All posts by Mary Bergman

Women’s History & the Nantucket Atheneum

Nantucket Atheneum, Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

The grand Greek Revival building on the corner of India and Federal Streets is the Nantucket Atheneum, the island’s library. It has been home to a cadre of exceptional women, and a place where women’s voices have always been heard.

Originally constructed in 1825 as the First Universalist Church, the building was purchased by Charles Coffin and David Joy in 1834, creating a membership library. Maria Mitchell became the Atheneum’s first librarian at age 18, eventually leaving the library to become the first Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College.

In July of 1846, the Atheneum was one of hundreds of buildings in the downtown core destroyed by the Great Fire. Astoundingly, funds were raised to rebuild, securing one of the island’s preeminent architects, Frederick Brown Coleman, by October of the same year. Coleman’s design moved the lecture hall to the second floor and books to the first floor. Charles Wood, the builder, saw to it that the project was completed within six months of the fire.

Original building, Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

Coleman designed other Greek Revival structures in town, including 94 and 96 Main, the interior of the Unitarian Church on 11 Orange Street, and the Ionic temple of the Methodist Church at 2 Centre Street.

The Great Hall allowed islanders to hear important speakers of the day, like women’s rights advocates Lucretia Mott in 1854 and Lucy Stone in 1886.

Librarian Sarah Barnard served the Atheneum for 50 years, from 1856 to 1906. Clara Parker also served a 50-year tenure until 1956. Both women advanced the library by embracing new technologies like typewriters, card catalogs, and telephones.

In 1955, the library was restored and remodeled. The second-floor Great Hall became a reading room. A new wing of the library, named for Starr Kynett, was added in the 1965, housing a reading room and space for a microfilm reader. Thirty years later, the Atheneum underwent another major restoration, preserving the building’s historic integrity while allowing for modern upgrades in technology. Most recently, in 1996, a children’s wing of the library was added, named for Louise Frances Walker.

Modern technology means we are now more connected to the mainland than ever, but the Nantucket Atheneum remains a critical part of the island’s cultural and intellectual landscape. Because of the stewardship of the Atheneum’s librarians, including present-day librarian Molly Anderson, and trustees, it remains a fine example of the island’s architectural heritage.

Last Chance to Submit Nominations for the Preservation Awards!

Town Crier, Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

Hear ye, Hear ye!

It’s your last chance to submit nominations for the 2018 Preservation Awards!

Help us recognize preservation efforts on Nantucket, and showcase the work of our island’s architects, craftspeople, and builders.

NPT’s Preservation Awards program is designed to show that a building or landscape can be sensitively updated while maintaining and preserving its historic integrity. In general, the NPT Preservation Awards emphasize proper preservation, showcase the island’s craftspeople, and reveal the foresight of owners who care about our historic structures and landscape.




The NPT is still accepting award nominations in the following categories, but the deadline is tomorrow!

  • Historical Renovation Award
  • Architectural Preservation Award
  • Landscape Award
  • Stewardship Award
  • Traditional Building Methods Award
  • New Construction Award

To learn more about these categories, past award winners, and to nominate a project or craftsperson, please visit:

Not sure which category your project best fits, or other questions? Call us at 508.228.1387. Nominations can be sent to

Women’s History Month | Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford

Walk down nearly any lane in Nantucket, past nearly every home or public building and you are likely to stumble onto a site important to women’s history. This month, we’re taking a closer look at some of the buildings where dreams of equality were first fostered.

5 New Street, Siasconset: Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford

5 New Street Siasconset, 1910s, courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

“That I have been successful as a preacher is largely owing to the fact of my Quaker birth, and my early education on the island of Nantucket, where women preach and men are useful at washing day and neither feel themselves out of place.”

-Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, 1869

Born in 1829 on Nantucket (or ‘Sconset, sources differ, and only to Nantucketers would there be such a distinction) to George W. Coffin and Phebe Ann Barnard, Phebe Ann Coffin would one day become the first woman ordained as a minister in Massachusetts, and the third woman minister in the country.

