Protection, Restoration, and a Family’s Passion for the Land
Remember the Vineyard Golf Wars of the late 1990s? Three major golf courses were proposed nearly at once — two in Edgartown, one in Oak Bluffs.
The community had strong feelings about the impact of more golf courses. The New York Times quoted Jim Athearn, Morning Glory Farm owner and, at the time, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC): “A golf course is the epitome of suburban leisure and affluence.” He described golf as a cultural steamroller crushing “the character and identity that we are trying to preserve.”
Ultimately, only one of the three — Vineyard Golf — was built. Corey Kupersmith’s O.B. plan went down in flames at the MVC. The third course — Meeting House Golf Club — was proposed for a large property on the shore of Edgartown Great Pond, and its fate provides an uplifting story.
In the pitched battle between developers and conservation interests, the Meeting House proponents structured their case as a question: “What would be a better fate for the Island and the unique, fragile property — an environmentally benign [so they said] golf course, or a collection of large, seasonal homes?” Biologist Tom Chase, then of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) turned this argument on its head when he wrote a letter to the Vineyard Gazette suggesting a third way: TNC would buy the property, put it into conservation, and find a conservation buyer to recoup the funds, thus dispensing with the two-options-only argument.
At the time, Wayne Klockner had just returned from Indonesia to take over as the head of the Massachusetts office of TNC. When he arrived, the Vineyard’s chapter of TNC was thriving under Tom Chase’s leadership but there was little activity in the rest of the state. Wayne needed money. He made a list of all the people who had donated more than $100 to TNC Massachusetts in the previous few years, and began to cold-call them. That’s how he met Brian and Ann Mazar, who lived in the small Massachusetts town of Mendon. They were receptive to a visit; when they met, they told him they had been renting vacation houses on the Vineyard each summer, and would consider being conservation buyers when they were closer to retirement.
Wayne had no idea that they might have the interest or capacity to purchase a valuable 100-acre property on Edgartown Great Pond. But when he and Tom showed them the property and Tom laid out his vision for connected habitats
and sandplains restoration, they got excited, especially when they realized that they had serendipitously been on the same property a decade before when they stayed at a nearby B&B. Ultimately they purchased the property, with two six-acre building envelopes designated, and the remaining acres covered by a conservation easement held by TNC. They created an endowment for the long-term restoration of the rare sandplain ecosystem. Meeting House Golf would never be built.
The failure of the first two proposals caused Vineyard Golf to agree to strong conditions in return for MVC and Edgartown Conservation Commission approval, including all-organic management (at the time it was called “the greenest golf course in the country” in the national media) and a contribution of four lots to the town for affordable housing. One of those four lots will return as a part of this story.
According to the Sandplain Grassland Network, a regional research and management partnership, “Sandplain grasslands of the Northeastern U.S. are iconic hotspots for biodiversity, and important conservation priorities because of their relative rarity, limited geographical range, and the diversity of uncommon plant and animal species they support.” Sandplains are a globally imperiled ecosystem; since 1850, most sandplains have disappeared. Neglect and fire suppression have allowed the dominant forest species to take over. The Vineyard and Nantucket are among the few remaining strongholds, with approximately 90 percent of the world’s sandplains grasslands. The Mazar property was covered by overgrown sandplains grasslands.
In 2003 Tom Chase of TNC initiated a sandplains restoration project to recover the underlying grasslands. In the past, they were maintained by periodic burning from lightning, and from indigenous Americans — Wampanoag, here on Martha’s Vineyard — setting fire to them. According to Tom, “Fire is the means by which the sandplains had remained open for thousands of years. It returns most nutrients to the soil … and opens the soil, allowing grasses from the seed bank to emerge — sometimes after many decades of waiting — and allows the seedlings to grow unshaded, as so many species require. In the sandplains, fire is life.”
