The romantic widow’s walk is a classic adornment of many nineteenth-century coastal homes throughout New England. Historians note that widow’s walks became popular during the early 1800s when sea captains built large, private homes from the fortunes they amassed in the whaling and shipping industries. Inspired by the cupolas of Italianate architecture, the design addition soon became synonymous with New England coastal architecture and remains so today.
The widow’s walk (or “viewing platform,” as it was sometimes called) is a raised and fenced rectangular structure built on the roof of a house. These platforms became especially popular during the height of the whaling industry throughout New England ports such as Edgartown on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
With its deep and protected harbor, Edgartown became the whaling capital of the island sending “countless sailors all over the world from its port.” These sailors were often at sea for months and years at a time. It is said the widow’s walk served as an elevated vantage point for seamen’s wives to survey the harbor for their husbands’ arrival. Sadly, many never returned, leaving their anxious wives widows.
The widow’s walk conjures a nostalgic, poetic image where women paced, watched, and mourned their missing husbands at sea. However, some historians believe this idea may be rooted more in folklore than reality. They maintain that widow’s walks were designed with a practical and decidedly less romantic purpose in mind: firefighting. Chimney fires were a common and dangerous reality in the 1800s when homes were heated primarily by wood. Families would often store buckets of sand (and sometimes water) to pour down the chimney in case of fire – and the widow’s walk provided an access platform to the chimney openings.
There exists a third school of thought, which states there was a less practical reason these structures became so popular. The argument goes that wealthy sea captains believed the viewing platforms were an emotionally satisfying feature to have on their homes. They symbolized wealth and quietly said, “I can admire the source of my fortune (the sea) and survey my ships coming and going from the comfort of my home.”
There likely wasn’t one single purpose for widow’s walks; it appears they served different functions and ornamentation depending on the homeowner. However, today, many of our homes continue to include this classic coastal detail, which honors the romance and history of New England’s vernacular architecture and instills a historically correct sense of nostalgia.
South Beach, located in the Katama region of Edgartown, is one of the most spectacular and scenic beaches on Martha’s Vineyard. Situated on the southern side of the island, South (or Katama) Beach is a three-mile barrier beach with surf on one side and a protected salt pond on the other. It directly faces the Atlantic Ocean and represents a picturesque view for visitors and homeowners. Running parallel to South Beach is magnificent Atlantic Drive, which begins and ends at points often referred to as the “left” and “right” forks of South Beach. We have had the pleasure of designing several homes along Atlantic Drive, all of which presented similar location challenges. The shared objective for each similarly scaled program was to maximize ocean views, and the common challenge was adhering to strict, 30-foot height restrictions. This was particularly demanding given that each property was separated from the ocean by the drive as well as tall, rambling sand dunes.
To overcome this challenge and capture water views from as many primary rooms as possible, we designed each of these homes with an “upside down” layout. Sometimes referred to as “reverse living,” an upside-down house positions the main living areas such as the kitchen, dining and family rooms, along with the Master suite, on the top floor. These upper-level rooms all enjoy exceptional water views and continuous coastal breezes. To harmoniously connect the upper living areas to the pool and outdoor spaces, we introduced full-length decks and hidden outdoor stairways.
Although the first-floor living spaces of these upside down homes do not access ocean views, we were careful to seamlessly integrate them into the home’s overall functionality and vertical living style. Open floor plans with easy outdoor access and inviting stairways to the upper levels ensure that the space is vibrant, inviting and fully connected.
Each of the homes we designed on Atlantic Drive shared similar programs and objectives, and it was extremely important to us that each had a unique and independent solution. We looked to McKim, Mead & White as a historical reference for the first home we built, and for each of the following four we created a specific script and storyline. Additionally, we made certain that each home had optimal sunset views to the west and was carefully situated as not to obstruct another’s view.
When building near the water, a non-traditional, upside down layout can effectively optimize distant views that might otherwise be missed. On Atlantic Drive, our inverted home designs creatively solved our design challenges while enhancing our clients’ visual and living experiences.
