Greek Revival Architecture

 

Much of Nantucket’s historic architecture is distinctly Greek Revival—a style that dominated the island during the whaling heydays of the 1830s to the Civil War.

The reason is twofold. Not only was this period the time of greatest expansion and wealth, but when one-seventh of the town burned to the ground, in the fire on July 13, 1846, the early wooden buildings that had served as the whaling port’s commercial heart were rebuilt in the architectural fashion of the time, namely Greek Revival.

Classical Roman architecture, the basis of Georgian and Federal architecture, had influenced architecture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but after the War of 1812, the island as well as the entire nation turned away from many British customs. Greek Revival architecture was embraced as the predominant national style, and Nantucket followed suit. While the Greek War of Independence raged in the 1820s and 30s, American admiration for the Greek people grew dramatically, as did adoption of the Greek Revival style. Public buildings, banks, and private houses from the East to the Midwest used elements of the style for both new construction and updating older buildings.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, examples of both high style and the vernacular were found. On Nantucket, the earliest examples of the style are considered transitional Federal and Greek Revival. These include some of the island’s best known buildings such as the Three Bricks, and the Henry and Charles Coffin houses on Main Street. The center hall plan of these houses is similar to earlier Federal houses, but the elaborate doorways, high granite bases, and stretcher-bond brickwork are associated with the Greek Revival. The most elaborate Greek Revival houses are of course 94 and 96 Main, known as “the two Greeks.” They were designed by Frederick Brown Coleman, and both feature colossal porticos. The house at 94 Main is the more refined example, employing dentils, modillions, and Corinthian columns.

Coleman is credited with changing the appearance of the island more than any other single person. Among his other fine work is the portico of the Methodist Church (c. 1840), the Summer Street Church, and the Atheneum—with its temple form and monumental Ionic columns.

The style, however, is associated not only with those impressive building. Everywhere you look in the old historic district Greek Revival elements can be found. Among the most common elements was the use of a Greek Revival doorway framed by broad, flat pilasters void of elaborate detail, with a simple base and crowned by a flat-and- broad entablature. Transoms above the door replaced the fanlight of the Federal period (Greek architecture does use an arch) and sidelights were introduced to enhance the opening and provide the entry with additional light. The Federal six-paneled door was often replaced by two narrow upright panels or a door with two upper vertical panels and two to three lower horizontal panels. In homes of successful merchants, whaling captains and tradesmen more decorative features are found at the doorway— such as dentil bands, fluted columns, and Ionic or Corinthian capitals and the Greek key design as well as other classical details.

One of the most characteristic moldings found throughout Greek Revival houses is a flat splay or bull-nose molding that is rounded under at the outer edge. This molding was commonly used in the exterior cornice, interior doorway and window trim, as well as to encase door panels. Corner blocks on interior door and window frames are widespread throughout the town and were often decorated with bull’s eyes, or in more elaborate buildings, acanthus leaves.
One of the most dramatic changes to occur during this period was the orientation of the house. On many Greek Revival houses the gable end becomes the main elevation and faces the street. This temple form was often emphasized by the use of a protruding entablature or cornice that formed a pediment in the upper “attic” story. In many cases, elaborate window shapes such as bull’s eye, lunette, or elliptical-shaped lights were employed to give individuality to the house. In smaller buildings, the entablature was removed and returns added. Second-floor windows replaced the elaborate gable-end window at the peak. Pilasters were often found at the corners of these houses for decoration and to emphasize the verticality of the “Greek” temple.

For those who wish to learn more about the architectural features of the Greek Revival style and other architectural terminology, we recommend participating in the Main Street walking tour.

A Brief History of Marine Home Center

The land on which Marine Home Center is located was originally part of the West Monomoy subdivision laid out by the proprietors in 1726. Although at the edge of the town, this area held several early houses by the 1750s and the Walling Map indicates scattered development along Orange Street at the site by 1834. This development included the homesteads of Benjamin Manter, mariner, and Caleb Cushman, which comprised most of the current Marine Home Center property. In 1871, the “homestead of the late Caleb Cushman” was purchased by the Burgess family, who held the property into the twentieth century. In 1895, with a bicycle-racing craze hitting the island, Eugene S. Burgess constructed a quarter-mile bicycle racetrack known as Centennial Park Bicycle Track on the property. According to the Inquirer and Mirror, the park also included a grandstand, tennis courts, and baseball grounds.

