Sections

5.1.13

Designed for Greater Good

An Edgartown village heirloom is staged to make a difference in Rwanda.

If you stroll by the stately Captain Ellsworth West House at 52 South Summer Street in Edgartown village, you might admire its immaculate white clapboard, fresh new shingles, and trim landscaping. But what you won’t see behind the pristine façade is far more dramatic: the heart-wrenching story of a young man who survived the Rwandan genocide, and the small group of Vineyard entrepreneurs whose collaboration will help him build a preschool for the children of fellow victims.

house edgartown
An Edgartown village heirloom is staged to make a difference in Rwanda.

Several years ago, Christopher Celeste and his wife, Nancy Kramer, both successful entrepreneurs from Columbus, Ohio, and part-time Edgartown residents, met Frederic Ndabaramiye of Gisenyi, Rwanda. They were deeply moved by the tale of his encounter with Interahamwe rebels in the country’s now-infamous 1994 genocide.

“Frederic explained that he was fifteen years old when he and eighteen fellow passengers were pulled off a bus by rebels,” Christopher says. “When he refused an order to kill the others, the rebels killed them themselves, then cut off Frederic’s hands with a machete, telling him they were ‘sending a message.’ Though left for dead, he survived and has committed his life to helping other Rwandans who had suffered physical or emotional abuses from the genocide.”

Frederic came to Columbus through a US-based program that provided him with prosthetic arms. As they got to know him, Christopher and Nancy began supporting his community-rebuilding efforts in Rwanda, where he and fellow survivor Zachary Dusingizimana had co-founded the Ubumwe Center, consisting of a community center, an elementary school, and – now in the works – a preschool.

Around the same time, Christopher and Nancy were building a home for themselves and their blended family of six children in Edgartown village.

“We decided we couldn’t just come here to go to the beach and bike,” Christopher says. “We wanted to show our children examples of philanthropy. It’s about feeling more connected to the Island – creating work here and helping outside as well.”

They established Facing West, a private corporation dedicated to partnering with architects and builders to restore old homes on the Island, with the goal of “paying forward” a substantial portion of the profits for reinvestment in the construction of schools and community centers in developing countries around the world.

“It’s a whole circle,” Christopher says, “We partner with like-minded people who share risk. Breathing life into this old house creates its own social oxygen.”

house
The team that rebuilt the Ellsworth House includes, from left: architect Mark Hutker, principal designer Phil Regan, entrepreneur investor Christopher Celeste, Hob Knob builder and real estate broker Maggie White (and Jesse), Hutker project manager Greg Ehrman, and construction manager Patrick Echlin.

Partners in the Ellsworth House speculative venture include Hutker Architects in Vineyard Haven, and Edgartown’s Hob Knob Construction and Hob Knob Realty. Mark Hutker and Hob Knob’s Maggie White are equally zealous when discussing Facing West’s commitment to people in need and the Ellsworth project.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Maggie says. “It’s a wonderful project, an exciting group, with the proceeds going to world causes. The three of us would like to keep it going with more projects in the future.”

Mark concurs: “It’s nice to work with people who share an ethical and moral connection. It creates a karma, a levity, and an effervescence that flows inside and out of the property. If you really believe that you can create good energy in the world, there’s good energy there.”

Christopher, Nancy, and four of their six adult children visited Rwanda and Uganda last year. Inspired by the philosophy of TOMS Shoes, a company that gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair it sells, Christopher approached Maggie with a partnership concept: to identify, restore, and sell a historically significant house, donating a portion of the proceeds to the development of the Ubumwe preschool. The government of the central African nation had already donated the land for the school. It would become the final component of the Ubumwe Center. All Frederic needed was the capital.

Both Maggie’s company as the builder and Mark’s as the architect agreed to accept reduced fees up front, and Maggie’s real estate firm signed on to market the home as a “pocket” or private listing to maximize the profits earmarked for donation to Rwanda. While the newly renovated home won’t show up in LINK, the Island’s computerized multiple listing service, Maggie invites interest from other brokers. The team also developed a website, www.captainellsworthhouse.com, to chronicle the renovation of the former whaling captain’s house.

Facing West purchased the circa-1860 house in June of 2011. The team – including Hutker’s Phil Regan, the principal designer – began work that fall and completed the extensive renovation late in 2012. But before Phil sketched a single line, he consulted historic photographs of the property from the archives of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, located behind the South Summer Street residence.

“We were captivated by the old photos,” Phil says. “They helped us come to terms with what we would remove, add on, or restore. Working with the Historic District Commission, we had to show them that we were building with respect for history and an eye toward how the house would fit into the community for the next one hundred and fifty years.”

In the process, they made a fan of neighbor David Nathans, the museum’s executive director. “To me, it was a careful and caring way to start a project,” he explains. “We had a wonderful conversation before they decided what to do. They did their historic research – added on but managed to keep close to the spirit of the original house.”

students two
Two students at the Ubumwe elementary school.

The challenge, according to both Mark and Phil, was to honor the past and yet create a home that lives comfortably today. The new property consists of a nearly six-thousand-square-foot main house with five bedrooms and five-and-one-half baths, an outdoor pool, and a carriage house featuring a one-car garage and pool cabana on the ground floor with living space above. While retaining its original scale from the front, the home can now accommodate extended family and guests with expansive gathering spaces and bedroom suites.

The eventual purchasers of the property, priced at $5.5 million, may get added satisfaction in the knowledge that their investment will help educate sixty children each year at the Inzu Y’Abana (House of Children) preschool (www.ubumwecenter.org). A plaque at the school will feature the names of every Island resident who played a role in the construction.

“The Vineyard is an island of incredibly talented people,” Christopher says. “They care about what goes on beyond. Now there’s a connection between 52 South Summer Street and a little corner in Rwanda. There’s a universal energy about that.”

You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.