Join Patrick Ahearn and the New England Chapter of the ICAA during the 36th Annual Christmas in Edgartown for a historic walking tour, as Patrick discusses the history of Martha’s Vineyard architecture and how the town of Edgartown has evolved over the years. The tour begins at 2:00 p.m. and will conclude with a festive reception at the Carnegie Library.
Date: Saturday, December 9, 2017 Time: 2:00 to 5:00 pm Location: Carnegie Library, 58 North Water Street, Edgartown, MA 02539 Tickets: $40 for ICAA-NE Members, $60 for Non-MembersPurchase tickets here.
About Christmas in Edgartown
December 7-10, 2017
Voted Best of the Vineyard for the third year in a row, Christmas in Edgartown is a weekend festival you don’t want to miss! Every year through the various events, Christmas In Edgartown helps raise over $50,000 for island-wide charities and non-profits. Come be apart of the holiday magic!
The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust recently purchased the 112 year old Carnegie Library for $1 and Island architect, Patrick Ahearn FAIA has accepted the invitation to help preserve this significant piece of Island history. Executive director of the Trust, Chris Scott, states their intentions with the newly obtained property: to transform the beloved library into a heritage center showcasing the trust’s 24 historic properties on the Island and the “stories they tell about the Vineyard.” To design the library’s future, we must look into its past.
“It’s such a great vision,” Mr. Stackpole said. “That’s the great thing about this Island — it reflects so many parts of human history. We’ve got it all here, so let’s flaunt it. Let’s celebrate it.”
The Historical Significance
Aside from the obvious sentimental attachment to the local library many islanders grew up with, the Carnegie Library has national and local historic significance thanks to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and Caroline Osborn Warren, a decedent of the prominent Edgartown Osborn whaling family.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Caroline Osborn Warren donated the current piece of land and Andrew Carnegie gave Edgartown funding for the public library, which was later constructed in 1904. The Osborn family are tied to two other properties owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust: The Desire Osborn House and the Osborn Wharf. Andrew Carnegie built his name and fortune leading the expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century. During his final years, he gave away nearly 90 percent of his fortune in efforts to promote his belief in the responsibility of the upper class to use their wealth to improve society. His fortune contributed to the birth of 3,000 local libraries throughout the world as well as the Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie Institution for Science, Carnegie Hero Fund, Carnegie Mellon University, and more.
Over the past century, Edgartown has tried to adapt the older building for modern needs, resulting in two expansions, but it was time to move to a larger facility. The new Edgartown Public Library was $11 million project and is now located on West Tisbury Road, next to the Edgartown School.
The Carnegie Library’s past is the precedent for its future. It will continue to be a source of information to maintain its original intended use – which coincides with the trust’s mission with every property they preserve.
“What is a library? A library is a portal into knowledge and being exposed to things, and that will happen here,” Mr. Stackpole said, a maritime historian residing in West Tisbury. “It will be different, a variation, but the spirit of it is the same. There’s a continuity of mission.”
The trust launched a successful capital campaign for the project last year and raised a total of $1.8 million to support the preservation.
Patrick Ahearn will be preparing the new plans for the Carnegie Library. The idea is to maintain the original integrity of the exterior and only alter the interior to adapt to its new three main uses:
Reference Library of Local History
Visitor Orientation Exhibits
Gallery of Maritime Art
“I see the interior of the building as being a blank canvas to create a series of wonderful spaces that people can come, enjoy the art, the changing exhibits, grab something quick to eat, and really celebrate all that the trust does for the Island,” states Ahearn.
The front of the building will be dedicated to the library component with a collection of maritime literature, books about the island, and books written by residents. The 1938 and 1970s additions will be used for the exhibits and information about the remaining preservation trust properties and general history.
“The visitor center will become an important tool to educate the public about the Trust and everything they do for the island but, at the same time, it will become a great opportunity for people to host social functions in the building, i.e. plan a party or book a room for lectures, talks on history, architecture, whaling, the harbor…. anything people want to do,” said Ahearn. “It will become part of the community as a whole and for that, I am very excited.”
