To a large degree, historic buildings define the beauty and charm of the Outer Cape’s villages and scenic roads. Yet a Cape Cod Commission study found that 691 of the oldest buildings on the Outer Cape have no protection from demolition.
Provincetown has the most effective tool of the four towns for preserving its history: an expansive historic district that includes most of the town’s oldest structures. Buildings in that district cannot be demolished unless the Provincetown Historic District Commission says so. And that doesn’t happen often.
The Mass. Historical Commission maintains a database of cultural resources, known as MACRIS, with an inventory of buildings that are at least 100 years old. Because of Provincetown’s historic district, 929 historic properties are protected and just 35 are not.
Such local districts afford the greatest protection along with the benefit of local control, according to Sarah Korjeff, a preservation specialist and planner at the Cape Cod Commission. Her report, titled “Cape Cod’s Historic Buildings by the Numbers” and published in 2017, includes worrisome figures for the future of the region’s oldest buildings.
Of the inventoried properties in Eastham, only 36 are protected by a designation such as inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places or being within the town’s small historic district, while 113 are unprotected.
Wellfleet has two National Register historic districts, in its center and at Paine Hollow, which offer some protection for 189 properties, but 225 remain unprotected.
And Truro’s numbers are bleak, with only nine historic properties protected and 318 unprotected.
Local historic district commissions like Provincetown’s have the authority to stop demolition. But being listed on the National Register is mostly honorific and doesn’t automatically provide protection. State law requires that major alteration or demolition of structures listed in the National Register be subject to review by the Cape Cod Commission, and that agency has the ability to deny such requests.
Korjeff said demolition delay bylaws are useful tools, even though they don’t ultimately prevent demolition. “I’d say at least 25 percent of the properties that begin the demolition delay process end up not being demolished, but that is Cape-wide,” she said. “Some towns are more successful than others.”
One Success, One Failure
Matthew Kiefer, chair of the Truro Historical Commission, cited a recent demolition delay success story. “The house at 1 Higgins Hollow Road, now owned by the Clark family, was restored,” Kiefer said. The family had sought to tear down the house, one of the oldest in Truro, dating to around 1719. “We did invoke the bylaw, then worked with them on a rehab plan.”
In an earlier case with a less successful outcome, the historical commission approved a request to demolish the cottage at 12 Ocean Bluff Lane, despite some opposition from local history buffs. The house, a “vernacular seaside cottage,” according to Kiefer, was essentially a situation of “demolition by neglect.”
“It hadn’t been winterized and it hadn’t been well cared for,” Kiefer said. “You don’t want to reward people for neglect, but it was a prior owner.”
The cottage, built circa 1900, was just outside the Truro Highlands Historic District, which is listed in the National Register. Its history is linked to the arrival of the railroad and increased tourism. Isaac Morton Small built the cottage as additional lodging for tourists who stayed at his nearby hotel.
“This was one we struggled with a bit,” Kiefer said. The commission ordered a 60-day delay, hoping someone would be willing to relocate the cottage. That didn’t happen, and the building was demolished.
The new owner built a similar cottage with a modified wraparound porch. “As part of the conditions, the owner had to do a history of the property with professional photos for the Historical Society,” Kiefer said.
Houses at Risk
A request to demolish a half Cape at 60 Dyer Prince Road in Eastham, built circa 1808, is currently on hold, thanks to a 12-month demolition delay. Like the Truro cottage, it does not have a National Register listing that would have allowed the Cape Cod Commission to have jurisdiction.
“It is a very significant property, with unique architectural detail above the windows,” Korjeff said. It had been assessed as part of a historic district under consideration for the Rock Harbor area.
Jay Camp, chair of the Eastham Historical Commission, said the delay expires in October. While the house is being offered free to anyone willing to relocate it, preferably in Eastham, that hasn’t happened, Camp said. If the house is demolished, the historical commission will strongly recommend that the post beam timbers, floorboards, fireplace mantels, old windows, and other historic features be salvaged.
The owners of a mid-19th-century transitional Greek-Gothic house at 20 Briar Lane in Wellfleet, just outside of a National Register Historic District, are currently waiting out an 18-month demolition delay that will expire in October. They want to replace it with a 1,900-square-foot structure housing two businesses and two apartments.
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 Cape Cod Commission worked with the Wellfleet Historical Commission on options to present to the owners. Merrill Mead-Fox, co-chair of the historical commission, said her panel has not received any response to the suggested options from the owners.
“If we had a local historic district, we would have more options,” Mead-Fox said. The town would have to vote to establish a local historic district at a town meeting. “It would take significant public support,” she said.
While Provincetown’s historic district was proposed, the town wanted local control. Town meeting established the district in 2002. Regulations initially “had no teeth,” according to acting historic district commission chair Lorrie Delmolino. “They could recommend to home owners, but there was no passing or not passing.” Then the town established bylaws, she said.
Former chair Tom Biggert said there had sometimes been requests to demolish smaller accessory buildings on historic properties, but none for full demolition of the main structure during his nine-year tenure on the commission — until recently.
In late winter, the commission approved the demolition of a 140-year-old cottage at 419 Commercial St. “The reason was safety,” Biggert said. “In this case, there was no way to save it.” Like Truro’s Ocean Bluff Lane property, it has greatly deteriorated.
More Helpful Tools
Korjeff said a great concern among preservationists is that historic buildings will fall due to neglect. “Some of the towns on the Cape are looking at minimum maintenance bylaws,” she said. “It’s tricky. I think Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have them for some areas.”
Korjeff also cited a special district that voters recently established in West Harwich, with incentives aimed at promoting preservation of the numerous historic buildings in that area. Additional uses, such as multi-family, retail sales, restaurants, and mixed uses would be allowed by right in historic structures; facilitated permitting for small expansions to existing structures provided plans don’t include demolition of any significant part of the historic structure; reduced or shared parking; and other incentives.