Phebe’s father, George W. Coffin, purchased a house in ‘Sconset on the bank near the gulley from Ichabod Aldridge for $30. In 1841, the house was removed from the bank during the October gale and set up on it’s present location on New Street. The house, called “Seldom Inn” by the 1910s, was added to over the years and eventually became the site of many summer vacations.

Phebe’s marriage to homeopathic physician Joseph A. Hanaford would eventually take her away from Nantucket, but the educational foundation she had built in ‘Sconset would follow her throughout New England.

During the Civil War, Phebe became an active abolitionist and suffragist, preaching and writing on the subjects. During the late 1860s, Phebe joined the Universalist Church of America, editing periodicals and studying to become a minister.

1868 marked an important turning point in Phebe’s life. She was ordained as the first Unitarian woman minister in Massachusetts, and she separated from her husband.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Her ministry took her all over the northeast. Controversy regarding her commitment to women’s rights and unorthodox personal life resulted in the loss of her New Jersey pulpit. No matter; Phebe started another church in the same town. Phebe and her partner Ellen Miles lived together for 44 years, separated only by Ellen’s death in 1914.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford died in 1921. Her childhood home still stands. Perhaps she would have enjoyed the name Seldom Inn, as her talents took her far from Nantucket’s shores.


Letter to the Editor Regarding Pending Demolition of Jacobs House

This letter originally appeared in the March 1, 2018 issue of the Inquirer and Mirror. 

We are sad to report that the Jacobs House was demolished on March 6, 2018.

Jacobs House February 2018

HDC guidelines for demolitions need to be updated

To the Editor: Soon, Madaket is likely to lose another
unique structure, this time an important example of
mid-20th Century architecture. Unlike other homes in
Madaket, the Jacobs House at 31 Starbuck Road will
not fall victim to the western shore’s rapidly eroding
coast line, but instead to a flaw in our system of
approvals and permits which stems from a lack of
understanding about the need to protect the next
generation of Nantucket landmarks. The history of
many buildings is undocumented and, as it stands,
there is no burden on the owner and/or applicant to
provide a professional, unbiased assessment on the
historic or architectural importance of a structure prior
to HDC approval for demolition.

Jacobs House, February 2018

The Jacobs House, built in 1968 (now half a century
ago), was designed by renowned Boston architect
Frederick “Tad” Stahl (1931-2013), working with
former owner, artist and architecture student Marjorie
Jacobs. Stahl was best known for his work on the State
Street Bank, the restorations of Quincy Market and the
Old State House (all in Boston), and for designing over
25 community libraries in Massachusetts.The Jacobs
House is one of only two dwellings Stahl designed in
his entire career.

House Beautiful magazine, 1970

There is no question that the Jacobs House is unique.
Anyone seeing it realizes it is different than most
Nantucket houses. At the time of construction, many
felt it was out of character with the island’s historic
architecture. But times change and in the past decade
communities throughout the country have embraced
landmarks of the 20th century. Today the Jacobs House
is one of the prime examples of mid-century modern
architecture on island. House Beautiful thought so as
well and profiled it in a 1970 issue, describing it as
“Commanding a wild stretch of beach like an ancient
citadel.” And in the 1960 and 1970s, Madaket was
Nantucket’s wild west, home to surfers and artists, to
Millie and Mr. Rogers. The Jacobs House represents an
important moment in Nantucket’s history, when one
could take a risk, when the peaked roofs of a summer
house mimicked the ocean’s roaring waves.

Jacobs House interior 1970, courtesy Jacobs Family.

Stahl embraced contemporary designs, but was, above
all, a preservationist. Perhaps it is this fact that makes
the pending loss of the Jacobs House so distressing.
The HDC was established to protect the historic
architecture of Nantucket, and a significant building,
even one constructed in 1968, is part of that history. In
this instance, the Commission was not presented with,
nor did they gather all the facts before voting 5-0 to
allow for the demolition of the structure.

