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The rebuilt Minkiewicz home is very similar to the original structure, which burned almost completely to the ground three years ago.

Brian Jolley

4.1.10

After the Fire

A West Tisbury couple rebounds and rebuilds after fire destroys their retirement home.

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ll that remained of Mike and Cathy Minkiewicz’s home was a portion of the wall on the north side of the house. Severe winds had fueled the fire that razed every other part of the couple’s ranch-style home in West Tisbury in February 2007.

Even before the Minkiewiczes had purchased the house as their vacation home in 1994, it had been through many incarnations. A former barracks, the house is believed to have been moved from the old naval air station on Peaked Hill to the current location on Indian Hill Road. When Mike and Cathy bought the house, the windows were rotting, the grounds were completely overgrown, there was no heating system, and the kitchen and bathroom were grungy and out-of-date.

By the start of 2007, they had addressed these issues. Mike and Cathy were ready to make West Tisbury their year-round retirement home, as the house was nearing completion in its latest incarnation. They had cleared the grounds, designed an open floor plan, and replaced all the windows in the original structure. Vineyard Haven’s Tom Burke Builder had almost finished adding a small wing, which turned the former rectangular ranch into an L-shaped house. There were plans in place to add two decks and a new arched roof.

The couple’s hope was to make the move to West Tisbury permanent in the summer of 2007 after Cathy’s retirement from her position as director of lay ministry for the Archdiocese of Boston. Mike had already retired from his career as an engineer.

Besides the decks and the new roof, little remained to be done to complete the renovation other than some minor decorating. One of the final steps for the couple would be hanging their collection of Royal Copenhagen Christmas plates. Mike has gifted Cathy with a holiday plate each Christmas since 1970. At the time of the fire, the plates were packed at their home in Brookline awaiting transport to the Vineyard.

As the flames raged, Mike and Cathy were preparing dinner at their mainland home. When the phone rang, it was a Vineyard neighbor reporting that their house was burning and firefighters were fiercely battling the blaze. It was a cold and exceptionally windy evening on the Vineyard.

The following morning, the couple arrived in West Tisbury to see that their house – and everything in it – had been totally destroyed, with the exception of the north wall. “They told us that had something to do with the way the wind was blowing,” Mike says.

Greatest among Cathy’s losses were her books and a rocking horse her father had made for her when she was a child. Mike lost his fishing rods. “Of course, the greatest blessing is that no one was hurt,” says Cathy. “And we learned a lot from the fire. We realized how little ‘stuff’ we really need. People accumulate so many things that they don’t really need. Now that the house is finished, we keep it simple, minimizing the wealth of stuff we used to think we couldn’t manage without.”

Like the house’s north wall, the spirit of the couple remained undeterred. The Minkiewiczes had already taken a gigantic leap of faith years earlier when they decided to buy a home on the Vineyard despite having spent limited time here. Although they had sailed in the waters surrounding the Island countless times and enjoyed some meals on-Island, they had never ventured beyond Edgartown.

“We’d seen a lot of the Island from the water, but our excursion with a Realtor was our first trip up-Island. We fell in love with the area and made the decision,” Cathy says. “We saw the house in mid-November of 1994. By Christmas, we had made an offer.” Mike adds, “That’s the way we do things.”

By the time of the fire (the cause of which was officially undetermined), the couple had developed solid friendships and had become part of the community. Cathy says, “Making the decision to rebuild was easy. We knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives here.”

They went back to Tom Burke to rebuild the house from square one, replicating the original home but with some modern amenities, and redoing the new wing. With Tom anchoring it, the rebuild became a family project. Cathy honed her skills from an earlier career as an interior designer. Mike built the decks and outdoor shower, while Cathy laid the slate flooring. Their son and daughter helped with the painting.

The gardens that had surrounded the house were another terrible loss. Cathy, an avid gardener, had artfully planted magnificent flowers and bushes on the property. Those that weren’t burned away were trampled by firefighters during their efforts to quell the flames. All that remained in good condition was a lilac hedge. The rhododendron and boxwood by the north wall survived but were quite the worse for wear. When spring came, Cathy’s magnolias would send up new shoots from the ground and regrow. Her rose of Sharon would follow in the summer. Everything else had to be restored.

By October, Mike and Cathy moved into their “new” home. The added wing included the master bedroom and bath, leaving plenty of room in the main house (based on the original footprint) for an open living, dining, and kitchen area, a den, a guest room, and a bathroom. Luckily, their dining room set hadn’t been transported to the Vineyard before the fire. It was soon shipped and put in place.

But the house wasn’t fully decorated until the Royal Copenhagen Christmas plates were hung on the walls throughout the dining and living areas. Once that was done, Mike and Cathy Minkiewicz were finally home to stay.

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