The success of Centennial Park appears to have been short-lived, and in 1928 Burgess sold a portion of the property to the Sears Lumber Company of Middleboro, which used the site as a lumber yard. The company had supplied building materials to the island for at least a decade prior, and sold the facility to their on-island employee, Howard U. Chase, during the height of the Great Depression. Chase operated the yard as the Chase Lumber Company until 1944 when it was relocated and the property sold to the Marine Lumber Company—part of the Island Service Company Nantucket’s main supplier of ice, lumber, coal and fuel oil. For much of its history, Marine was held by Walter Beinecke Jr. as part of Sherburne Associates and was managed by Albert “Bud” Egan before Egan acquired it in 1966.

Like its predecessors, Marine started out as a lumber supplier, but the firm diversified to offer a host of products and services. Over the years, Marine opened the first garden center, the first home center, and the first modern department store on island. This expansion offered customers the opportunity to shop for not only building supplies, and home and garden products, but specialty items. A wine and cheese shop, hairdresser and high end dress shop were among its departments. Expansion began in the 1950s with the addition of a downtown hardware and appliance store and a flower shop along Petticoat Row. In addition the lumber division expanded by building panelized homes such as those found today along Goldstar Drive. The original site also grew to house these new services and included the purchase of the former Colonial Craft Shop—a millwork shop— located just east of the lumber yard. In 1966 a new building with large display windows was constructed to display its products and many services. In 1973 the company changed its name to Marine Home Center, and in the 1980s it expanded across Orange Street where its kitchen design and appliances sales are located.

Did you know?

View of ‘Sconset, by Rev. L. W. Bostwick, 1879

That ’Sconset was among the first summer resorts in the nation? Established as a fishing station in the late 1700s, its unique charm eventually lured many of Nantucket’s leading families to settle there on a seasonal basis.

Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, they would spend the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall in ’Sconset to fish, relax, and to catch a cool breeze away from the bustling town. Among those calling ’Sconset their home away from home were whaling captains’ families who summered in the historic fishing shanties along Broadway and Center and Shell Streets and prosperous whaling merchants several of whom built summer cottages along ’Sconset’s Main Street in the 1830s. ’Sconset was often home to retired mariners, including Benjamin Lawrence, a survivor of the ship Essex, as well as several “whaling wives”—those who accompanied their husbands on the long whaling voyages. It was not until the second quarter of the nineteenth century when the village became to lure large numbers of mainlanders for the season. By the end of the century the village became known as the Actors Colony due to the large number of Broadway actors and artists who summered there.

The History of The Coffin School

The imposing Greek Revival structure on Winter Street known as the Coffin School has played an important educational role in the lives of Nantucketers since its completion in 1854. The school, however, can trace its origins to 1827, when Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin,a veteran of the Royal Navy with ties to Nantucket’s Coffin descendants,provided funds for the establishment of the school. Known as the Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin Lancasterian School, this educational institution was founded by Coffin for the purpose of “promoting decency, good order and morality, and for giving a good English education to youth” who were descendants of the late Tristram Coffin, one of the original proprietors and to whom a great many Nantucketers were related.

The school first opened in a pre-existing building at Fair and Lyons streets with 130 children aged seven to sixteen; girls and boys were taught separately in the Lancasterian style—a discipline where older students served as tutors and monitors and taught the younger classes.

In 1846, the Fair Street School was closed, most likely due to the island’s declining population and economy. At that time, the Coffin School Trustees decided to allow the endowment to grow with the hope of opening a new facility on land they had acquired on Winter Street. By 1852, funds had increased significantly and construction began.

The architect of the present structure is unknown, but early records show that the builders were James Thompson and Edward Easton. In 1854, the brick school opened its doors to the first students, now with an expanded faculty (the Lancasterian method had been abandoned in 1831) and classes that ran six days a week. During its early years, however, the Coffin School struggled to maintain a steady number of scholars, largely due to competition from mandated public schools. An upsurge in enrollment occurred in the 1870s as the island economy improved, which allowed for construction of a rear addition, but in 1898 the school again fell on hard times and was forced to close.

Rebirth came in 1903, when the Coffin School Trustees, working with the public schools, offered ninth- through twelfth-grade students subjects such as woodworking and mechanical drawing for boys and home economics for girls. With the introduction of electricity, evening classes in specialized skills such as basketry and sewing were offered for adults.

In 1918, another addition at the rear of the school was built to serve the home economics courses. By 1941, the school was fully integrated with Nantucket’s public school system and classes continued until 1968. The following year, the school became the site of public kindergarten classes that continued until 1978. Throughout the late twentieth century, the building also served island nonprofits for purposes such as lectures, classes, and musical events.

