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Restoring Heart and Home

Profile by Elissa Lash Photography by Charlie Utz

This is the story of a woman and a house who resurrected each other. Who saved whom is somewhat up for interpretation. If asked about the restoration project, both the woman and the house would agree that the arrangement was mutually beneficial, but daunting in scale. Yet once these unusual companions embarked upon their passage, they were in concert, and there would be no turning back.  

The woman is Dawn Braasch, reader, dreamer, doer, mother, lover of old houses, current owner of the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. She came to the Vineyard without a concrete connection, yearning for someplace to pour her considerable energy, talent and love. The house is the Charles Downs House of historic William Street, Vineyard Haven, more than 150 years old, filled with myth and mystery, and almost left to decompose in the damp, dark Island winter.

In the parlor of 98 William Street, amidst squares of sunlight, and the chirping of an enthusiastic cockatiel, Ms Braasch begins her tale with a smile bordering on apologetic. “What I know is the legend of the house … I don’t know how much of this is true.”  But since she loves fiction and non-fiction equally, she agreed to relate the story of her journey with this house, part romance, part memoir, part cautionary do-it-yourself house-restoration manual.

First, it’s important to know the background. Dawn Braasch had a lifelong dream of restoring an old house. And, although she moved to the Island five years ago from South Carolina, she was not originally from the South. Her roots were in New England, and she’d always hoped her children one day would have the chance to connect with this culture of her childhood.  Braasch was born and raised in the South Shore area of Boston. Some might think that the move from South Carolina – where she’d lived with her husband and raised her children for 22 years – to Vineyard Haven was whimsical, but Dawn had always been fascinated by Martha’s Vineyard. She’d taken day trips here as a young girl, and then brought her own children when she was able. 

The idea of taking a boat to come home, of being surrounded by water seemed enchanting. And though she had moved 13 times in 32 years of marriage, the family had always lived inland. Their moves had always been dictated by her husband’s successful construction business, but this time the move was for her, and she chose the ocean.

Her original vision had been of a small cape, an intimate hideaway, a summer home. The 98 William Street was the first house she saw, overgrown, filthy and full of cobwebs, empty for most of the year but, she says, “I could see it differently. It was the romantic in me. The house was calling to me … it was solid, I knew it had good bones.” Suddenly, she found the vision of the place she could call home shifting. 

Throughout that summer Ms. Braasch imagines she must’ve looked at every available property on the Island, but she kept coming back to the “hideous, old place on William Street, so overgrown, like a jungle, that you couldn’t see the front of the house. So I pursued it and found that the house had a solid foundation, and decent electrical, even all the original moldings were intact. It just needed TLC.”

The owner, an older lady, lived in Chicago and neither she nor her family visited the house more than two weeks a year. She seemed to have become “unhappy with the Island.” Yet, despite her disdain for the house and the Vineyard, she would not budge on price. Ms Braasch knew that the extensive work needed to even make the house livable would add a hefty fee to the already lofty cost of purchase. Still, she pressed forward with an inexplicable feeling that some higher purpose was pushing her toward this house. “It was my dream, my time … and the house itself, so negelected for so many years, was calling to me.”

The back story of the building follows, as chronicled by James H. K. Norton in his book, “Walking in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts,” a wonderful series of brief histories about the various historical buildings in the harbor town formerly called Holmes Hole.

The home’s construction began in 1836 by whaling ship captain Charles Downs. According to Island lore, Captain Downs built the house for his wife, one of Polly Manter’s daughters, the other daughter married his brother William Downs, owner of Berkshire House, the earliest house to be built on the northern end of William Street. The houses, like most built in the 1830s in Holmes Hole, were designed in the neoclassical style, to approximate Greek temple architecture. James Norton writes, “Builders in those days used pattern books which displayed a number of alternative designs, it is remarkable that the William Street craftsmen followed these two patterns so unalterably. It would appear that, as ship builders would follow a single, sea-worthy design … these builders reproduced their houses off a single, proven plan on shore. Such would account for not only the consistency of design, but also the careful workmanship with which each of these structures was built.”

Following its construction in 1836, the house has primarily been occupied by women who lived there largely alone. The first would have been Captain Down’s wife, who would have spent much of her time alone, as her husband would have gone to sea. What is fact or fiction about the successive owners, is a research project for another time, but legend has it that the next owners were a wealthy man’s mistress, and then a divorcee. Now Braasch continues the tradition. “That first winter was freezing in the house, and I felt very alone and disconnected. My marriage was ending and I knew I needed to get invested in this community if I was going to survive.”

If not for the commitment she had made to herself and the house, she might have sunk into despair, but instead dedicated herself into the building project. She felt she was not only saving the house, but reinventing herself. She chose as her partners in this reinvention – architect Bruce MacNelly, and builder Geoff Patterson, because “they respected what I wanted, which was a true restoration; to preserve and restore … to respect the soul of this house. Everyone else tried to tell me what to tear down, what to do differently … with Bruce and Geoff it was true collaboration, not that we didn’t butt heads.” She laughs and raises both eyebrows, “and I probably drove them crazy!”

The process not only motivated Dawn to get out of bed early, it forced her to learn. “I love to learn about new things. I worked hard to educate myself about architecture and what would have been true for this time period.” She immersed herself completely in Island history and architecture books. She made a quick but thorough study.

Braasch, now the owner of the Bunch of Grapes, a beloved independent bookstore in Vineyard Haven, was no novice when it came to running a successful business. Even before the bookstore, she had experience in the successful management of both catering and construction companies. “I’d run a business before. I knew that world - and that’s how I treated this house. I made it my job to be involved in everything. Bruce worked with the William Street Historic Commission to make sure we respected the guidelines … this house is part of the William Street Historic District. It has significance for the story of this town,
this Island.”

She preserved the slant in the old wood floors, imperfections in the walls, the marble sink and the clawfoot bathtub in the upstairs bath, and all the old windows, while strengthening and respecting the unique details-like the Grecian-style columns in the living room and the long, heavily roofed porch overlooking William Street and the harbor. “Any changes I made were about protecting the integrity of the original house, rather than for personal style or convenience – except the kitchen.” When she bought the house, the kitchen was a cramped linoleum-filled afterthought of a space circa 1970s. Braasch expanded it without changing the footprint of the house and created a light-filled, friendly room for cooking and socializing. Her efforts at making this a true restoration, not a renovation, show in the eccentric and genuine charm that permeates the house's narrow hallways, tilted floors, and secretive staircases. To enter Braasch's home is to feel not only transported but immersed in a different time and sensibility.

During the course of the project, there were some challenges, but also some strange and delightful surprises. Upon excavating an old staircase that had been previously walled up, they discovered a treasure trove of old objects.

“There was a letter from a grandmother to her granddaughter from Christmastime in the 1860s … some old boots probably also from the late 1800s … a box of soap from Bonwit Teller, which no longer exists, a newspaper from 1907 … I kept all of it. I should make a display for the foyer.” She rubs her hands together. “Don’t you wonder how people can close up spaces and forget they have things in there - like the beautiful hand-embroidered tablecloths which we also found?”

As she gazes out at the sloping lawn, she exhales softly. “It may sound strange, but this house is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. I’m a better person for having saved this house. I have restored this beautiful place and myself in the process. My children are proud that I did this on my own, and I’m fully invested in this town. I sure grew some roots.”