An Upscale Historic Rental

Recently renovated by architect Dudley Cannada, this whaling captain’s house combines an interesting past with modern amenities.

A summer walk down the streets of downtown Edgartown sparks the senses: the slap of a screen door, the glory of a Greek revival porch, the sweet smell of flowers, the prick of a thorn as you graze the roses tumbling over a white picket fence. It also stirs a sense of history and a sense of place, knowing so many people before you have walked these centuries-old streets.

It’s one of the reasons why vacation renters choose the Captain John Butler House on North Water Street, one of the oldest homes on the Island. A private, intimate house in the heart of the village, this is not your average summer rental – it’s a part of the Island’s heritage, says owner Dudley Cannada, a preservation architect who splits his time between Edgartown and Georgetown in Washington, DC, where he has a design firm. He takes his role as a preservation architect seriously, and maintains as much original character as possible in his renovation projects.

His work can be seen across Edgartown, including several historic homes around the village that were considered teardowns, Dudley says. He also designed the Cottages on the Village Green, a group of condominiums on North Summer Street that includes several retail buildings designed in the vernacular Greek revival style commonly seen on the Vineyard. The Captain Butler house holds special appeal, however.

“Renting this kind of house is being part of the history,” Dudley explains. “And North Water Street, I think, is the most precious historic street I know, certainly in New England. It is very, very fine.”

The house has taken many forms over the years, from a whaling captain’s home to the Shiretown Inn in recent years. But Dudley has transformed the house yet again and given it a new lease on life as a high-end rental home. He purchased the building in 2008 and did a complete overhaul. He kept the house’s frame and exterior walls but gutted the interior. The floors were taken up and stripped of lead paint, refinished, and put back down. He also replaced the windows, although some of the frames are original.

Antique furniture punctuates the interior, mixed with a modern touch and crisp finishes. A downstairs bedroom is convenient for a baby sitter/caretaker or the young person who may want to return home late without disturbing other guests, and an upstairs nautical-themed bedroom with built-in captain’s beds is perfect for two kids looking for a pirate adventure. However, Dudley says you never know who is going to be staying where and he applies the same high level of finishes in every room.

He’s designed the house to cater to multi-generational families or groups of friends. “I have to compete with much better properties, so I have to have a better house,” he says. “This is a ‘pile everyone in’ kind of house.” The six-bedroom, six-and-a-half-bath, four-story home can hold up to ten people. It’s equipped with two dishwashers, two washer-and-dryer systems, an outdoor living space with a fireplace, and a garage apartment – all amenities needed to compete in the upscale market, Dudley says.

And you don’t have to go far for a little sun and a swim – a private pool is tucked away behind the house with enough greenery to keep the noise down and privacy intact. It’s also easy to slip from lounge mode to cocktails on the patio.

When it comes to the business of renting, Dudley advertises the house on three different real estate websites – Point B Realty, Hob Knob Realty, and Sandpiper Realty – but also has business relationships with just about every other broker. By doing this, he says it gives the house a wider market while not putting pressure on any one agency. A week at the Captain Butler House costs between $12,000 and $20,000, depending on the season.

The house dates back to 1695, when whaling captain John Butler bought the property from the Athearn family. The deed from the purchase includes the matching house next door, which was built by Butler’s brother and dates to around the same time (and which Dudley also owns). He says subtle differences in the post-and-beam construction indicate they weren’t built at exactly the same time but most likely within five or ten years of each other. The houses have unusually high ceilings for the time period, Dudley says – the Butler houses have higher than eight-foot ceilings compared to their seven-foot-high counterparts. Dudley is currently renovating the brother’s house, which will also be offered as a rental home.

Dudley says The History of Martha’s Vineyard by Dr. Charles Banks explains the Butlers were the first family on the Vineyard to sell whale oil and the houses may have been the first on Martha’s Vineyard to be built with profits from whaling. The Captain Butler house has had a long list of owners, including a doctor named Mayber in the 1800s and the colorful Edgartown character Chester Pease. One of its most famous tenants was a hotel guest in 1969 when it operated as the Shiretown Inn.

“This is the Ted Kennedy room,” Dudley announces as he enters one of the bedrooms on the second floor. He points to a door that leads to a deck, which used to be connected to a back stairway. “It’s where he was staying when you-know-what happened,” he says, referring to when Kennedy’s car went off the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick. “It was the center of the universe in 1969.”

While its days as an inn are over, Dudley runs a tight ship and strives for the utmost in customer service. “We’ve lost about half of our inns in Edgartown....This is an alternative,” he says. “This house is like running a hotel – it has to be right.”