Listed are the remaining 23 properties owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust:
Alley’s Farm Stand
Before: A garage for a Model A delivery truck
Now: A farm stand offering local cheese and produce
Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury (1858)
Before: A general store
Now: The oldest operating business on the island
Chappy Schoolhouse (1850)
Before: One room school building in New England
Now: Center for environmental learning for Chappy kids
Desire Osborn House (1776)
Before: Home of an owner of a merchant ship transformed later for commercial use
Now: The oldest commercial structure on Main Street in Edgartown
Dr. Daniel Fisher House (1840)
Before: Built by Fisher, a whaling ship owner and one of the wealthiest men in the country at the time and later owned by Senator William Morgan Butler
Now: Restored to be used as the main offices of the Trust and provides a location for private parties
The Edwina B. (1931)
Before: One of only three surviving catboats designed and built by Manuel Swartz Roberts
Now: Used to educate others about the history of wooden sailboats on the Island.
The Flying Horses Carousel (1876)
Before: Built by Charles Dare for Coney Island, NY
Now: The nation’s oldest platform carousel and a national landmark
Grange Hall (1859)
Before: The location for the Agricultural Fair
Now: The location for farmers markets, fairs, and antique sales
Hilly’s Garden (1899)
Before: An accurate restoration based on photographic documentation of the “Sunken Garden” installed by Senator Butler
Now: Named in honor of Hillary Luther, an avid Edgartown gardener
John Coffin House (1703)
Before: Originally built for a prosperous mariner, the house was also for many years a tavern and inn
Now: The oldest commercial structure on North Water Street in Edgartown housing a number of retail buisnesses
Nathan Mayhew Schoolhouse (1828)
Before: The Island’s oldest one room schoolhouse
Now: The Morgan Learning Center, a seasonal educational space for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum
The Norton Boathouse (1840)
Before: The waterfront headquarters of Norton sea captains. The Nortons were among the first settlers of Edgartown in the 1640s.
Now: The last sea captain’s and fisherman’s boathouse on the harbor
The Old Sculpin Gallery (1840)
Before: Manuel Swartz Roberts, reffered to as “Old Sculpin” operated his wooden boat shop there for 50 years
Now: The Martha’s Vineyard Art Association continues to operate their non-profit gallery and educational programs in the building
Old West Tisbury Library (1870)
Before: Built by Moses Mitchell as part of the Mitchell Boys School Campus and serviced as the town library for over fifty years
Now: Home to the Island Theatre Workshop
Old Whaling Church (1843)
Before: Designed by Fredrick Baylies, Jr.and built by Edgartown’s prosperous Methodist whaling captains
Now: This building is one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in New England. The Methodist congregation continues to use it and it also serves as a venue for Town Meeting, weddings, lectures, concerts and other civic events.
Osborn Wharf (1840)
Before: It was originally a warehouse for goods shipped by the Osborne family, prosperous 19th Century ship owners
Now: it remains in maritime use as the chandlery of Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard making it the oldest commercial structure on the Edgartown waterfront
Peabody Gazebo (1840)
Before: Originally located at the Peabody estate, Glen Magna Farm, in Danvers, Massachusetts
Now: Admired by all Islanders
Slip Away Farm on Chappaquiddick (1790)
Before: A rare surviving example of a New England Half-Cape
Now: The land continues to be used for agricultural production and is home to the Chappy Schoolhouse
Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs (1870)
Before: Built as a non-sectarian place of worship
Now: Union Chapel has long been a favorite venue for concerts, recitals, political meetings, speakers and wedding ceremonies
Village Green (1642)
Before: The center of Edgartown’s original village settlement
Now: A small park connecting four in-town commercial streets
Vincent House Museum (1672)
Before: The Island’s oldest residence
Now: A museum dedicated to life on the Island
Vineyard Gazette Building (1760)
Before: Originally constructed as a residence
Now: The production headquarters of the Island’s oldest newspaper