By Margot Clark-Junkins
Pullquote: There is no downside to exploring reasonable limits to home size.
If you care about your town, the number of teardowns, and the size of new homes, it might be a good idea to check out “One Big Home,” a documentary being screened at the Rye Meeting House on Saturday at 3.
The filmmaker, Thomas Bena, once worked as a carpenter, building homes on Martha’s Vineyard. He noticed that classic Cape Cod-Style homes were rapidly being replaced by immense new homes — even some mega-mansions of 20,000 square feet—for owners who stayed only two or three months of the year.
Growing concerned about his complicity, Bena began to advocate for house size limits. In the town of Chilmark, the Board of Selectmen eventually voted in favor of a zoning change, capping houses at 3,500 square feet, or 6,000 with a special permit. Significantly, the vote passed by a margin of 162 to 51. Bena’s film illustrates that there is no downside to exploring reasonable limits.
Anne Stillman, President and CEO of Rye’s historic Meeting House and adjacent Bird Homestead, says, “‘One Big Home’” is pertinent to residents of Rye and nearby towns who want to protect community character.”
In Rye, older homes are being torn down at an alarming rate, replaced by larger structures which exceed their original footprints. Properties are clear-cut and frequently subdivided. Homes are rotated perpendicular to the road and are often put incredibly close to property lines.
Must we resign ourselves to the loss of older homes, these character-rich buildings which create a “sense of place” in our community?
Some embrace the idea of restoring an older home. They are guided, in part, by a reverence for history. Considering the fact that Rye occupies just six square miles, the list of protected (or, landmarked) historic sites is impressive. On the National Register of Historic Places, there is Timothy Knapp House on Milton Road — one of the oldest homes in the county—dating to 1667, and the Square House, built in 1730. Jay Heritage Center, which is a National Historic Landmark, was completed in 1838.
Most of these sites are open to the public, but a handful are private homes. These homes will remain protected in perpetuity and are an indelible part of the city’s cultural landscape.
One such home, the Hains-Robinson House, was awarded landmark status back in 1984 and recently changed hands for the first time in 30 years. The interior contains wooden doors and paneling from a scuttled Civil War frigate <Brandywine>, which was purchased in 1867 by Captain Henry S. Hains.
“We were not looking for an old house,” explains new owner Melinda Stein, who first moved to Rye with her husband Tom Tobin in 1990. “In fact, my husband [wanted] to build an entirely new home. We had our checklist of items…and we did not let the fact that the house was old get in our way. The many previous owners had done a wonderful job of maintenance and retooling when necessary. We fell hard for her character, history and uniqueness. We like the fact that she is not ‘cookie-cutter’ and has many delightful bits of history and nooks and crannies.”
Because the earliest homes in Rye were typically humble structures on smallish plots, a fair number remain, hiding in plain sight. Some have been lovingly restored, while others have been cloaked in vinyl siding, porches enclosed, windows updated. One absolute gem sits in its true state, the charming antique schoolhouse next to Milton Harbor, built circa 1830.
Victorian homes, with their grand porches and quirky facades, are often situated at the center of large parcels of land, making them irresistible to developers who outbid individual buyers in order to acquire the land. They seek — and often receive — approval to demolish the existing house and erect two, even three, homes where there once was one.
People want to buy a home with character, expecting to weave their family’s story into the community’s ongoing narrative. And yes, restoring a vintage home requires a certain amount of vision and ingenuity. Chris and Peter Duncan have an abundance of both, as evidenced by their pristinely restored Forest Avenue home, designed in 1904 by esteemed architect Charles Platt (1861-1933).
“This house has so many beautiful details that you cannot get in new-builds,” says Chris. “When you walk through the front door you look right into the back mature formal gardens and pool…it brings the outside in. The walls and doors are solid, which I love. The house also has many built-ins with lots of classically-designed moldings. I would love to save every old house…it hurts when I see an older beauty knocked down and replaced.”
Former First Lady Barbara Bush, who passed away last week, grew up in Rye, and her home still stands…for now.
The running time for “One Big Home” is 90 minutes. Admission is free, but donations are always appreciated.
Playhouse in front of Victorian home, Milton Road
Construction site, Forest Avenue
Vintage schoolhouse, Milton Road
The Duncan’s home, designed by Charles Platt, 1904