EASTHAM — Threatened with demolition, two historic houses, one in Eastham and one in Wellfleet, were temporarily protected by local bylaws that delayed the destruction while alternatives could be explored. But the clock ran out on both last month.
The owners of 20 Briar Lane in Wellfleet planned to demolish a mid-19th-century transitional Greek-Gothic house just outside a historic district and replace it with a 1,900-square-foot structure housing two businesses and two apartments.
Businessman and restaurateur Mac Hay has now purchased it and plans to preserve it.
Meanwhile, the Eastham Historical Commission delayed the demolition of a 200-year-old half Cape at 60 Dyer Prince Road, hoping for a similar result. There were several attempts at preservation, but none came to fruition and the delay expired on Oct. 8. The owner already has all the permits necessary for knocking it down, so the little half Cape’s days are likely numbered. Some of its historic elements, however, will be preserved.
On the Outer Cape, only Provincetown has a local historic district, which provides the strictest control over historic structures, and a commission with the authority to stop demolition indefinitely.
Wellfleet has two National Register historic districts, in its center and at Paine Hollow, which offer some protection to 189 historic properties, according to a study done by the Cape Cod Commission, but 225 other historic structures remain unprotected. Being listed on the National Register is mostly honorific and doesn’t automatically provide protection. State law requires that major alterations or demolition of such structures be subject to review by the Cape Cod Commission, and that agency has the ability to deny requests.
20 Briar Lane, Wellfleet
Just outside the boundary of the Wellfleet Historic District, 20 Briar Lane had no protection beyond the 18-month demolition delay that the town’s historical commission put in place in April 2020. The owners had no interest in saving the house and were essentially waiting out the Oct. 8 expiration of the delay.
The history of the house is well documented. Past owners included Wells E. Kemp, a 19th-century sea captain, and Edwin Tobin, a keeper of the Cahoon Hollow Life-Saving Station in the early 1900s. After World War II, it was a guest house called the Kemp House.
The historical commission had presented the owners with several creative alternatives to demolition, according to co-chair Merrill Mead-Fox, which included renovation and/or partial demolition, while preserving key historic features. The owners did not respond to any of the suggestions.
Mac Hay quietly purchased 20 Briar Lane during the summer. He confirmed that he has no intention of demolishing the house. “Our reason to buy it was to keep it part of the housing stock in town,” Hay said. “I know it was going to be demolished and turned into something else.”
Hay said it will continue to be year-round apartments. Meanwhile, he is doing some renovating. “It has all new windows and doors, and I just replaced the septic system,” he said. “It also needs a new heating system.”
Mead-Fox called historic buildings “a vital aspect of the identity of Wellfleet.”
60 Dyer Prince Road, Eastham
Only 36 of the properties in Eastham listed in the Mass. Historical Commission’s inventory of buildings at least 100 years old are protected by inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places or by being within the town’s small historic district. The other 113 historic buildings in the state inventory are unprotected.
Such was the case for the tiny half Cape at 60 Dyer Prince Road.
The Eastham Historical Commission delayed demolition by 12 months, but the delay expired Oct. 8. The owner, Lorraine Peirce of Westwood, is looking to build a single-story home with a loft in its place.
Building Commissioner Justin Post said Peirce has permits in hand for demolition, but there are plans by the builder to save some historic elements and incorporate them into the new home.
Tom O’Neill, president of the design-and-build firm Thomas J. O’Neill Inc., said the house is greatly deteriorated and has three or four different kinds of infestations.
“It’s all kind of a big mess,” he said. “But anything that is good, we’re saving to use as accents in the new home.”
Post said some of the lumber will be worth saving. “There are some 24-inch-wide boards and 18-inch-wide wall boards, which are pretty unusual,” Post said. “That’s something you might see in Provincetown on Bradford Street.”
There had been plenty of interest in fully preserving the house, but none of the plans proved feasible. A year ago, the town considered moving it down the street to Rock Harbor and using it as the harbormaster’s office. The town did a structural analysis and got cost estimates on moving the building, said Town Administrator Jacqueline Beebe.
“It needs to be rebuilt entirely, so it was not a good candidate to be placed up on pilings, as the harbormaster’s building needs to be,” Beebe said in an email. “We also were interested in moving it and storing it until someone could rebuild, but that was cost prohibitive and would have interfered with construction of the new building.”
One of the neighbors looked into taking it as an accessory dwelling, Beebe said. “It has sat for so long and has tremendous structural damage, and they also had to pass,” she said.
Resident Scott White learned of the pending demolition in early summer by talking to historical commission chair Jay Camp. The house was being offered for free to anyone interested in preserving it and who had a place to put it and the wherewithal to move it.
White and Camp searched for a lot in the area that was available and affordable. White even started a GoFundMe page to cover expenses of saving the house. He received a single donation of $50. White was left with no lot and no funding to move it. “It comes down to dollars and cents,” he said. “You can’t put it on your back like a turtle.”
Camp said it looks like the town will lose a piece of its architectural history. “We worked very hard to preserve it, but the owner has the right to tear it down,” he said.
The house had not been lived in for several years, Camp said, and it simply was allowed to deteriorate over time. “The next thing the historical commissions on the Cape will have to work on is how to prevent neglect,” he said.