Wreck or Renovate?

An Oak Bluffs couple’s thoughtful (and thrifty) three-stage reformation.

It’s always cheaper to tear down.

That’s the doctrine of many Island architects – much to the dismay of historical conservationists. And, faced with the challenge of renovating a vintage home on a limited budget, many Island homeowners feel they have no choice but to follow this creed to wreck and rebuild.

John Breckenridge and Barbara Baskin have found an economically reasonable and aesthetically pleasing solution to the “wreck or renovate” dilemma. They reworked and expanded portions of their vintage Oak Bluffs cottage by having the work done in stages. They used salvaged materials whenever possible (mostly from the house itself), and they invested their own “sweat equity” where feasible.

The Baskin-Breckenridge cottage now sits on a beautifully landscaped lot on East Chop about a half-mile from the lighthouse, but there is evidence that it was originally situated in the Dempster Park area near the Baptist Temple in the East Chop Highlands. Some details discovered during the renovation show the house to have been styled in the Wesleyan Camp Ground tradition. Based on extensive research by their architect and recollections by neighbors, Barbara and John believe it was moved from the original site to the current location in the early 1950s.

Barbara spent many a childhood summer in the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs when her family rented there in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Then in 1964 her parents bought the cottage that Barbara would eventually inherit. As an adult, she and John spent summers and weekends commuting from Hingham. Upon Barbara’s retirement in 2001 from the Boston office of Credit Suisse corporate services, they sold the Hingham home and moved to the Island as year-round residents. Barbara now works as the secretary of the operating room at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. John is a food broker who markets clients’ products to the food service trade – a business he conducts from his home office.

The couple met while both attended Denison University in Ohio where they established a friendship. “We went our separate ways after college,” John recalls. They reconnected in the early 1980s and married in 1985. “John married me so he could tear my house apart,” Barbara jokes, referring to the home in Hingham.

They liked their neighbors and the location of the tiny farmhouse, so they decided to expand it rather than move into a larger one. Based upon a neighbor’s referral and an interview, John and Barbara hired Abington-based architect Doug Ulwick. “It was a wonderful collaboration,” John recalls.

John and Barbara became good friends with Doug. So happy were they with the results of the Hingham renovation, their thoughts turned to the Island cottage. Barbara recalls, “John and I hadn’t done anything for a couple of years after the Hingham house was done. We were bored and we did want to be here more. I said to Doug, ‘Why don’t you go to the Vineyard and stay in the house for a week, and afterwards tell us what you think we should do with the place?’”

Doug, who had never been to the Island before, jumped at the chance. “And that’s created a big monster,” Barbara jokes again.

After a week of sun, sand, and soaking up the ambience of the cottage, Doug began putting ideas on paper. “I was on the Islander on the way home before I even pulled out my sketchbook,” he recalls. “I just sketched off the top of my head. What I initially came up with was very modest – fix this, pull this around, move this over here.”

In the process of renovating the cottage, Doug became enamored of the Island and Camp Ground architecture and has since built a neo–Camp Ground home for himself in Oak Bluffs. After intensive research of the vernacular and proving his restoration skills on short-term projects, he has also become one of the go-to guys for various commissions and individuals seeking to keep Oak Bluffs renovations and new buildings true to style.

The Baskin-Breckenridge cottage was renovated in three phases. “If you visualize the house, now, as an H, the left bar was the original, the horizontal middle bar was the second phase, and the right bar is the last phase,” John says. The first phase, which took place in 1992, included a re-do and expansion of the kitchen, replacement of the front porch, installation of two Gothic-style windows and a balcony to a second-floor bedroom, and winterization of the exterior walls. The latter was accomplished by removing the old shingles, installing rigid insulation, and finishing with pine shiplap siding. By insulating from the outside, the couple was able to preserve the dimensions and character of the interior walls.

The kitchen, now three feet wider, is roomy without being ungainly – and, of course, it’s been updated. A pantry was added with a kitchen desk, drawers that were saved from the Hingham house restoration, and salvaged cabinet doors. And a small powder room adjoins the pantry. A closet off the front hall shows vestiges of paint (called “paint ghosts” in restoration terms) that were around the home’s original staircase. John and Barbara were loath to paint over it, preferring instead to let the history of the house shine through.

Two upstairs bedrooms were redecorated, keeping the Gothic-style double doors and rebuilding the adjacent balcony off the front bedroom. In working on the back bedroom, they found clues that the space was added on; it appears as if a roof was once attached to the wall of the front bedroom, and there was no second story over the old kitchen.

As the couple redecorated, they maintained as much of the original character as possible. Antique furnishings abound, floors are refinished, and trunks that Barbara restored add that summer-home ambience to the two bedrooms. A bureau in the front bedroom has been in the same spot since Barbara can remember and may be original to the house.

Phase two, the middle bar of the “H,” took place in 1995 and ’96. A two-story addition was built to provide a new entrance to the house. They installed a full basement and central heating, as well as a back deck to blend in with Barbara’s woodsy landscaping. The first floor sports a bathroom–shower room with the original kitchen sink serving as a utility sink. An old-fashioned bathhouse-style partition separates the shower from the rest of the room, and a back door leads to the deck.

Upstairs from that bathroom is another, adjacent to the two bedrooms in the old section. It boasts a vintage sink salvaged from the Hingham renovation.

The final phase, in 2001, was carefully created to accommodate furnishings that the couple couldn’t part with from their Hingham home. “We saved our money to buy the things we bought for Hingham,” Barbara explains. “When we moved here, one thing I felt very strongly about was I wasn’t ready to downsize. I didn’t want to get rid of half of the stuff that I had so carefully chosen.”

A larger two-story addition, with a footprint of one thousand square feet, was built to the right of the new entrance, bath, and back deck. The first floor contains the living room with a fireplace; and a column resurrected from the old front porch was split and incorporated into the fireplace mantel. Nearby the dining room was designed for Barbara’s heirloom cherry dining-room table and chairs.

Down the hall, a heavy, ornate, golden oak door separates the master bedroom and Barbara’s office from the rest of the first floor. The door is another relic, carefully stripped and professionally refinished by Barbara. “Barbara is a master refinisher,” John chides. Indeed, she restored all of the cottage’s stained-glass windows (collected from salvage yards and buildings under the wrecking ball off-Island). Installed over fixed-pane windows, John says, “the refinished stained glass are just decorative and have no thermal value.” The advantage, he notes, is that the vintage piece is protected from the elements.

A stairway leads from the dining room to the second floor of the new wing. (Another stained-glass window is included in the woodwork on the landing.) The stairs lead to John’s office – appropriately modern and understated.

A clever foresight in constructing the right wing is that it had no access to the rest of the house until it was completed – thus keeping the flotsam and jetsam of the process from drifting into the living quarters. Once the final touches were done, the walls were broken through, transitions were built, and the house was complete.

Sweat equity saved the couple a lot of money. Swinging hammers cheek to jowl with the hired professionals in Hingham, they learned what worked and what didn’t. They could recognize problems as they arose and make calculated decisions. They knew what changes would fit their lifestyle and those that would not. And they had the satisfaction of being able to say, “I did that.”

“There’s a craftsman side of us – a hands-on thing,” John explains. “We’re both only children. We sort of like to be in control, shall we say. Doing things yourself, it gets done the way you want it; there’s a learning curve, it’s enjoyable, and there’s a sense of satisfaction you can take anywhere.”

“When we started Hingham,” Barbara reminisces, “I did not know how to read a blueprint.” John adds, “I didn’t know how to make an angle cut. You teach yourself.”

The couple also emphasizes the value of acquiring and working closely with a good architect.

“Make your architect your best friend,” Barbara recommends. “You tend to look at your building a certain way. You look at your rooms for what they are. An architect can come in and look at a building and capture the possibilities in an entirely different way than you can perceive it. They can grab space that you didn’t know you had. That alone can expand the possibilities.”

She also stresses the importance of an architect’s engineering expertise. “Structurally, it’s extremely important to make sure that the building is sound,” she maintains, “especially if you’re working on an old building.”

By doing a lot of their own work, by doing it in stages, and by recycling salvaged materials as much as possible, Barbara and John have created a home they love and are very proud of – without ever having to take out a loan. “We were able to do the whole thing with proceeds from the sale of the Hingham house,” John asserts. Construction of the three phases took a total of less than six years and, John estimates, averaged about $200 per square foot. “This was not a high-end process as far as money goes. Our bathrooms are modest. Our kitchen is modest by today’s standards. But it is one of the most comfortable houses I’ve ever been in.”

They have become evangelists of historical renovations. Barbara is a member of the seven-person Cottage City Historic District Commission; the Copeland Plan District Review Board, which reviews plans for all architectural modifications to buildings in the Copeland District of Oak Bluffs; and the Architectural Review Committee of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, which reviews all architectural changes to the cottages in the Camp Ground. John is a member of the Oak Bluffs Conservation Commission, and an appointee to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

In fact, so enthusiastic are they, and practiced at describing their mission regarding their own home, they tend to finish each other’s sentences. “There was a vision here,” John begins. “Of saving it and using it and working with it,” Barbara continues, “and also, there’s an educational process. We feel very strongly about showing people what’s possible, and give them ideas how they can hold on to their house and save it. And also do it in a fairly economical way.”