Nantucket, located approximately 30 miles south of the coast of Cape Cod, has two exceptionally well preserved village centers (Nantucket Town and Siasconset) which retain nationally important examples of architecture from the Colonial, Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian periods. In addition the island has a large concentration of buildings from the early 20th century when architectural preservation and architectural revivals based upon Nantucket’s past dominated new construction.
The survival of Nantucket’s historic buildings is due in large part to factors associated with the economic decline of the whaling industry in the mid 1800s. The island was largely forgotten for half a century and, as a result, its fine architecture survived through neglect. By the late 19th century, efforts to preserve the island’s historic resources were initiated—echoing the nation’s early preservation movement. The first preservation work on island included the saving of the Old Mill in 1894 and voluntary were steps adopted to ward off insensitive changes to the historic buildings. These actions also helped create an atmosphere where new construction reflected the island’s appreciation of its historic architecture.
In 1955, Nantucket was one of the first communities in the nation to establish local historic districts and to adopt regulations to control exterior changes. Originally encompassing only the Old Town and the Village of Siasconset, this local historic district (administered by the Nantucket Historic District Commission) was expanded in 1971 to include the entire island of Nantucket as well as the islands of Muskeget and Tuckernuck. In 1966, the Nantucket’s historic district was designated one of the country’s first National Historic Landmarks (NHL) under new federal regulations implemented that year to protect it from state and federal intervention and to recognize its national importance. In 1975 the NHL also was expanded to cover all of Nantucket Island as well as the two outer islands.
Today, most islanders and visitors think of Nantucket and historic preservation simultaneously—they go together hand in hand. But the reality is that the historic fabric is being destroyed every day. Nantucket’s very success as a summer resort poses a threat to its historic resources.
The Nantucket Preservation Trust’s role as stewards and advocates of the island’s rich architectural heritage is to further preservation education and protection of our historic resources. Our work includes partnering with other preservation-minded groups and reaching out to residents, owners of historic properties and visitors.
It is our hope that more and more property owners will think of their historic properties as valued art objects—one-of-a-kind treasures that through a mix of luck and love have survived in tact to this day. In order to save Nantucket’s historic resources, we all need to value and appreciate not only the exteriors of historic buildings, but the quirks and flaws in their interiors that make them different and give them character. And we all need to encourage patching, repairing and recycling instead of, gutting, replacing and wasting building materials.