Historic Preservation News In the Press

Falmouth Enterprise

An Individual Building Must Be Considered in Context of Community Character

By Thomas H. Renshaw
July 2, 2013

Tonight the Historic District Commission will vote on a proposal for a garage accessory building at 46 School Street in the Woods Hole historic district. Developments on this property have engaged members of the local community for many years, and there will surely be a strong turnout of those of us who have worked so long to keep intact the 19th-century character of the village of Woods Hole. To understand our passion and enthusiasm, one needs to look beyond a single project on a single residence to get a view of the neighborhood and its relation to the village as a whole.

The entire village can be thought of as 19th-century architecture upon which the large institutional buildings have been superimposed. From its earliest days there have been builders whose skill and design abilities reflected a period when high quality materials, high standards of workmanship, reasonably priced skilled labor and pride in appearance and function prevailed. The old traditional buildings have endured weather, hard use, and variations in tastes and, for the most part, have been adaptable to modern uses without losing their character. One of the most positive examples has been the renovation of the Woods Hole Inn whose exterior was simply cleaned up and repaired, allowing the interior renovations to proceed without significantly altering the sense of the building as a pivotal element in the village.

School Street has long been recognized as an amazingly intact piece of earlier times, with very little change since Baldwin Coolidge documented the views in the 1890s with his marvelous glass plate view camera photographs. One photo across the Eel Pond shows the Woods Hole School, the causeway with the long line of the handrail, and the original 1840s Captain Edwards house that stood at 46 School until 2003 when the owners at the time persuaded the local boards to allow them to demolish the structures and build the present home. The popularity of the street is attested to by the Woods Hole Historical Museum's walking tours of the village in which School Street is a central feature, and histories of the important residents are described.

The efforts to establish and defend the historical district in Woods Hole have occupied many of us for decades, and led us to work for the meaningful preservation of the priceless treasures exemplifying the consistent 19th-century character of Woods Hole. The original district consisted of Water Street and Woods Hole Road from School Street to Harbor Hill Road. In the 1980s Nancy Egloff led the successful effort to enlarge the district to its present form including School Street, citing its unchanged nature for over 100 years.

One of my early forays into local affairs was in the late 1970s when WHOI began to clad the Swift residence, the Shiverick House and the Endeavour House, all historic buildings on School Street, with aluminum siding, involving the chopping off of the window stools in the process. With the help of the newly formed Woods Hole Historical Collection Committee and the Woods Hole Community Association, we were able to persuade WHOI to preserve the façade of the Endeavour House.

Also in the late 1970s the community association undertook to lease the old Woods Hole Fire Station and adapt it to public assembly uses, adding it to our 1879 Community Hall. Abutting the historic district, these buildings continue to define the still functional 19th-century architectural character of the Woods Hole village. 

In 1982 the Woods Hole School was closed as a K-4 facility of the public schools. At that time there was great village effort to preserve the building and keep it in use for children's educational programs. In cooperation with the Children's School of Science and the Falmouth Public Schools, the Woods Hole Community Association was able to engage in a long-term lease with the town. We have renovated and restored the building and grounds in keeping with the historical character of the neighborhood and village and received listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This building, built in 1871, continues to function for its traditional uses, and proves that these substantial and attractive traditional buildings can be adapted to modern needs without losing their character.

Around 2000 the town planned the repaving of School Street. David Martin, Catherine Bumpus and other community members were able to participate in the planning and execution of this project. They assisted the town engineers with suggestions to maintain the historic character of the street by reusing granite curbing, maintaining the grassy verge, and using granite caps for the sea wall. We also collaborated with the town to restore the handrail along the sea wall, providing wrought iron posts and wooden railings, so that the view, so evident in the Baldwin Coolidge photo of the school, was preserved.

Many of us, including the Woods Hole Community Association, have worked with WHOI to preserve the utility buildings associated with the Swift property that marks the beginning of School Street, and serves as a buffer between the large institutional buildings and the intact, 19th-century residential neighborhood. This complex was once the home of E.E. Swift and Co. an important local building company, boat building works and hardware store, bought by WHOI in the 1960s.

In early 2000s concerns over the possible loss of the Tolkan's 1840s house at 46 School Street led to impassioned pleas to the owner that were unable to prevent demolition. At that time attempts were made to negotiate between the owner and the concerned members of the community, seeking to avoid confrontation at town boards. This resulted in alterations to the architecture and attempts to come up with solutions that preserved design elements significant to the historical character, and helped us feel that the historical neighborhood and views were still intact.

The demolition and loss of the original 1840s building and additions had a great impact on the neighborhood, and the coastal setting. What had once been a low building that nestled into the knoll now became a major protrusion and an interruption of the views from many directions. Adding a garage will increase this sense of an opaque wall along the road.

School Street is not simply a series of individual pieces of property, each dealt with separately without reference to the whole. Many of us have dedicated decades of our time to preserving these historical and architectural treasures, with the hope that the value would be obvious to all and would encourage constructive planning and compromise to reach all our goals. It is disappointing that newcomers to this community wish to impose their extravagant tastes and attempt to overdevelop the site to the limit of exceptions and special permits without reference to the wishes and long-term goals of the community. We feel that a garage of the sort proposed is incongruous and inappropriate to School Street in Woods Hole, a neighborhood virtually unchanged since the 1890s Baldwin Coolidge photos documented the views, and still in use and character in the 21st century.

Mr. Renshaw is a resident of Leslie Street, Woods Hole, and has been active in preserving the character of the village for many years.