From the Editor

Up-Island and down this past winter there were houses on stilts. Most notable, perhaps, was the beginning of work restoring the Old Parsonage in West Tisbury. That home dates back to 1668 and is generally considered to be the second oldest residence on the Island, which makes it one of the oldest structures in the country. Now in the middle of its fourth century of existence, for a moment a few years back it seemed as if the house might not survive into its fifth, when a preliminary application to tear it down was filed with the West Tisbury Historic District Commission. It’s a happy outcome, therefore, that the house found new owners with not just the desire to save it but, more important, the money to make it happen.

There is some irony in the outcome, however. The previous owners were members of the Whiting family, who can trace their Island roots through their Mayhew connections back even further than the parsonage. They had no particular desire to leave the spot, which their family had occupied for well over a century. But after learning that it would cost an estimated $1.75 million to repair, and that the town would not permit it to be torn down, they felt obliged to sell. “It’s mixed emotions,” Daniel Whiting said after the property was sold to a documentary filmmaker for $600,000. “We’re satisfied and hopeful that the new owners and the historic commission can do something together to preserve the house in West Tisbury as it stands.”

Down-Island, meanwhile, a classic nineteenth century home in the Edgartown historic district underwent a remarkable transformation. The house was raised on jacks and a new foundation poured, suggesting it would be lowered gently back down on a new firm footing. As winter gave way to spring, however, virtually every piece of old timber was replaced with modern studs and Parallam beams, giving the rooms higher ceilings. Even the roof and rafters were cut away and removed one truckload at a time. When complete, the house may appear vaguely historically appropriate when viewed from the street, but an artifact of some sort it certainly won’t be.

Outrageous hypocrisy? Maybe. But it doesn’t take much of a student of history to know that hypocrisy comes as naturally to humans as the impulse to add a new kitchen to the back of the old farmhouse, to convert that attic into a bedroom, to add some of those newfangled electric lights.

What’s more, history has a habit of getting misremembered and cherry-picked. Consider the following description of Vineyard Haven from Sketches of Martha’s Vineyard and Other Reminiscences of Travel at Home, Etc., by the Reverend Samuel Adams Devens: “A taste for a variety of colors prevails. It is not uncommon to see the body of a house of one color with the border trimmings of another. The fences are touched off in like manner.” Reverend Devens wrote that in 1838, but good luck to you if you want to paint your 1837 William Street home blue with a nice offsetting yellow trim. Those folks don’t even have a taste for a variety of whites.

Historic preservation and architectural guidelines are good for the Vineyard because they protect our “brand” as a nostalgic place with quaint old towns and tree-lined streets, stone walls, and gingerbread cottages. But they should not be confused with history, which is a chronicle of change and adaptation. And of hypocrisy.

Besides, what did Devens know about anything anyway? After all, the good reverend began another sentence in his 1838 book by saying of Edgartown, “This latter place (pronounced Edgarton)....”