WELLFLEET — A home listed for sale off Chequessett Neck Road has raised the blood pressure of preservationists because it is part of a cottage colony that has for 72 years attracted famous tenants and is considered the jewel in the crown of Wellfleet’s midcentury modern properties.
The house at 25 Way #055, on the market for $625,000, is among the 14 original buildings designed by socialite and architect Nathaniel Saltonstall and architect Oliver Morton in 1948. Named the Mayo Hill Colony Club, and now known as The Colony, it has been a summer haven for such culturati as Lionel and Diana Trilling, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, publisher Alfred Knopf Jr., New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb, and Sears, Roebuck heiress Adele Rosenwald and her husband, child psychiatrist David Levy.
This pedigree was cited in a 2004 application to the Cape Cod Commission to designate The Colony as a District of Critical Planning Concern and to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That process was never completed, said Sarah Korjeff, historic preservationist at the Cape Cod Commission. It got started in 2001, when another of the original cottages was sold and the owner, Edith Keyes Harris, had demolition plans. The effort ended when Harris’s plans changed, Korjeff said.
That now leaves the seven remaining rental cottages in a precarious position, though Jeffrey Stefani, who inherited The Colony from his mother, Eleanor, told the Independent on Monday that he has no intention of selling off the entire property without trying to preserve it.
“I’m not rushing into anything,” Stefani said. “I grew up here and I’ve been here since 1963. I have a strong desire to preserve this place.”
Along with the cottage, Stefani is selling a 0.7-acre parcel of undeveloped land for $399,000 as a three-bedroom lot, according to the real estate listing.
Peter McMahon, founder of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, is concerned.
“I’m trying to see if there is a way to get some sort of protections on [The Colony] before it gets whittled away,” McMahon said.
The units are mini relics — 400 to 800 square feet each — of the Bauhaus movement. Tucked into the pines of Chequessett Neck, all that’s visible from the road is a sand-colored cement bas-relief wall by Xavier Gonzalez and an accompanying flat-roofed cottage. This building, now occupied by Jeffrey and his wife, Mihae, was originally an art gallery for the glamorous guests who were coaxed to stay in the cottages by Saltonstall, an openly gay Boston Brahmin who championed modern art and architecture.
“As both architect and proprietor, Saltonstall used his social network to entice wealthy patrons of contemporary art — and artists themselves, if they could pay — to little-known Wellfleet,” wrote McMahon and Christine Cipriani in Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape.
The cottages are still for rent. Aside from Jeffrey Stefani’s home and the one that’s currently for sale, the others are seasonal only, and all have fireplaces, Stefani said.
After Saltonstall, The Colony had been owned and run by Eleanor Stefani since 1963.
Unlike Saltonstall, she did not require social or bank references, but, Jeffrey Stefani added, “She put people through an interview process, because she wanted to like her guests.”
Eleanor fought to preserve the cottages with period art and furniture. Jeffrey and Mihae Stefani have done their best to continue. But the reality is that there has been a good deal of deferred maintenance, and “the place could absorb $1 million and you wouldn’t even notice it,” said McMahon, who led the movement to preserve Wellfleet’s stock of Bauhaus-inspired houses.
The sale of the two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with two fireplaces would not change the rental of the other cottages, Stefani said. But change is definitely underway.
The Wellfleet Historical Commission on May 6 granted approval for the Stefanis to add a second story to their home, the former art gallery.
The historical commission members, and McMahon himself, agreed that the addition’s design and materials by architect Sibel Asantugrul, designer of Whaler’s Wharf in Provincetown, would blend well with what’s there. The two-story addition would be visible from the road, but would be constructed on the garden side, giving much needed kitchen space and a new bedroom to the former gallery.
In the long term, Stefani said, he is trying to figure out how to preserve The Colony. Renting probably isn’t realistic as the complex needs so much maintenance, McMahon said. Stefani is considering a condominium conversion in which preservation of the original designs could be deeded and enforceable, he said.
“With a condo conversion I can write in the rules,” Jeffrey said. “But it’s complicated and there are only so many attorneys who do this kind of work.”
If it were added to the National Register of Historic Places, that would prevent demolition but not modest changes, Korjeff said. And it would not stop the property from being subdivided, which, McMahon said, would be a shame, because the cottage colony as a whole is so special.
Korjeff said that Wellfleet could use Community Preservation Act funds to buy the property and then sell it off with restrictions. This has been done elsewhere in the state, she said. Essentially, public funds pay the difference between the price for a home with architectural restrictions and one without.
McMahon said he is trying to bring in the nonprofit Trustees of Reservations for help in explaining the tax benefits of adding preservation covenants to property sales. Such restrictions could be a model for other town properties.
“When owners become elderly, that’s the time to put in preservation restrictions,” McMahon said.