For the past 18 years, the Mazar project has used a variety of restoration and management methods — clearing the forest, conducting prescribed burns, controlling invasive plants, removing aggressive woody shrubs, planting native plants — to bring back this rare ecology and increase biodiversity.
Mike Whittemore has been coming to the Vineyard for fishing trips since he was a child. Over time he began to take note of the brilliant landscapes and variety of flora and fauna; his Vineyard visits stoked the flames of his passion for the natural world. Three years ago he moved here to become TNC’s stewardship manager for Cape Cod and the Islands. He helps manage more than 1,500 acres of property, including the Mazar sandplains restoration.
“It’s an incredibly rare and diverse ecosystem that you can’t find in many other places besides the Cape and Islands,” Whittemore said in a recent MV Times article. “We are lucky to have the opportunity to support the grasslands and protect those landscapes from development and degradation.”
With grasslands shrinking across the range, TNC and its partners’ efforts are not just locally essential. “These are global efforts that are necessary for the survival of this particular ecosystem. There are many species that exist in the sandplain grasslands that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
TNC will continue to manage, in perpetuity, the restoration and expansion of sandplains grasslands on the property. To date, they have created a mosaic of all-native habitats on more than 30 acres of the property.
“Overall,” Mike wrote in an email, “this property effectively showcases the striking drama and beauty of the Vineyard’s sandplain grasslands. The project is a unique collaboration between a major conservation organization and a homeowner who share a deep appreciation for the Vineyard landscape and the plant and animal species that give it its character.”
Repurposing a house
Late in 2000, Brian and Anne contacted me (as the CEO and co-owner of South Mountain Company) to see if we would be interested in working with them to do a sensitive development of one of the two building envelopes. Initial conversations indicated that the chemistry was just right, and that Brian and Anne would be extraordinary clients. Their interests (visual modesty, species protection, rich craft, and net-zero energy) were uniquely aligned with ours.
They had strong aesthetic and environmental aspirations for their home and landscape. The invasive species that TNC has systematically removed weren’t the only intruders. There was a large, ungainly house close to the water, which dominated the view from the pond. Early on it was determined that we would remove that house.
Meanwhile, in concert with the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF), we had developed a program to relocate and make affordable housing from houses slated to be torn down. Rising land values were causing many perfectly good houses to be razed and replaced. We offered the owners a unique opportunity: They contribute their house to the nonprofit IAHF, which assigns a fair market value to the contribution, and they contribute, in cash, the amount of their tax savings due to the contribution. The funds would be used to relocate and rehab the houses, and the owners would save the cost of demolition. Everyone comes out ahead except the IRS, but the process is entirely legal.
Various owners agreed, and we ultimately relocated eight houses. The town committed the properties secured from Vineyard Golf, and four of the houses were moved to those lots on Metcalf Way. On the Mazar property, we saw the opportunity to move the existing house and replace it with a new house more appropriate to the site and the Mazars’ needs. The house was loaded onto two side-by-side tractor trailers, which simultaneously drove it out into the field, where the house was cut in half. After an unfortunate diversion the two trailers rolled to Metcalf Way, where the two halves were placed on a foundation and reassembled. Later, when the town distributed the four houses by lottery, the winner of this one, who was, at the time, the custodian for the Edgartown School, broke down in tears of joy when his name was called.
A home for the family
My colleague Derrill Bazzy and I worked with landscape designer Sanford Evans of Indigo Farms, and Anne and Brian, to design and locate a low-slung home that would be barely visible from the shore. The vision was to sensitively weld the new home to a spectacular existing landscape with minimal disturbance. Indigo salvaged the native plants from the homesite before excavation; they made a temporary nursery during construction, and replanted them after the house was completed.
The result conveys deep affection for and connection with the surroundings. The house was set back from the shore significantly further than the previous house, and nestled into the savannah-like terrain. The forms embodied in the house and the plantings reflect the larger environment — ancient outwash flows and wind-sheared outlines of tree canopies. The low, L-shaped form reduces the building’s presence from the pond, while providing a diversity of views from within.
