Holmes Coffin House by
(354 Stories)

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We looked for two years. Did we want in-town, or in Katama, closer to the beach? Finally, we bid on and had an accepted offer on a house on Main Street across from the Old Whaling Church; a small cape, but we knew our architect, Patrick, with whom we’d worked since our first Back Bay condo in 1979, was inventive and could work wonders.

This was 22 years ago. Our financial situation was quite different. We could only stretch so far. Just before we were due to sign the purchase and sale, we got a call from a friend in Newton who lived around the corner from the Main Street house in Edgartown. As an abutter, he’d been given advanced notice of a house across the street from him on School Street coming, quietly, onto the market. He knew we were close to purchasing a different house, but might we be interested in this house; larger, in a quieter location? It was being sold furnished.

A dilemma. It sounded interesting and Patrick and Dan were already going to the Vineyard the day before we were set to sign the P&S to take measurements and start discussing renovation plans. They could go in to 25 School Street and take a look. They first looked at the carriage house (a garage, which at the time housed a 13′ Boston Whaler on a trailer). On the side of the garage were stairs leading to a bedroom and bath. This was October, so the plantings were gone from the garden and patio furniture was stacked inside the screened-in porch, but one still had the sense of a nicely planted backyard with good screening from the close-by neighbors.

The two entered the house. It had high ceilings, a gracious living room, a first floor bedroom with private bath and tiny half bath under the stairs. Dining room behind the front hall, kitchen beyond that, screened-in porch off the back hallway. Upstairs were three more bedrooms with two captive bathrooms all connected between bedrooms. Behind one bedroom and up from the kitchen through a narrow set of stairs was a small sitting room and tiny half bath. At the back of the second floor was a large laundry room/storage room. Patrick commented that the laundry room had the best view of the garden from any where in the house.

There was a closed off set of rickety stairs leading to a third floor attic that was unfinished. It had plumbing roughed in, and one room had sheet rock up, but it was mostly crawl space. The only windows were on the far sides of the roof line. Still, it had potential.

No room was painted the same color. The dining room and master bedroom were wallpapered with a small floral pattern (neither room the same and definitely not to our liking). Wallpaper on the up and downstairs hall walls was not in great shape, over the plaster walls. The house had 6 fireplaces. There was a 1985 stick-shift Jeep in the driveway.

Dan and Patrick came out of the house and stood in silence for a moment. Patrick turned to Dan and said, “I’m your architect, but I’m also your friend. This is a much better house. I think you should buy it, but make the offer including the car and the boat. The sellers are leaving the island and need to get rid of everything. Make it one transaction for them.” Patrick is a smart guy.

Friday, the next day, and the day we were supposed to sign the P&S, I flew to the Vineyard with two checks. If I liked this house, I was prepared to make an offer, only valid until moments before I had to fly back and pick up the kids from school (Dan was in NYC on business, tied up in meetings all day, unreachable…everything fell to me). The other was the check to conclude the P&S for the Main Street house. We didn’t want to lose it, if this offer was not accepted. I was a wreck. We had looked for two years, we knew there was very little inventory and we knew what we liked. I took a walk through the School Street house, handed the offer and check to the broker. I knew it was a good house. I waited in our lawyer’s office. No word came. I was driven to the airport, which at the time was WWII quonset huts. Someone behind the Cape Air desk called my name, “Is there an Elizabeth Pfau here?” and handed me his phone. It was the real estate broker.”I just got a signed fax, you have an accepted offer!”

Holy crap! What had we done? We had committed to buying a much bigger, nicer house, but now had to walk away from the other deal. I called the other broker after getting the kids home from school and broke the news to him through tears. We had worked with him for two years and really liked him. I also told him we had figured out what his commission would have been on the Main Street house and planned to pay him that amount after Dan got his bonus in November. And we did. The Vineyard is a small place and we wanted to able to hold our heads high. We are honorable people.

We closed on December 30, 1996 and stayed through New Years. That night, Dan and I sat in our new living room among the strange furniture, in the colonial-style house and thought, “We don’t know how to do this, we only know contemporary”. It lightly snowed overnight. The village (and our house is in the historic district) was decked out in all its Christmas finery. It looked like a Currier and Ives print. So lovely. We knew we’d made the right decision.

North Water Street
photo by Vineyardcolors

We took the kids to the Main Street Diner for breakfast, a cheery place with checkered tables, hot chocolate, but best was the Trivial Pursuit cards in a mug on the table, with which our children enjoyed challenging us and each other as we waited for food. That night we went out to a nice dinner and watched fireworks over Vineyard Haven Harbor. Magical.

New Year’s Eve dinner at Lambert’s Cove Country Inn

We started spending holidays here, Thanksgiving and New Years. On the first anniversary of our house purchase, we came down with our best friends to celebrate the new year. They have children about the same age as ours and she is a wonderful cook. They led us through the mezuzah hanging ceremony to sanctify our house. We had changed the front screen door and painted the doors and shutters a different color already.

Slowly we undertook renovations of what we knew would be our sleeping beauty. First for me was to replace the old heating system and get in central air conditioning, as I need it to temper the heat and humidity, which are migraine triggers for me. We took down the wall paper and painted every room the pleasant yellow we found in the kitchen, “Saffron yellow”, to unify the look of the house. We replaced all the kitchen appliances. In fact, we did an overhaul of the kitchen and added a little island to get more counter space. We closed off the master bath and renovated it. Slowly a “master plan’ emerged, based on Patrick’s comment about the laundry room, on the second floor at the back of the house, having the best view of the yard.

Carriage house, we added the brick driveway, flower boxes, plantings.

