For more than a decade I have had a low-grade obsession with the St Pierre property in Vineyard Haven, the site of an old Marine Hospital that sits high on a bluff overlooking Lagoon Pond and the Vineyard Harbor beyond. The evocative 4.4 acre property is a short walk from downtown. It is surrounded by small lots with small homes.
The imposing wood-frame hospital was built in 1895 by the U.S. government to treat soldiers, sailors, and their families. In 1935 they expanded with a brick addition on the rear and continued to operate the hospital. When it closed in the mid-fifties the St Pierre family bought it and operated it as a school and summer camp (and then just a summer camp) for 50 years. In 2007 Barbara St Pierre, daughter of the founders of the St Pierre School, ceased operation. The 10,000 SF building is in a state of disrepair, but it still has very good bones and begs for new life.
I first discovered the property in 2000. Somehow I met Barbara, somehow we ended up touring the building, and somehow we began talking about the future of the property. She said, at the time, that she would soon close the camp. I spoke to her at length about the idea of renovating the building, adding more, and making it into a mixed use development of affordable and market housing. Perfect location. Big need. And a place for her to retire to.
She was intrigued but she wasn’t ready yet.
Ten years later – this year – I got a call from her. Ready now, she was putting it on the market for $3.2 million. She still loved our idea, but had decided she didn’t want to live there anymore – it was time for her to cash in, move on, and retire elsewhere.
We developed a scheme for a combination of upscale retirement housing and affordable family housing.
For us, it immediately came off the back-burner. We investigated the building and the property in some detail. The spectacular location, the sloping lawn with steps descending to the lagoon, the 12’ high ceilings, the immense double hung windows, the period details, and the sturdy construction overshadowed the basement full of asbestos, the peeling paint, the drooping tin ceilings, and the 50 years of accumulated junk that you had to wade through to get around.
We developed a scheme for a combination of upscale retirement housing and affordable family housing. Before that had gone far, we hooked up with a local non-profit called Vineyard Village which provides services to elders and aspires to build some congregate housing. They were excited about the possibilities, but it turned out that this group doesn’t have the organizational horsepower – yet – to take on such an undertaking.
Meanwhile, a wealthy individual approached the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which is located in very tight and primitive quarters in Edgartown, whose extensive collection is threatened by improper storage facilities and conditions, and which has been trying to re-locate for nearly a decade. This patron agreed to put up a large chunk of the purchase price if a feasibility study (which he would also fund) yielded positive results. The Museum bought a six month option on the property and went to work.
They issued a Request for Proposals for a feasibility study and schematic design to 40 architecture firms all over the Northeast who specialize in museum work. Because they knew of our interest in the property, and because we shared with them the drawings we had done and the information we had assembled, they included us (I think we were the only island firm invited, but there may have been one or two others) even though we don’t know a thing about museums.
To fill that lack, we hooked up with Matt Oudens and Conrad Ello of Oudens/Ello Architecture in Boston, experienced museum designers who came to us through our systems engineer Marc Rosenbaum, who has done some consulting with them.
We decided to submit a proposal together – South Mountain Company in association with Oudens/Ello, under the terms of which we would be the lead design firm and they would work as consultants to us. Due to the short length of the option, half of which was used up before the RFP went out, everything was on a wicked tight schedule. We worked our butts off and whipped together what we thought was a first class proposal.
Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.
The Museum received a collection of strong proposals and winnowed it down to six for interviews – one firm from Philadelphia, one from Connecticut, three from Boston, and us. In November we went for our interview with the Museum’s Planning Committee, and that very night, about 7:30 PM, I got an e-mail from David Nathans, the Museum’s director that said, “You’re our guys. Ready to meet Monday morning? Looking forward to working with you and your team.”
I was thrilled. Then I gulped. “Yup,” I wrote back, “we’re ready. Let’s go. See you Monday at 10.” Not knowing what we’re doing has never stopped us before. It’s always a good time to learn something new. And this would be very new – in scope, in size, in building type. And very public. Kind of like Samuel Butler once said, “Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.” That’s surely how this would go.
The photos below show the site and building we encountered, at various times during its history. In a week or two I’ll continue this story, and tell how we learned something (only a little, so far) about museums. And what we produced to date.