Many thanks to Nantucket Preservation Trust board member Michelle Elzay for sharing this special guest blog post.
It has been a month of dinner parties. Set at a long wood table beside a fire that is always hard to start but has a glowing coal bed by the end of the night. The first night we had roast chicken and toasted our friend’s birthday. We had planned a weeklong spring break visit to Nantucket with another couple. But as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, it became clear that we should remain on the island. A week has spread to four, with no set date to leave. Houseguests have become roommates.
I am staying in a house that a partner and I restored five years ago. This house, on Union Street, was built in 1834 by prolific island builder John B. Nicholson. Before our preservation, the house had not been lived in since World War II. Though in need of extensive repair, the interior of the house stood intact as it was built almost two centuries ago. It struck me, after a few days of “shelter in place,” that the rhythm of how I was spending my time in this house might not be unlike those of the people who occupied it at the time of its construction.
The square block bounded by Union Street, Orange Street, Maiden Lane (now York Street), and Dover Street was developed in the 1830s largely by John Nicholson. Before that, four small homes had stood on the block. By 1836 Nicholson had added at least eight homes, two since removed, turning what was a more rural and African American part of Nantucket “Newtown” into a dense nineteenth-century urban environment.
Every year, Nantucket Preservation Trust’s Sense of Place Exhibition and Auction offers bidders the chance to win unique, hand created items from dozens of Nantucket makers and artisans. Among these special auction items this year will be the Nantucket Dream Dollhouse. Volunteers led by Gussie Beaugrand, Beth Davies, Barbara Halsted, and Michael Sweeney have been spending countless hours creating a representation of a Nantucket house that models modern living in a historic home. The completed dollhouse will have three bedrooms and sleep nine, with custom hand-dyed gray shingles; hand painted walls, clapboards, and trim; tiny curtains; and custom furniture. Thank you to the volunteers who made this unique project possible!
Last week, Nantucket Preservation Trust put out a call asking Nantucketers, or anyone who loves Nantucket, to send us artistic representations about what they love most about their Nantucket home, or any building on Nantucket. So far, we have received dozens of fantastic pieces. To submit your own, please email an image with a brief caption to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Continue reading below to see more photos, paintings, and drawings.
Adjusting to life during the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19 means that Nantucket residents will be spending more time in their homes for the foreseeable future. For Nantucket Preservation Trust, celebrating Nantucket’s unique architectural heritage also means celebrating the interior spaces where we will be keeping a safe social distance for the time being.
In an effort to forge connections during a time of isolation, at NPT, we’re asking all of our Nantucket community—whether you are physically on the island, or just dreaming of the time when you will be—to show us what you like most about your home, or any building here on Nantucket. Is it the way the light comes through a certain window in the morning? A corner with your favorite comfy chair? Some lovely architectural detail? Send us a drawing, a photo, or any other artistic representation about what you like most about a house, or any building on the island that you love, along with a brief caption, and we’ll share what we receive in a web gallery.
The former whale oil storehouse and candle factory at 21 Washington Street began as an industrial, utilitarian structure, but the building took on a new life in 1928 when it became the home of the Byron L. Sylvaro American Legion Post #82. Over the past ninety years, it has a central hub in the lives not only of Nantucket veterans, but the wider Nantucket community. Countless dinners, dances, fundraisers, meetings, and performances have been hosted at the building. From its 19th century industrial origins to its current usage as a community space, the building has maintained many historic elements and is a standing reminder of Nantucket’s whaling past. A new preservation restriction placed on the structure with the Nantucket Preservation Trust, now in the final phases of completion, will ensure the historic character of the building is maintained in perpetuity.
The brick warehouse at 21 Washington Street was built in 1837-38 as the William French & Jared Coffin Candle House. The building housed equipment for processing, then storing, whale oil and spermaceti. The building lies just to the east of Commercial Wharf, which would have been bustling with whaleships in the 1830s. Jared Coffin, a 6th-generation descendant of Nantucket proprietor Tristram Coffin, was a wealthy Nantucket businessman who partnered with his son-in-law William French.
