One Building At A Time

One of the arguments used by opponents of sidewalks along Stage Harbor Road was that they would destroy the street's historic streetscape. Many of those same people have torpedoed a proposed National Register Historic District for the neighborhood.

Just seems a bit ironic to us.

There's no arguing with the historical commission's assertion that Stage Harbor Road contains one of the most significant groupings of historically significant structures in town outside of the Old Village, itself a National Register Historic District. Among them are the Doc Keene Scout Hall, once the Atwood School, and the Atwood House itself, now in the process of undergoing restoration of its foundation. Again, perhaps ironically, the Atwood House has been rejected for listing on the National Register – not once but twice – because it is attached to newer additions. This doesn't diminish the value of the old house as one of the centerpieces of what was once known as Atwood Street.

National Register designation would allow the commission or other town agency to refer significant alterations of historic homes – demolitions or changes to more than 25 percent of the floor area – to the Cape Cod Commission for review. It doesn't require that step, if a compromise can be reached locally to save the historic portion of a building, via the town's demolition delay bylaw or through negotiations. We understand why homeowners – 31 of whom voted to oppose a National Register nomination in a recent poll, a wide majority of the 47 owners in the proposed district – would resist this loss of control. Unlike the local commission, which can't force a property owner to preserve a historic building as long as the owner is willing to wait out a demolition delay of up to 18 months, the Cape Cod Commission has the authority to say no to anything that would compromise historical integrity. Many see that as a severe infringement on property rights.

Although the commission may not always communicate it clearly, Chatham is undergoing a crisis that threatens its historical integrity, not just on Stage Harbor Road but throughout town. More and more old buildings are being knocked down as new owners want modern living space and don't seem bothered by the fact that erasing the town's historical integrity diminishes one of the reasons Chatham remains a desirable community. The number of demolition delay hearings were 17 in 2014 but 27 in 2016 and 26 in 2017. Rarely does the commission invoke a delay; it did so twice in 2016, three times last year, and twice this year. Most often a compromise is reached or a building simply isn't historically significant. When a delay is imposed, it's usually a situation – such as two current delays on Stage Harbor Road – where there's no question a building's loss will make not just the neighborhood but the entire town poorer.

This is the problem with a shared heritage. When an historic structure is lost, the impact is not just on a neighborhood but on the entire town. In the 1980s, Chatham recognized how this could endanger its commercial areas, especially the downtown business district, and established the historic business district to protect the architectural integrity that so characterizes the town. The same holds for areas like the Old Village, Stage Harbor Road and South Chatham. While a National Register Historic District may not be in the cards for Stage Harbor Road, other options – such as a local historic district – remain. The historical commission should sound out the entire town on preserving this most historic of neighborhoods, and decide whether a different form of protection is in order. Otherwise, as was stated at a recent historical commission meeting, the town's heritage will disappear one building at a time.