by Sue Dawson
ALISON SHAW GALLERY began on July 20, 2006. Our first sale was a notecard, to Alison’s cousin’s wife, Jana. I tried to just give her the card, but she insisted on paying, so I asked for a dollar bill. It’s still in my desk drawer in the gallery, so I see that dollar every day. It’s really hard to believe it’s been there for 10 years already!
Ever since we moved into our little building in the Arts District of Oak Bluffs, we’ve been fascinated by the history of this place. In honor of our 10th anniversary, here’s some of the history we’re proud to be part of:
88 Dukes County Avenue used to be a one-engine firehouse – one of several in town, including the t-shirt shop across from Nancy’s Snack Bar (Engines 1 and 2), “Highland Hose” near the Ocean View Restaurant (on Church Avenue, Engine 3, now the home of one of our customers), and the building in town that’s now “Cottagers Corner,” which was originally Town Hall from 1882 to 1966, and over time also a police and fire station, before the Cottagers acquired it.
So let’s go all the way back to the beginning – in 1880, “Cottage City” seceded from the town of Edgartown, and established their own fire department. In 1907, the town name was officially changed to “Oak Bluffs.” Our building was built in 1914 – we found the date, along with three initials, on the shiplap upstairs that was uncovered during our renovation over 90 years later. 1914 was also, of course, the year World War I began.
Our building was “balloon-framed,” which means the studs went from ground sill to top plate (roof), and the second-floor joists were nailed to the studs. So the second floor was basically held up by a bunch of nails. This would turn out to be a problem for us, but I’ll get to that later. The piece of land we’re on is part of the MVCMA, or Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association – the “Camp Ground,” as locals call it. Turns out most of the cottages in the Camp Ground were built using balloon framing, which was the standard at the time. We believe the Town of Oak Bluffs built our building to house Fire Engine #4, in what was called the “West End” of town.
Nelson Amaral was one of the captains of Engine 4. From his January 2012 obituary in the Vineyard Gazette, “(Nelson) began as a junior firefighter at the age of 14, and spent 56 years in the department, 35 of them as chief. The Wing Road fire station in Oak Bluffs is named for him.” Nelson Amaral’s first cousin, Steve Amaral, worked with Engine 4 for 38 years, beginning in 1956. He succeeded Nelson as captain of Engine 4 in 1975, and stayed captain for 23 years, until 1994. Steve’s pictured below in 1961, in front of the station, next to Engine #4. By the way, Steve will be fishing in his 70th derby this fall (MV Bass and Bluefish Derby) – he’s only missed one, when he was in Korea. If you see him, say hi for us, and a big thank you for his many years of service to town and country.
In 1996, the building had been vacated for a few years, after the centralized fire headquarters was built at County and Wing Roads, to house all of the engines in one place. The MVCVA (Martha’s Vineyard Center for the Visual Arts), which was “formed in 1991 as a non-profit, non-competitive, unifying organization for visual artists,” bought the building from the town. The group of energetic and creative women who ran the MVCVA painted the interior, put in the glass doors we have today, and opened the Firehouse Gallery. They sponsored workshops, classes, and talks with local artists, and had a weekly drawing group (with model) that met upstairs. As you can see from the photo below, the group celebrated the building’s legacy with more than the gallery name!
In 2006, we got a call from a member of the MVCVA and local painter, Renee Balter. She said that the group wanted to sell the building to a local artist, and encouraged us to submit a proposal. It wasn’t an ideal time for us, so we thanked her and said no. A number of weeks later, Renee called again. “I’m sorry, but I just see you in there!” She asked us to reconsider, thinking we’d be a good fit. Alison and I stayed up all night to do a proposal, buoyed by Renee’s faith in us, and submitted it literally in the last hour before the deadline. As you can surmise, the group chose us, and allowed us to rent the building for a few years first. We moved in at the beginning of July.
We had a LOT to do in order to open our gallery. We painted the walls white, and the floor teal. We used a deck paint for the floor that was pretty toxic, and I remember our neighbor Annie came by late one night and thought we were a little loopy from the fumes. I designed a sign using one of Alison’s seascapes – we had the sign printed as a huge sticker, so it’d be the actual photo rather than a painting of her photo. I knew it would fade over time, not being an archival print. So, I thought, photos fade to blue, so why not just start there? It worked. Melissa, of About Signs, made the sign, and her husband hung it, just before opening day.
But there were a few setbacks…. Mold in the basement (bleached). Termites in the baseboards (exterminated and wood replaced). Rusty oil tank outside (removed). Lots of stuff upstairs, including a working sink (we’d deal with that later).
After builder Todd Leuenberger sheetrocked the center shelf unit to make a display wall, and built doors for the back so we could hang more photos, we managed to open our gallery!
Our two kids were as excited as we were. Sarah (left, below) and her best friend Hallie (right, below), and Jesse (that’s his back, in the second photo) with Iris and Miles Albert, were here for the opening.
We were thrilled. And then…
This is the part where the balloon framing comes in. When gallery season was over, I asked our architect, Chuck Sullivan, to survey the setup, and see if he had some ideas about the upstairs. He came over to take some measurements, and I said “… and we’re ok with the weight of all our file cabinets, flat files, and shelves, right?” Um, that would be no. He went upstairs and jumped up and down a few times, and said “Not only should you not move any stuff up there, I don’t want YOU to go up there.”
So we moved it all out. The whole gallery we’d worked so hard to create. And we asked Harold Chapdelaine of Stonebridge Building and Design to fix things. He and his crew gutted the entire place. It’s an historic building, and needed to be preserved, so basically our building is one huge cabinet. It was a little wonky. Crooked. Settled. So they firmed it up by sistering things, bolting things, installing huge steel beams held up by wide supports in the walls and 6-foot concrete footings, and hurricane ties to keep storms at bay. We had a metal roof put on, and two square windows out front where there had been one. The radiators were removed, and a propane heat and a/c system installed. And I did my thing on the computer to design the upstairs space (see below), just as I had for our last studio on Circuit Ave.
The upstairs studio turned out beautifully:
Harold found clapboard under the shingles out front, so we asked him to put new clapboard on. We picked a paint color we still love (and give out at least once a year to people who want to use it). And we did one more important thing. We asked them to preserve the red fire station light. They kept it in place, and fixed it so we could turn it on if we wanted to. Jokes about our “red light district” ensued.
After around five years, we officially bought the building from the MVCVA group. Because it had been a fire station, we got an environmental study done, to make sure there were no issues with oil or gas on the property. Then we found out there was a cesspool – no septic. Bummer. So we tied into the new town septic system for a cool $20,000 fee. That’s the commercial fee, including everything a restaurant might need – even though we just had one toilet and one tiny sink.
We also asked the MVCMA (if you’re getting bleary-eyed from acronyms, that’s the Camp Ground, which owns the land) to please move their access road over and remove the asphalt from out front. It was a safety issue for our customers, as cars used to cut across right in front of the building. At first we just dumped some shells out there, for timing reasons, as this GoogleEarth photo shows:
Then we hired Crosslands Landscaping to install our gorgeous bluestone walkway, lawn, and garden, which Working Earth has been maintaining and improving ever since. Ta dah!
If you’ve read this far, thank you! And please join us tomorrow evening (Saturday, August 6th) from 5 to 7 pm, for our 10th Anniversary Party. Alison and Lew French will be signing their new book. Herring Run Kitchens will provide fantastic food. Joanne Lambert will pour you a drink. And Sue will be behind the front desk and her wall of computers (don’t ask). Hope you can come!