the walls. The roof leaked. There was a wood stove in the kitchen with a brick chimney that ascended as far as the attic but didn’t exit the house. Nearly every room in the house was “packed to the rafters with stuff.” The kitchen, which appeared to have been remodeled in the 1950s, was full of deteriorated enamel and linoleum.

“But then,” Jeff says, “we took a step back and saw that there was a beautiful house here – open and expansive with wonderful scale. It just needed some work.”

Turns out “some work” meant two years, three contractors, and stripping the house down to its frame, floors, and clapboard. The roof’s asphalt shingles were replaced with shake shingles and copper flashing, and the back porch was extended around the side of the house. Regarding ghosts, Jeff notes that if there were any spirits that didn’t want to be in the house any longer, the extent to which the house was reduced to its bones gave them ample opportunity to quietly drift out and off into the wind.

The house’s new owners winter in New York City and work in the film industry (they met working on the 2001 horror film Wendigo). Together they decided to restore the house with as much historical accuracy as possible. Jeff is a producer and director whose recent film credits include The Kids Are All Right and the documentary Charlotte: A Wooden Boat Story, which follows the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway’s construction of a traditional gaff-rigged schooner in Vineyard Haven. As there was some overlap in the making of Charlotte and the renovation of the house, it would appear that Jeff has an appreciation for the details of traditional building techniques.

“There was a convergence,” says Jeff. “Charlotte was actually an original, contemporary design, but it was designed and built along traditional lines. I have a long-time affinity for things that are old and handcrafted, where the knowledge and the skill of the craftsperson is evident. This sensibility brought me to the boat yard, and after I began making the film, I fell in love with the Vineyard and decided that it was the perfect place for a second home.”

The Kusama-Hintes kept the house’s original floors, doors, and staircases, and replaced all of the old windows with similar, old-fashioned, double-hung windows that operate with chains and weights. They removed all of the old casements, moldings, and trim, and replaced them with reproductions. They kept most of the interior walls, but removed a few in order to enhance the feeling of openness inside the house. The master bedroom, for example, was created from what used to be two second-floor rooms. On the third floor, which Jeff describes as having been “dark and confused,” there used to be just storage and Bart Humphreys’s bedroom. Now the third floor consists of three slope-ceilinged rooms with white plaster walls to enhance the light that comes in through the gables, an inviting place for overnight visitors.

All of the house’s plumbing and electricity is new, as are the plaster walls, which bear the homey irregularities of real plastering – as opposed to the even surface of sheetrock. Most of the walls are painted in bright colors or plain white, though for the dining room, the Kusama-Hintes chose a dark red wallpaper by the Victorian textile designer William Morris to give the room a quiet and somewhat formal feeling.

When they bought it, the house had a single bathroom, which was on the second floor. That floor now houses the couple’s two children’s bedrooms, along with a master bedroom and new master bath. The Kusama-Hintes also added a powder room on the first floor. In the kitchen, they installed a huge, old porcelain sink and a yellow, Big Chill–brand retro refrigerator. Their choices in light fixtures, cabinet pulls, and handles reflect a desire to give the room a “twenties or thirties feel.”

Outside, tumbledown stone walls were reconstructed. A shielding row of trees and shrubs was planted between the house and the road. There is a small but productive vegetable garden and numerous flower beds orchestrated to bloom all season long. To the right of the house, they planted an orchard of ornamental apple trees that Jeff now wishes were fruit bearing. “It was a compromise for the sake of our marriage,” he says, explaining that Kristen was concerned that fruit trees would take too much work.

In the area around the orchard, they scattered wildflower seeds. “At first,” Jeff says, “it was all lupines and daisies. But after a few years of reseeding itself, it’s now mostly black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace.”

Of the landscaping in general, Jeff says it’s “laid-back, not too precious,” and that he and his wife wanted a “wild, overgrown feeling.” That being said, he notes there is a delicate balance between maintaining a natural sensibility and undoing all the work one has put into the landscaping. An extensive drainage and irrigation system, for example, helps keep all the plantings healthy, and wintertime passersby will observe that the property’s less hearty trees and bushes have been encased in protective burlap for the colder months.

The original barn from 1875 being structurally unsound, the Kusama-Hintes took it down and built a new barn of the same dimensions on the same site. Jeff uses it as a woodworking shop. When he was younger, woodworking was a hobby, and now he hopes to spend some time in the barn making furniture. “I’m sort of fitfully setting it up,” he says, somewhat ruefully. “It’s a relaxing place, this Island, but I continue to work when I’m here, and I spend time with my family, gardening, going to the beach.”

Asked whether he and his family have taken any flak for taking down the old bakery, Jeff says that while he’s encountered a good deal of nostalgia for the old place, he’s found that people have more often been supportive of the way in which he and Kristen have restored the house and the property. When the renovation was complete, the couple invited some of the house’s former residents to come see what had been done with it. “People recalled running through the house as kids,” Jeff says, “and one person remembered removing the grating from the heating vent upstairs and dropping things down the duct and into the kitchen.”

When Islanders drive by the old Humphreys property now, they may miss the smell of Portuguese sweet bread just out of the oven, but they can enjoy the sight of a historically significant house restored to its original grandeur, and know that inside it, and on its grounds, new memories are being made, new lives being lived.

The creative team:

Patrick Crosgrove (Oak Bluffs and New York) Architectural work

Harold Zadeh (Chappaquiddick) General contractor

Beetlebung Tree Care (Chilmark) Landscape design and installation

Botanica (West Tisbury) Garden installation

Contact Stone (West Tisbury) Stone walls

M& M Millwork (West Tisbury) Woodworking

Boston Sash & Millwork (North Dighton) Windows

John C. Anderson Painters and Restorers (Vineyard Haven) Painting

Martone Plumbing and Heating (West Tisbury) Plumbing

Robert A. Young Jr. Electrical Contractor (Edgartown) Electric

Brennan & Company (Vineyard Haven) Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning