The Vose Boathouse

One Vose family member describes it as “the center of our universe,” and goes on to say that “we continually ask ourselves, ‘How did we get so lucky? Why us?’ ”

Was Julien Vose – a piano manufacturer and summer visitor who married an Edgartown girl by the name of Anna Pease – prescient when he bought the Tower Hill property that included this boathouse back in the early 1990s? Did he know that today, over 100 years later, his descendants would consider this boathouse a “sacred space”? One Vose family member describes it as “the center of our universe,” and goes on to say that “we continually ask ourselves, ‘How did we get so lucky? Why us?’ ”

This constant refrain – a mix of adoration, veneration, and awe for the boathouse and good fortune – has woven itself into the fabric of the Vose family. All significant family announcements and rites of passage – such as graduations, engagement parties, and weddings – take place on the planked floor of the boathouse.

Like many families, this one tells and retells stories both old and new. There was, for instance, that day in 1981 when the boathouse slid off its pilings while under repair. It lay in the harbor, partially capsized and submerged, for the entire summer before it could be raised and righted. Anne Vose felt so mournful that she half hoped the women of her congregation would drive up to Tower Hill to drop off casseroles and condolences. But the old boathouse endured even that catastrophe. Remarkably, not one piece of china sitting on a wall rack on the second floor fell off or broke. This crisis brought the family together, teaching them, not for the first time, that when the boathouse is in order, the family is too.

Records suggest that the boathouse was built in 1899 by Sol Smith Russell, an actor, comedian, and playwright, shortly before his death. The form of the boathouse is timeless– it looks rather modern, even today – and it has survived hurricanes and blizzards, as well as dunkings. “There’s not a building permit in the world that would [allow] this today,” says Mark Lovewell, a Vineyard Gazette writer and photographer and great-grandson of Julien Vose. Some families, inheriting such an extraordinary and encumbering gift, would have been unwilling or unable to meet all the financial demands that come with it. Others, knowing its value, would have sold out long ago. Julien Vose, in his wisdom, decreed that the boathouse could never be lived or even slept in, nor could it be commercialized. These constraints guide the generations, and the focus today, as ever, is family.

In the 1940s, Leroy (Daddy) Vose – Julien’s son – started a family boathouse tradition that endures today. “Hamburgers on Sundays” got underway because Daddy Vose thought that the ladies should have a day off from cooking. So he created a rather simple menu for the men to prepare. Sunday Hamburgers started at the boathouse at noon with drinks and appetizers for the adults: whiskey sours, cheese, crackers, and olives. At  p.m. sharp, the kids were allowed to come in and eat hamburgers, potato chips, ginger ale, and sliced watermelon for dessert. The meals were a small family affair until Leroy’s gregarious son, Donald, now ninety-three years old, inherited the tradition. Dianne Durawa (Donald’s daughter and an Edgartown resident) recalls some Sunday hamburger parties that topped  people, with boats tied up three-deep to the boathouse wharf. (Ironically, all this meant work, and lots of it, for the women.) To this day, Dianne inevitably runs into someone on the street who’ll say: “I met you at Hamburgers back in 1972.” And she’ll nod politely, because that’s how she was brought up, and besides, she was probably too busy to remember.

These days, economic challenges and pressures face property owners all across the Vineyard. The Vose family, like any other that has inherited such a gift, will always ask itself two questions: The answer to the first – “Why us?”– remains with the spirits of the ancestors. The answer to the second – “What now?” – remains in the hands and hearts of the living.