WELLFLEET — Mac Hay was standing at the sushi bar in his restaurant, Mac’s Shack, on Duck Creek. In the quiet of a preseason day, he paused to run his hand over the old wood. The bar was fashioned from wide pine boards that originally were part of the third-floor ceiling.
“We did it to be frugal,” Hay said. “We were reusing what we could.”
Since then, he’s come to appreciate being in a place made from timbers cut two centuries earlier. “I think there is a connection between food and place,” he said. “It adds a sense of authenticity. There is such a history in Wellfleet with oysters.”
The building at 91 Commercial St., constructed in the 1850s, was a favorite stop for 19th-century mariners.
“It was a marine hardware store,” Hay said. “There was a dock outside and boats would pull right up.”
Over the last 170 years, the building housed a general store, Ye Old Helpee Selfee Laundromat in the 1950s and 1960s (ultimately shut down by environmental officials for polluting Duck Creek), and the Bayside Lobster Hutt.
Hay rented the building and opened his restaurant in 2006. He purchased the property with investors seven years later. As his business has grown — it now includes restaurants and markets from Provincetown to Dennis — he has continued working with old buildings when he can.
Hay loves the quirkiness of the Shack and admires the ingenuity of those who built it. “Nothing is plumb or square,” he said. Demonstrating how the floor on the second level bounces slightly, he pointed to heavy rope cables secured to beams in the roof above. “Those hold the floor up,” he said. “They did all sorts of weird things.”
Hay and his partners also own what locals call the Mooney building, next door at 95 Commercial, which has its own history. According to the Mass. Historical Commission’s database of cultural resources, the structure originally housed the Cummings and Howe Pants Factory in the late 19th century. It became a shirt factory, then a steel die factory, according to the database information, provided by the Wellfleet Historical Commission in 1983. In the 1980s, it was the Mooney family’s fuel and grain store.
Hay now has his main offices there and rents space to other businesses. Up until this year, it also housed the Harmon Gallery, owned by Hay’s wife, Traci Harmon-Hay.
A train depot used to sit between the two buildings, Hay explained. Trains supported a burgeoning tourist industry in the late 19th century.
“The fact that these buildings have a story to tell” is the main reason Hay now owns two other historic buildings in Wellfleet, he said. “Although preserving in-town housing units has helped us,” he added. One, at 361 Main St., which dates to 1866, has a store on the main level with employee housing above. An 1850s house at 170 Mill Hill Road is used for employee housing.
“But maintaining a historic building isn’t easy,” said Hay. The work is continuous, “and you end up becoming a steward of something for the long run.”
In the not-too-distant future, he will have to address climate change issues. The building is in the floodplain. “You’re talking about lifting a historic building 3½ to 4 feet in the air,” he said.
It would be cheaper to tear down and replace the old buildings, but preservation has become more important to Hay, and he loves the challenge.
“It’s preserving history while bringing everything into the 21st century.”