Nantucket has already lost many architecturally
interesting 20th Century structures (a house designed
by Philip Johnson and an early Buckminster Fuller
inspired house to name a few) and will lose more.
Their relatively recent dates makes it easy to dismiss
them but saving the best of the era, any era, is

We urge the HDC to make changes in their
system to better document and to gather all the facts
about a building’s past before demolitions are
approved. In many communities a preservationist on
the HDC staff is charged with undertaking historic
research, but when town resources are unavailable to
complete this work it should be the burden of an
applicant to prove that a structure, regardless of the
date it was built, is not of historic or architectural
importance if they desire to demolish it. Doing so
would enhance the HDC’s mission to protect all of
Nantucket’s historic architecture.

Michael May, Executive Director

& Mary Bergman

Nantucket Preservation Trust

Mizpah | Boston-Higginbotham House

Boston-Higginbotham House in 2018.

The residents of 27 York Street have always been ahead of their time.

Seneca Boston, a weaver and former slave, purchased land at 27 York Street in 1744—a full decade before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. The house Boston had built for his wife, a Wampanoag woman named Thankful Micha, and their six children is a rare example of a middle-class African-American home in the 18th Century on Nantucket.

Seneca and Thankful’s son, Absalom Boston, was one of Nantucket’s most famous residents. Absalom was a whaling captain with an all-black crew. When his daughter, Phebe Ann, was barred from the Nantucket public schools, Absalom successfully sued the town government to integrate the school in 1845, resulting in changes at the state level. Seneca’s brother, Prince Boston, was the first enslaved person in Massachusetts to successfully sue for his freedom and his wages earned as a whaleman.

Interior of Boston-Higginbotham House, 2018.

Apart from less than one year, the house has been continuously owned by members of the Black community on Nantucket, and until 1919, by descendants of Seneca Boston.

In 1920, the house on 27 York Street was purchased by Florence E. Clay Higginbotham. Originally from Virginia, Florence Clay worked in Boston and went to cooking school. She traveled to Nantucket with friends in 1911 to work in ‘Sconset for the summer. When summer was over, she stayed. In 1917, she married Robert D. Higginbotham, also of ‘Sconset, but their marriage was short-lived.

Florence Higginbotham met the widow Evelyn Underhill, who owned a cottage colony in ‘Sconset, in 1920. That same year, Higginbotham purchased the former Boston home as an investment.

Interior of Boston-Higginbotham House, 2018.

Underhill hired Higginbotham to take over management of the cottages. When Higginbotham had a son, William, in 1921, the two moved into Evelyn Underhill’s cottage. Other black workers did not live with their employers, but rather in shanties in Codfish Park. The three lived in ‘Sconset in the summer and Waltham in the winter.

After the stock market crash of 1929, Underhill lost many of her investments. After a few years of living year-round in ‘Sconset, the two women and William moved into Higginbotham’s home on York Street. The women read poetry, listened to jazz records, and socialized with each other. However, when Evelyn Underhill’s friends came to call, Florence Higginbotham was to retreat to the back quarters of her own house.

In 1933, Higginbotham purchased the African Meeting House next door. During the 1930s and 1940s, she rented it out as storage and once as studio space for an artist.


African Meeting House in 2018.

The house was added to in 1830 and 1940, but nothing was taken away. The house retains much of its original 18th century fabric. Now owned by the African American Museum Boston-Nantucket, the Boston-Higginbotham is undergoing careful restorations. A preservation easement will protect the house for the future.

Interior of Boston-Higginbotham House, 2018.

Florence named her house Mizpah, a Hebrew word meaning beacon or watchtower, and lived there until her death in 1972.

Fête Flashback!


On a brisk February day, August seems light years away. But summer will be here before you know it, and with it comes our August Fête and house tour.

