To Save a Little House on the Highway

Adam and Gabrielle Spiegel bought a run-down former wayside tavern in West Tisbury. Though the restoration of the property and its majestic walls is finally complete, Adam Spiegel may be seeing it for the last time.

The little farmhouse with its barn on the highway – the only one you can see on North Road in West Tisbury – is where longtime Baltimore residents Adam Spiegel and his wife Gabrielle live in the summer.  Thanks to Spiegel, a former journalist, the house and its boundaries of stone walls have been rescued from dereliction and brought back to life.

“I get the biggest thrill when I walk out the door in the morning and see this big sweep,” Spiegel said last fall.  Restoration of the property and its majestic walls was finally complete, but he was savoring views that were vanishing before his eyes.

Spiegel suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease. He describes the condition as seeing through a lens aperture that’s slowly closing. Diagnosed with the ailment in 1986, he was told then by his doctor that he would be blind by sixty-five. That prediction proved wide of the mark, and he celebrates that fact “every Tuesday and Friday.”

“The things I can see I see very well,” he said on his sixty-fifth birthday last September.  “But it’s like looking down two soda straws. Now I’m living on a postage stamp; I can’t venture very far on my own.” With 5 percent of his vision left, last fall he could still watch the swallows that take over his property in the evening sweep across the sky, but he could not see his own feet.  

Spiegel faced challenges other than impending blindness. Seven years ago, when he and his wife walked into the Feiner Real Estate office in Menemsha, they told the late Carol Feiner they wanted a house on the water with a deck and a terrace.

“I’ve got the perfect thing for you,” she said, and showed them what was then known as the Loines house, one of the only properties at Seven Gates Farm on the south side of North Road.  No sand, no ocean, no beach. Just a tumbledown house and barn.

“How could you have let me do this?” Gabrielle asked him a year and a half later. Like her husband, she had fallen in love with the stone walls on the property, and she engineered the deal. The farmhouse itself dated from 1728 and was structurally unsound.

The Spiegels went to the West Tisbury Planning Board with a proposal to tear down the building, and the board approved. The next stop was the zoning board of appeals; it rejected the demolition of a West Tisbury landmark. In truth, Spiegel didn’t want to raze the house.

“I’m an historic preservationist,” he said. He promised Gabrielle that he would manage the house renovations. In March 1998, he hired three African-Americans from the Baltimore Parks Department and two lumberjacks from Nova Scotia to do the work. This mini–melting pot boiled a bit for a couple of days, but then everyone settled down happily together in the tiny, dilapidated West Tisbury cottage.   

After taking out half the forest – full of ugly, twisted locusts, dead for centuries – they ripped apart the house, pulling off the roof and getting into the intestines below.  
“The place looked gothic,” Spiegel said. He gave away the downed wood to a conservationist charity.  

The property’s stone walls were covered with brambles, fallen trees, and vines, so with the house renovations underway, Spiegel brought in a crew of Brazilians, adding to the international flavor of the project. “Guys, this old property is covered with stone walls,” he told them. “Go get them. We’ve got to bring them out alive.” So they did. Most of them were eighteen to twenty years old and geniuses about building stone walls.

“This is the Berlin Wall,” Spiegel said, pointing to a stretch of stone wall west of the family’s barn. It acquired its name because of its imposing four-foot height – not its historic tumbling down – and because that’s where the stone-wall restoration started.

“It’s taller than any of the other walls because they kind of lost track.

“They wouldn’t go home,” Spiegel said. “I picked them up at 7 a.m. No lunch. They stayed until it was black. They loved to come to this property.”

Spiegel raced to finish the reclamation before Gabrielle, then a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and now dean of students at the University of California at Los Angeles, where they moved last fall, arrived. He had in his head what he wanted to do, and she hadn’t been able to see it. She didn’t want land; she wanted gardens.

“For me it was big sky,” he said. “Of course, I was going blind, so it was a big deal for me.”

What emerged from the land was a handsome, modernized home, true to its historic roots. Spiegel got his fields surrounded by stone walls, and Gabrielle got her gardens.

The Spiegels’ barn looked too dilapidated to recover, but they did it. Spiegel, a budding novelist, turned an attached tractor shed into his office.

“I majored in stone walls and minored in trees,” Spiegel said. He planted forty white pines and lost a third of them. Now he nurtures dogwoods; only one so far has dropped its leaves from the Vineyard’s infamous powdery mildew. According to Vineyard legend, patriots hung Brits from oaks in the Spiegels’ meadow.

“I am so happy here,”

Spiegel said. “I told Gabrielle if I get depressed, take my bones and roll me up to Martha’s Vineyard. These wonderful days are just cherished.” Cherished they always will be, by touch, smell, and every other sense except sight.