In 1996, the Coffin School Trustees provided a long-term lease for the building’s interior to the Egan Maritime Institute, providing a home for the new organization. Today, Egan Maritime Institute shares use of the building with Nantucket Community Sailing, and the main hall continues to be used for lectures and concerts by other island groups. The Coffin School Trustees, some of whom are descended from the original trustees, or who went to school at the Coffin School, or who had family members who were teachers at the school, continue to own the Coffin School and continue their work of education – providing grants and scholarships to island youth and island youth-oriented programs.

Written by Jascin Leonardo Finger, a Coffin School Trustee, and curator of the Mitchell House, Archives, and Special Collections at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association.

Liberty Street

Excerpted from Off Centre: The Wesco Acre Lots The Houses and Their Histories
An NPT publication written by Betsy Tyler

Laid out in 1678 as the southern boundary of the Wesco Acre Lots, Liberty Street is older than Main Street, which was created by the Proprietors more than thirty years later but did not become widely used until after Straight Wharf was built. The dwellings on Liberty Street are some of the earliest in town, but among the eighteenthcentury dwellings are a few houses built in the mid-nineteenth century, and even in the 1870s and ’80s, on sites where much older houses once stood.

It was the custom on Nantucket in the seventeenth century, and for most of the eighteenth as well, to build houses facing south for the obvious benefit of light and warmth, making the north sides of the parallel streets in the Wesco Acre Lots the preferable house sites. This is certainly true of Liberty Street, where the houses on the north side are generally older than those on the south, which is broken up by the side streets Walnut and Winter. At Liberty Street’s origin on the north side of the Pacific Bank there is little distance from Main Street, and up to Walnut Street there is but one dwelling squeezed behind the Main Street mansions. As Liberty Street heads directly west, Main Street veers slightly southward, creating more expansive lots for those grand houses and providing room enough for dwellings on the south side of Liberty as well.

An important house no longer standing on the northeast corner of Winter and Liberty Streets was the home of Walter and Elizabeth Folger and their children, one of Nantucket’s most accomplished and interesting families. Walter (1735–1826) married Elizabeth Starbuck (1738–1821) and they had eight talented offspring, among whom were Walter Folger Jr., inventor and state representative; Phebe, a talented artist and poet who also taught both navigation and needlework; Gideon, who was a whale oil merchant; and Rebecca,whose only surviving son, William C. Folger, became a renowned historian and genealogist. The Folger’s eighteenth-century dwelling was replaced by a new house in the 1830s. An eighteenth-century house belonging to Silas Jones Jr. at 20 Liberty was also removed, and a new house built there in 1885. East of Jones’s house was “a small piece of common land next to the claypit.” Henry Barnard Worth, author of Nantucket Lands and Land Owners, confirms that the clay-pit area included Winter Street and land extending about fifty feet west. Perhaps island potters and brickmakers used the clay in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but there is no evidence of it today.

The Nantucket Lean-To House

Most people think that the lean-to house was the earliest house form on island, but it wasn’t. The lean-to house is easy to spot—having a full two-story façade, or front elevation, and a one-story rear elevation connected by a long sloping north roof (called a catslide), and a single massive chimney.

Nantucket’s earliest house styles, known as English or Medieval, often evolved into lean-to houses by the addition of a one-story wing. The leanto, like other early house forms, came to Nantucket from the mainland. The form was so popular that by the first decade of the 1700s most houses on Nantucket were constructed with lean-tos incorporated into the original design.

The addition of a lean-to or the construction of a house with a lean-to incorporated into the original design (known as the integral lean-to house) occurred because it made sense. The lean-to house provided additional rooms on the first floor, including a keeping room (kitchen) that left the hall and parlor available for other uses besides cooking. Like other early houses, lean-tos were built facing south, thereby providing protection or insulation for the main section’s north side. Early builders knew that placing the lean-to’s long sloping roof to the north helped to direct wind up and over the structure. Clay Lancaster in The Architecture of Historic Nantucket notes that of the forty integral lean-to houses extant about twothirds face southward. Some of those not oriented southward were moved from their original sites.