This year’s Fête will be held Thursday, August 9, 2018. Each year, the party moves to a new location, so you can get a behind-the-scenes look at some of Nantucket’s most storied private homes and gardens.

We’re keeping this year’s location under wraps for now—but join us as we look back at some of our favorite past Fête locales!

2007: A Darling Fête

Darling Street was named for John Darling, a mariner who owned the house at number 10 from 1791 to 1796. The street looks very much as it has for the last 150 years and contains eleven historic homes that date from the late 18th to the mid-19th century.

Many of Nantucket’s previously unnamed streets were named in 1798, when the federal government levied a “house” tax to raise money in anticipation of a war with France. One of the regulations for recording local property was that the taxable parcels be identified more clearly than was previously the case, so in order to clarify the ill-defined roads of the town the first list of Nantucket’s streets was compiled by Isaac Coffin in 1799. John Darling, Sarah Hussey, and their children lived on the street in the 1790s.

 2013: Get to the Point!

The 2013 August Fête took us to the Hulbert Ave/Brant Point neighborhood.

The architecture of the Brant Point neighborhood was greatly influenced by the rise in tourism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on Nantucket. House highlight included a home with it’s original two-story cathedral ceiling that evokes a ship’s hull and one of Brant Point’s earliest constructed homes from 1888.



Can’t wait to share our 2018 location with you! It is sure to be a fantastic evening.

Announcing the 2018 Preservation Symposium

Early Registration & Scholarship Application Now Available for the 2018 Nantucket Preservation Symposium Workshop

“You already know a lot about buildings,” architectural historian Brian Pfeiffer said to attendees at the Nantucket Preservation Trust’s inaugural Preservation Symposium, “You live in them, you visit them.” In our busy lives, how often do we take the time to consider the buildings around us, the commonalities they share, and the idiosyncrasies that reveal their unique stories?

This summer, join us for an evening reception and one-day Nantucket Preservation Symposium Workshop on Wednesday, June 6, 2018 and Thursday, June 7, 2018. Last year’s event attracted preservationists from around the island and across the country to celebrate and learn from Nantucket’s living classroom.

Early registration begins today and runs through April 2, 2018. Click here to register for a reduced registration rate of $295 per attendee.

Decisions in Preservation: Understanding, Repairing and Preserving Nantucket Houses is a one-day intensive session that focuses on the difficult decisions property owners, architects, and builders face in restoring houses, and how they balance preserving features and making a home livable in the 21st century.

While the workshop will focus on Nantucket’s architecture, lessons learned from Decisions in Preservation will be useful to anyone who works with or owns a historic home. Whether you’re an architectural historian, a local history buff, or just want to know more about the buildings you pass by every day, we’d love you to join us on Nantucket this summer.

The NPT is offering a limited number of scholarship tickets to the workshop.

To apply: please submit a one-page letter of interest detailing how the symposium would benefit you and if applicable, how it would advance your career or studies.

Applications are due by May 1, 2018.  Recipients will be selected and notified in early May.

Applications can be submitted via email to

Questions? Please contact 508.228.1387.

Celebrate Restoration Role Models with the Preservation Awards

Preservation is possible!

The Nantucket Preservation Trust is still seeking nominations for the 2018 Preservation Awards. Celebrating the achievements of craftspeople, the stewardship of homeowners, and the thoughtfulness of building professionals is important to furthering the message that preservation is possible.

Though Nantucket is home to one of the largest collections of pre-Civil War era buildings in the country, the island’s rapid growth and development in the past three decades continues to threaten the architectural and historical integrity of these important structures.

Simply put: when they’re gone, they’re gone.

The Preservation Awards serve an important purpose for the Nantucket community and for the historic preservation community at large. Preservation is not only possible—it is rewarding, critical to the island’s economy, and it is happening around us. Send your nomination today!

Here’s a closer look at one of our prior award winners.