Anne and Brian were the inspiration; we were their guides. The house exudes craft and comfort. A rich palette of reclaimed woods, driftwood, and gnarly trees recovered from the site defines the aesthetic. Before 14 acres of oak trees were cleared for the sandplains restoration, we cruised them and identified a dozen or so of just the right size and shape, with branches at the right places to serve as braces, and they became exposed framing elements in the dining area. There is a feeling of timelessness — the house does not feel like it belongs in any particular era. Behind the entry coat rack, a trap door reveals a magical, cypress-paneled hideaway known as “the Secret Place,” designed and built for their youngest child, who at the time was 6. The process was equally magical. The only thing I can remember disagreeing about was a sod roof; Derrill and I advocated, Brian and Anne resisted. They didn’t see the value, and we couldn’t articulate it in a convincing way. In hindsight I think they were right.
The reclaimed cypress clapboard siding and trim, which have weathered to a silvery gray that blends into the landscape, contribute to the unobtrusiveness of the house. Due to the natural decay resistance of old-growth cypress, it will last indefinitely without finish. A driftwood arch crowns the entry porch like the sun-bleached jawbone of a whale. Ninety-five percent of the interior and exterior visible wood is salvage of some sort. Floors are old-growth heart pine recovered from river bottoms, where they sank in log drives a century ago. Interior trim and cabinetry are cypress that took a similar mud-bound hiatus, now dressed up with a light oil finish. Doors are fabricated from super-stable old-growth redwood salvaged from retired beer vats.
Nonwood materials, too, were carefully chosen for function, beauty, and environmental good sense. The slate-look roof shingles are reincarnated from junked car bumpers. The triple-glazed windows feature a custom muntin pattern inspired by the surrounding trees. Ceramic bathroom tiles make use of recycled windshield glass. The furnishings selected by the Mazars and SMCo interior designer (now COO) Deirdre Bohan quietly complement the architectural detail.
The house, the nearby garage and guesthouse, the boardwalk that connects the two, and the surrounding native landscape were completed in 2003. The completed project is an expression of resource conservation without functional or aesthetic compromise. Brian and Anne have continuously added locally grown native plant species to attract pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. A native perennial garden has been developing for years, using Island-grown species like joe-pye weed, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, cardinal flower, swamp hibiscus, low- and high-bush blueberries, and chokeberry. Some of the perennials came from TNC’s Hoft farm, and from the Polly Hill Arboretum’s MV Wildtype native seed program.
Net-zero energy (producing as much or more energy onsite as is consumed) is a common term today. Twenty years ago, it was an unusual concept. It was also hard to accomplish. Solar and wind were nowhere near where they are today.
But Anne and Brian were committed to making this a zero-energy home that produced more energy than it used. To prepare for this, the all-electric house was super-insulated, and equipped with a ground source heat pump.
A wind turbine was planned for the breezy site; its output would exceed the energy loads of the house. It was summarily turned down by the planning board for aesthetic reasons. Several years later, the turbine location was moved to a place that would have less visual impact; once again it failed to win approval.
Anne and Brian were not dissuaded by the setbacks. Finally, in 2011, when solar electric systems had become considerably less expensive and more durable, South Mountain equipped the house with a nine-kilowatt solar array. The Mazar family members have now achieved their original zero-energy goal, and their love affair with this spectacular property continues.
Fast-forward a decade, to 2021. The youngest of the three Mazar children, Casey, is now 26, and managing wholesale for Morning Glory Farms. Her husband, Jason Mazar-Kelly, is a well-known yoga teacher on the Island; together they have founded Wholesome MV, a community-based yoga and healthy cooking initiative. We are renovating and adding to the existing garage and guesthouse to make a year-round home for Casey and Jason.