This functional form remained in favor with Nantucketers for many years. The construction of integral lean-to houses continued into the mid-eighteenth century, and it was not until the introduction and acceptance of the typical Nantucket house (see Ramblings, Vol. 4) that the form fell out of fashion. Even so, the lean-to was not abandoned but incorporated into the design of houses including the smaller lean-to (1 ¾ stories high) built from the late eighteenth century and into the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The early integral lean-to houses generally fall into two categories: the three-bay-wide half house and the full house (either three or five bays wide). Both versions employed heavy timber frames. Common interior features included a porch (entry way) with winder staircase and lower closet directly ahead against the massive chimney, exposed corner posts, low ceilings, and summer beams (often with chamfered, or angled, edges); paneled fireplace walls, mirror boards, and plank cradle boards.

Of the two versions, half houses were the more common and were built for possible future expansion. The half house usually had a chimney on the roof ridge at the end nearer the front door. The chimney could be easily added to with the expansion of a shed-roof lean-to addition or a similar sized two-story wing. These lean-to forms appear to be the first house forms on Nantucket that were originally shingled, although it is possible the earliest versions had plank board exteriors, but examples no longer exist. Like their predecessor (the Medieval or English house) lean-to houses often have articulated brick chimneys. The earliest examples had casement windows, but all surviving forms have sash windows. In most instances, windows are asymmetrically placed, and those on the south elevation were usually larger to capture solar heat—often with twelve over-twelve lights while nine-over-nine light windows are found on the upper floor and elsewhere on the building.

Because the lean-to is one of the earliest house forms, identifying them can be difficult since most examples have undergone alterations over the years. These houses were also moved, and their lean-to sections often were raised, making their rear elevations a full two stories high. Hence, many houses with lean-to beginnings hold a wealth of layers ripe for uncovering by the curious owner, architectural preservationist, or traditional building contractor.

Today, the lean-to form can be easily adapted for modern living, and those that retain evidences of their original interior features are treasured and are unfortunately increasingly rare. Fewer than fifty true lean-to houses remain, and many of them have undergone major changes that have destroyed much of their historic integrity.

Interiors Matter

The historic significance of a building does not stop at the exterior. The interior matters, too. The plan of a house, its features and materials, all reflect its history and evolution and contribute to its historic character. On Nantucket, where only the exterior is regulated, what’s inside is frequently overlooked.

An important part of the NPT mission is to demonstrate what is possible. Properly preserved and maintained interiors not only have historic significance, they are valuable as real estate assets. Preserving interior features of a historic house makes sense financially and is essential for the edification of future generations.

Floor Plans

The original floor plan is essential to defining historic character. Parlors, hallways, and staircases all contribute to the character of the building and should be retained in a preservation project.

In some cases, changes in floor plans are necessary. The appropriateness of interior changes can be analyzed by using a hierarchical approach that “ranks” the significance of spaces in a building. In residential buildings, there are usually “private” and “public” spaces, reflecting the need for formal functional areas and private individual living spaces. For example, stair halls and parlors are often on the main floor, while bedrooms, closets, and service areas are on upper floors or in rear areas.

If changes are desired, character-defining “public” areas should be retained; and the proposed use, program, and plan should not alter those primary historic spaces. Features and materials such as woodwork, doors, and mantels should be treated carefully even in the areas of secondary significance. New baths, closets, and kitchens, for example, might appropriately be placed in ells that have been added to the historic structure or in a new wing.

Design Features, Materials, and Finishes

Floor plans are only part of the historic interior’s character. Wall, ceiling, and floor treatments; doors and door and window trim; fireplaces and their mantels; and other finishes are all important features. Interiors often exhibit a mix of historic styles that reflect changes in use and taste. An early twentieth-century interior that has been placed in a nineteenth-century building, for example, is part of the building’s history and might be worthy of preservation.

All sound interior features should be retained and repaired. If damaged or deteriorated beyond repair, they should be replaced in-kind. Ceiling height, another important interior feature, helps convey historic character because it defines spatial volume, proportion, and light.

New Interior Construction and Related Demolition

Historic building rehabilitation often requires new construction and limited amounts of demolition. This work should take place at secondary or nonsignificant spaces to minimize impacts to the historic resource.

New interior work should be compatible with the existing historic character. Exact duplication of historic materials and elements is discouraged to avoid confusion between historic and new. For example, where new walls or other partitions are planned, an appropriate approach is to use new trim matching
the historic in scale, material, and general profile, rather than replicating historic woodwork. Demolition should always be kept to a minimum, and limited to secondary spaces or areas of extreme deterioration. Because demolition can involve the removal of historic material, it should be planned to have the least possible impact on the historic building.

Routine maintenance is a key to preserving interior historic materials; it prevents small problems from becoming large ones. Keeping up with maintenance will preserve your house for many years to come.