The John A. and Katherine S. Lodge Stewardship Award

139 Main Street in February 2018

Richard Gardner II House, 139 Main Street, 2017 Award Winner

This house is believed to have been built by Richard Gardner II about 1690. The house passed out of the Gardner family in 1926, and the following year it was acquired by Gladys Wood (1886-1971), who recognized the significance of the old house and moved it from 141 Main Street about 500 feet east to its current location to complete its restoration.

Wood hired one of the leading preservationists of the day, Alfred F. Shurrocks (1870-1945) to assist her in the restoration of the Gardner house. Today, the Richard Gardner II house is one of the few surviving seventeenth-century Nantucket homes and remains in the hands of Wood descendants who, following family tradition, are fine stewards of this island landmark.

Historic American Buildings Survey of 139 Main Street. Library of Congress.


NPT Welcomes New Staff Members

The Nantucket Preservation Trust has some exciting news!

We are pleased to welcome Michelle Whelan, Director of Development, and Mary Bergman, Director of Media and Communications to the NPT staff.

Michelle’s work with the NPT is a continuation of her commitment to preserving Nantucket’s sense of place. She most recently served as the Executive Director of Sustainable Nantucket for the last ten years.

“It is hard to define what makes Nantucket so special, but one of the unique aspects of the island is the incredible concentration of historic architecture we have,” Michelle says.

If you have been following the NPT on any of our social media channels or reading  weekly blog posts (and if you have not—start now!) since January, then you may already know Mary Bergman.

Mary supports the NPT’s mission by getting the word out on all the exciting programming, projects, and resources the NPT offers. She recently served as the Executive Director at the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum.

Mary and Michelle are thrilled to work with Executive Director Michael May in supporting the mission of the Nantucket Preservation Trust. You can read more about our staff members here.

We are looking for an administrative assistant to join our staff. See this week’s Inquirer and Mirror classifieds, or click here to read more.

Black History on Nantucket: the African Meeting House


African Meeting House today.

History has a way of hiding in plain sight. If you are a new visitor to Nantucket, it’s possible that you might not even notice the one-room building at the corner of York and Pleasant Street, as you try to figure out how a five-way intersection works.

The African Meeting House at 29 York Street serves as a visual reminder that Nantucket’s history does not begin and end with the Coffins and Starbucks. Nantucket’s history—like it’s people today—is one of varied and diverse experiences. The African Meeting House helps illuminate Nantucket’s rich Black history.

Constructed in 1827 under the African Baptist Society, the African Meeting House is the last remaining public structure central to the African American community of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The Meeting House property was purchased in 1933 by Florence Higginbotham, a trained cook and domestic worker who had come to Nantucket as a teenager to work in ‘Sconset. Higginbotham owned the property next door, and understood acutely the importance the Meeting House held to the island’s history.


African Meeting House from the Historic American Building Survey, 1968. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

The Meeting House, like other historic structures on Nantucket, fell into disrepair. However, while other buildings were given new life during the restoration revival that swept Nantucket in the 1960s and 1970s, the Meeting House was not one of them. The room where so many Black Nantucketers had worshiped, been educated, found community, and found strength was now home to bicycles and trucks that leaked oil and stained the floorboards.

The building was of historical importance, and in need of repair. In 1989, Higginbotham’s heir sold the Meeting House property to the Museum of African American History in Boston.

Though the Meeting House had undergone many changes during its history, it retained nearly three-quarters of its original materials. Builders discovered that under the plasterwork was intricate wood fanning in the shape of an inverted ship’s hull. Outlines of pews, long gone, lingered on the walls.

African Meeting House restoration. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

After a comprehensive renovation, the African Meeting House re-opened to the public in 1999. Today, it remains an important part of public life on Nantucket. It is a place where lectures are held, music is played, celebrations occur, and questions are asked. You can learn more about the African Meeting House here:


African Meeting House today.