SMCo architect Matt Coffey worked with the family to set goals for the new project. The long-established patterns of craft, care, and progressive environmental measures were extended to this new iteration. A more contemporary addition blends the old with the new — both will meet the energy, comfort, health, and durability standards of the best high-performance new buildings.
Always ahead of their time, the Mazars challenged us to push beyond net-zero energy to address the embodied carbon of the building assemblies. This new frontier in environmental building requires the reduction of carbon content that is embedded and/or expended in the mining, manufacturing, and transportation of materials from their raw state to the job site. Plant-based and responsibly sourced materials offset the effects of less benign materials. Ultimately, carbon-positive buildings sequester more carbon dioxide than they emit. Locking carbon into the built environment is a critical strategy, and an immense opportunity to move beyond buildings that do less harm to buildings that have a net positive impact.
Toward this goal, the deep-energy retrofit to the existing structure included wrapping the shell with wood fiberboard insulation, leaving the exposed timber frame intact. The new 700-square-foot addition combined this strategy with additional cellulose insulation. Timbers from a decommissioned airplane factory, reclaimed chestnut floors, and river-bottom cypress millwork add to the low-carbon material palette while adding a layer of history and patina. The solid sawn lumber floor frame and slabless crawl space helped push us closer to carbon neutrality, our ultimate goal.
The project is currently nearing completion.
South Mountain’s relationship with the Mazar property and family has been a multigenerational journey. We are proud to be, along with The Nature Conservatory, their partners and friends. Brian and Anne, due to their commitment to craft, carbon neutrality, land protection, and restoration, have pushed our practice forward, created a family destination for the ages, and made dramatic contributions to the ecological health of the Vineyard. They said recently, “We are glad this property found us. We never wanted to own a second home, but the combination of protecting a rare habitat, living on a beautiful site overlooking the Edgartown Great Pond, and finding TNC and SMCo was too good to pass up. Sharing this special place with our friends, family, and other conservation-minded people has been a blessing.”
Not just any old summer house, is it? Kinda different from a golf course, too.
House moving ain’t easy
House moving is tough work. At one point when we were moving the Mazar house, our job foreman, Pete D’Angelo, stopped by my office to talk about the dangers and difficulties of the job. We talked awhile, and then he left for the job site, where the house, which was already mounted on two trailers that had been moved out into a field, was to be split in half and rolled to its new location several miles away.
Late that morning I got a call from him: “You remember what I was saying about the dangers?”
“Uh-oh,” I said quickly. “What happened?”
“Everyone’s safe. But not the house. When we separated the two halves and moved the first half out, the second part toppled right off the trailer and crashed on its side.”
After he’d reiterated that all were OK, I asked, “So what are you doing now?”
“I’m trying to decide whether it’s salvageable — whether to bother moving the intact half, whether to set a match to the whole damn thing, or what.”
I drove out to the site. The scene was surreal. Because the move required power, telephone, and cable television lines to be disconnected and lowered, the site was jammed with utility trucks, linemen, police escorts, and workers. They were standing around in small groups staring at this strange, two-story half-a-house lying on its side. Pete and Mike, the mover, had already figured out a scheme to right the house, repair the damage, and move it.
There was little talk about what had actually happened, and no talk about who was to blame. Everyone began to put things in order for the move, like cowboys pulling the herd back together in the quiet moments after the end of a stampede. The utility guys headed for their trucks, the cops moved out to the road and switched on their flashing lights, the tractor started up, and the other half began to roll.
Not long after I left, Pete told me, one of the local newspapers showed up. When pressed by the reporter to make a tragedy out of a mishap, as reporters sometimes do, Pete quipped, “The closest thing to a real tragedy this morning was that while we were otherwise engaged, the neighbor’s dog stole our supply of fresh-baked Humphreys’ doughnuts.”
It so happens that at the time we were doing a video about the Island Affordable Housing Fund. The videographer was on the site filming the move. We have footage of the entire event; it’s dramatic, to say the least.