Resurrected Vineyard landmark offers a sight to sea

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Budris
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2003

VINEYARD HAVEN —At dusk, the lights of the gleaming new Mansion House twinkle like champagne glasses at a debutante party. Against the backdrop of Vineyard Haven Harbor, the silhouetted masts of the tall ships Shenandoah and Alabama suggest Victorian times, when the original, grand hotel was already 100 years old. Now in its third incarnation, meticulous historical detail and period colors belie the 21st-century luxury behind the freshly painted clapboards and delicate trim.

In large part, the inn's long Vineyard history was what moved former schoolteachers Susan and Sherman Goldstein to buy the hotel in 1985. ''Being a former social studies teacher on the island, local history was always a day-to-day subject for me," said Susan.

But the Goldsteins' greatest civics lesson began on a frigid December night in 2001 when the 200-year-old inn burned out of control. As Main Street choked with smoke, neighbors in the all-volunteer fire department tried in vain to quell the flames. Friends delivered jugs of coffee throughout the night as pumper trucks from nearby towns dumped millions of gallons of seawater on the smoking landmark. Neighbors Pat and Dorothy Gregory, proprietors of EduComp, a computer and office equipment retail business across the street, opened their store, cordoned off a third of the first floor and donated the space to the Goldsteins as a temporary base camp that very night.

''As grateful as we were to everyone, we were ready to just give up," said Susan. ''But while the walls were still smoldering the next morning, our congressman, Bill Delahunt, was on the phone, reaching out, cheering us on, beginning the tightrope walk with us to arrange financing to build new from scratch."

She concedes that without such community support and encouragement, the first historical piece of the island that visitors see when arriving on the Vineyard would still be a hole in the ground. A year and a half later, passersby instead see Mansion House sparkling.

Yet how the place went from seething hulk to shining Victorian hotel in a year and a half is a mystery to anyone familiar with the tortoise pace of Vineyard construction. ''I've seen tiny guest cottages take years to get permits in hand and longer to actually get the work done, so this is a little miracle," said Vineyard contractor Jim Pepper, who was clerk of the works during the 18-month project.

Mansion House is one of the oldest hotels in Vineyard Haven and dates to 1794. The inn first burned to the ground with dozens of village buildings during the Great Fire of 1863. After reconstruction, the property grew into the anchor of the downtown business district and included retail shops, a livery stable, a dining room, lodging -- even the local weather station and telegraph office. The hotel was the hub of the neighborhood for more than a century. In 1974, it was renamed The Tisbury Inn.

When the Goldsteins purchased the property they kept that community tradition strong. ''The inn has been synonymous with Martha's Vineyard's welcome for more than 200 years, and rebuilding a gateway hotel that looks to the future in terms of amenities while honoring the past was our intention when we decided to rebuild," said Susan.

Reaching back into the past, the Goldsteins gave the hotel complex its original moniker, Mansion House. Island artifacts and historical photos of the old Mansion House and downtown Vineyard Haven-- some dating to the 1860s -- now line the corridors and anterooms of the inn. ''We have local historian and high school teacher Christopher Baer to thank for that," said Susan, ''He has truly created a photographic record of museum quality throughout our hallways."

At sunset, the roof deck is a photographer's dream, the low light making the masts and rigging of tall ships in the harbor the perfect subjects. The cupola, a signature structure atop many New England landmarks, will serve as a working weather station at Mansion House, just as it did for more than a century in its earlier days. Although Sherman concedes, ''The actual daily weather reports we generate come from the Internet."

Many of the interior focal points are from other Vineyard landmarks. An oak bar with intricate carvings from the long-demolished Island House, a Vineyard gathering place for more than a century, has come home again to Mansion House

Inside Mansion House, guests get a touch of Victorian elegance with a taste of island funk. The outside feel of the Vineyard is drawn indoors by the inn's light and airy hues. Another Victorian necessity, a grand wraparound porch, serves as the meeting place for both guests and islanders. ''The porch is the place where visitors get accustomed to island time and tell lies about the fish they caught," said Sherman, himself an accomplished Vineyard fisherman.

Mansion House now offers 32 rooms and suites, the island's largest and most sophisticated health club and spa, indoor pool, function rooms, library, plus companion restaurant Zephrus, which was given the highest rating in a Zagat 2002 survey.

Though Vineyard Haven is a dry town, guests are welcome to bring wine, beer, and spirits to enjoy at Zephrus. Island liquor stores will deliver orders to hotel rooms, another fond quirk of Vineyard living. Room service is available until late evening. Breakfast is complimentary for guests -- not boxes of cold cereal and juice on a table, but full, sumptuous, international buffets. Zephrus's executive chef, Bradford Stevens, finds Martha's Vineyard a culinary paradise. ''Where else," he says, ''can you know the names of the fishermen who caught the evening's special?"

Each guestroom at Mansion House includes air conditioning, cable television, a high-speed Internet connection, refrigerators, and telephone. The entire inn is handicapped accessible. Deluxe rooms and suites offer soaking tubs, galley kitchens, plasma TVs, fireplaces, and balconies with views of Vineyard Sound. ''I love being on the roof deck at night, overlooking the lit ballfields," said Sherman. ''It makes me feel like [Red Sox general manager] Theo Epstein in his skybox."

But the real jewel of Mansion House is the pool, health club, and spa, some 5,000 square feet of pure indulgence. The 75-foot indoor, chlorine-free mineral spring swimming pool is the only one of its kind on the island. At the spa, clay wraps and facials originate from the Vineyard itself. Moshup's Mud is special clay harvested by tribal members exclusively for the spa, named in honor of the mythological father of the Wampanoag tribe. The legendary colored Gay Head cliffs are born of this same earth. The clay is then sweetened with wildflower honey from the island's own Katama Farms. One of the wrap recipes features an infusion of Chicama Vineyard wines.

''We do like to indulge our spa guests to the max with massages, tanning, body treatments, manicures, and pedicures to renew a sense of well-being," said Tara Bright, spa director and licensed clinical aesthetician. ''It's all about relaxing to a new level."

But for the Goldstein's daughter, Nili, a junior at Brandeis University whose summer earnings at Mansion House went to tuition, resurrecting the family inn is more like rebuilding the family farm, not an easy day at the beach. ''The chores never end," she said. ''Even on school vacations and spring break, I'll be here."

John Budris is a freelance writer and television producer who lives on Martha's Vineyard.

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