Back of house, with view of pool


Other side of the house, looking at patio

In 2003, we blew out much of the house, expanded the foot print, added dog shed dormers to the 3rd floor, moved David’s room up there and added a study, moved the master bedroom and bath to the back of the house, turned David’s old bedroom into a comfortable den with a large flat-screen TV, added a large addition to the kitchen with a bump-out for the laundry (and put a laundry shoot from my closet, so the clothes go straight down). We put a pool and hot tub in the back. Over the years, we redid all the bathrooms. Dan pulled a page from “This Old House” magazine and said, “I want them to look like this”. and they do, beautiful marble and cabinetry, gracious size, doors moved so beds no longer have to straddle the entrance door. Antique, country pine furniture was purchased. We worked with a decorator who became a friend.

Front hallway, corner cabinet is an addition, though a real antique.

Kitchen, with addition, looking out to garden


Old master bedroom, now guest bedroom, in front of house, with view to the top of the Old Whaling Church

I studied the history of the house. It was built in 1829 by Jared Coffin, master builder of Edgartown (and Nantucket, where his later home still stands as an inn) for his brother Holmes, the stone mason, who laid the stones for the cellar foundation, as well as the first curbs for the street. Jared’s 1823 house is across the street. Holmes and his wife, Lydia occupied the house for a mere two years. In 1831, Holmes died while on a business trip to Nantucket. His widow supported herself by boarding boys who came from Nantucket to attend the Thaxter Academy, one block up the street.  Their daughter, also named Lydia, married the Reverend Hebron Vincent in the front parlor of the house (and inherited the house). He was a leading Methodist minister of the island and one of the founders of the camp ground in what was then called Cottage City, but now called Oak Bluffs. There was a huge Methodist revival movement in the mid-to-late 19th century and people came to the island for religious instruction and the ocean retreat. Large tents were erected, later replaced by distinctive Gothic “gingerbread” style homes that still exist around an iron-frame Tabernacle. The camp ground is one of the wonderful, unique features of Martha’s Vineyard. Hebron Vincent wrote a history of the camp ground from our house. One rainy day, David and I found the book in the museum library.

Hebron Vincent’s grave in local cemetery

Hebron and Lydia’s daughter, Fannie Deane was the last of Holmes’ descendants to inherit the house. She lived in it into the early 20th century and was, from the descriptions I found in the museum’s library, a beloved lady of Edgartown.

Fannie Deane’s grave. She died in 1913.

After her death, the house passed out of the family, was bought by a New Jersey family. I’ve traced the house through many owners. It fell on hard times in the ’80s and was divided into a rooming house, run by the Hall family, notorious slumlords on the island. Eventually, it was purchased by Dick Christiansen of Brattleboro, VT, who set about doing a massive renovation. I found documents he left in drawers for the owners from whom we purchased the house, who were from Pennsylvania. Through the years, we have replaced virtually everything except one bedroom of furniture (my younger child liked the posters on the beds – he hung sheets and made forts there as a youngster and now doesn’t come often enough for it to matter).

After 22 years, and many renovations, we absolutely love this home and its in-town location. We have several comfortable guest rooms; our guests can walk to restaurants, shops, movies, the water front…everything is moments away. Or they can sit in the comfort and sanctuary of our remarkably quiet backyard and lounge by the pool, watching a cardinal family flit in and out of the 170 year old Rose of Sharon tree; absolutely gorgeous with pink flowers when in full bloom, or look for hummingbirds on the trumpet vine, festooned across the arbor on the driveway.

It is our custom to leave the front door open (with screen door shut) when we are home, and, with the “Holmes Coffin House, 1829” sign above the door, we occasionally have people come in, thinking we are either a Bed and Breakfast, (“you can’t afford our rates”, is my retort), or we are a museum. I am amused and gracious and, depending on my mood, and how much time I have, I will give my intruders a little talk about the history of the house. I feel I am merely a caretaker of this historic property for this moment in the passage of time. At some point it will pass on to others. I hope they will take good care of it and love it as much as we do.




Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: 1829, Edgartown, historic, renovations
Characterizations: been there, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    A beautiful house and a beautiful story, Betsy. And, as always, your photos enhance it all so perfectly. And make clear what an amazing restoration/expansion you did; a true labor of love. Moreover, your final sentences perfectly encapsulate what I think all “homeowners” of such historic residences should feel about them.

    Also love your approach as to the open front door. With in-laws who live in MV, may just knock on the door next time we are visiting them and get over to Edgartown. (Though last time we were there, we were carrying scoops from Mad Martha’s on a very hot day, and I don’t think you would like one of those accidentally plopped on your front hallway floor.)

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. As noted, we have done a LOT of work to the house, but we love doing projects. And we love hosting guests too. Don’t worry about the ice cream. That’s what the back yard is for…no worries about dripping back there! And it would be such fun to actually meet you!

  2. Suzy says:

    Betsy, your house looks amazing! And what a great story about how you almost bought a different one, and ended up finding this masterpiece at the 11th hour. Now I want to come visit you on Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t have in-laws there, like John, or know anyone else for that matter – I would just be coming there to visit you!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      By all means, Suzy, come and visit. The house begs for company (and so do we)! MV, being an island (and very busy in the summer), isn’t an easy place to get to, but just contact me and we’d work on a time to come. You are on your own for travel arrangements, though I can make suggestions. Happy to have you, and share the Vineyard experience.

  3. John Zussman says:

    What a fascinating mix of architecture, history, and suspenseful saga of how this beautiful house came to be yours (or how you came to be its caretaker). I love how you made it work for you and your family while still retaining its historic character.

  4. So glad I caught up with this story Betsy, and heard more history of the magical Vineyard.

    And lucky me, I’ve been in your beautiful School Street house! Here’s to more Martha Vineyard visits!

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