The warehouse survived the Great Fire of 1846, but French and Coffin’s partnership disbanded in 1847. French left Nantucket and returned to his home of Providence, Rhode Island, and Coffin relocated to Brighton, Massachusetts. Henry Kelley of New York City purchased the building and land in 1857 but sold it less than a year later to Matthew Crosby. Eventually the warehouse became known as the Charles and Henry Coffin Warehouse, likely in the ten years after the dissolution of French and Coffin’s company and before their sale of the structure. By the turn of the 20th century, Joseph Barney, son of whale oil merchant Nathaniel Barney, owned the property. His heirs sold it in 1916 to Henry and Florence Lang of Montclair, New Jersey.
The Langs, influential Nantucket summer residents, purchased many historic Nantucket buildings in the early 20th century, a period when the decline of the whaling industry was still harshly felt among the island residents. Florence was an artist, and the Langs were patrons the arts on Nantucket and across the country. They purchased old commercial real estate along Washington Street and the wharfs, then turned the dilapidated storehouses and fishing shanties into artists’ studios. Deeply committed to supporting artists, Florence founded the Easy Street Galley in 1924, the first place on island where artists could display and sell their work.
In 1928, the Langs deeded the Charles and Henry Coffin Warehouse to the Bryon L. Sylvaro American Legion Post #82. The post, founded in 1919 and named after a Nantucketer who died in action in France in World War I, has been an organizing force in the lives of Nantucket veterans for over 100 years. Nantucket Preservation Trust is thrilled to join with Post #82 to preserve their historic building. By placing a preservation easement on the property, the Legion will be eligible to receive Community Preservation Commission funding for restoration work. This important landmark will continue to host community meetings, dances, and many other events. Its continued reuse today reminds us not only of Nantucket’s past as an international whaling port, but also Nantucketers’ resilient nature. To learn more about preservation easements, click here.
The natural beauty of ’Sconset has long attracted visitors to the far eastern end of Nantucket. Beginning in the late 19th century, builders seeking to capitalize on the village’s charms built rental communities to house growing numbers of summer tourists. The block of houses on the south side of Magnolia Avenue is a well-preserved example of the rental cottage industry building boom.
The Sunset Heights development of the 1870s was first the group of purpose-built rental properties constructed in ’Sconset. In 1873, prolific builder Charles H. Robinson began construction of Sunset Heights on a large parcel of land south of Main Street. Together with his partner Dr. Franklin A. Ellis, Robinson laid out Ocean Avenue and a series of small lanes, most named after trees. The partners constructed a footbridge over the gully to connect their development with the rest of ’Sconset, and the first cottage was completed by the summer. The new neighborhood was anchored by the Ocean View House, a hotel offering both short- and long-term accommodations at affordable rates. Robinson’s idea proved very successful; he continued building cottages in ’Sconset throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and in 1883 added the Ocean View Annex across the street from the original Ocean View House.
Charles Robinson wasn’t the only builder who sought to reap the benefits of ’Sconset’s quaint appeal. In 1879, Edward F. Underhill purchased land to the south of Magnolia Avenue in Sunset Heights and laid out Pochick Avenue. Unlike the larger Victorian style cottages built by Robinson and Ellis, Underhill built cottages that mimicked the old fishing shacks turned residences in the center of ’Sconset. In 1882 he purchased additional land and laid out Lily and Evelyn Streets, along which he also built small, closely grouped cottages. The Underhill cottages along Pochick Avenue later became the center of the Nantucket Actor’s Colony.
Local landowner Isaac Hills also got in on the ’Sconset cottage craze. In 1885, the year after the Nantucket Railroad extended to ’Sconset, he purchased land on the south side of Magnolia Avenue from Robinson, abutting the land of Edward Underhill. The property already contained two houses; three years after purchasing the land Hills contracted with Robinson to build an additional two houses on the block. Hills advertised many rental properties for occupancy in the Inquirer and Mirror throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, and Magnolia Avenue became alternatively known as Hills Street. Hills grouped his rentals together the ’Sconset Cottage Club, with Rudder Grange, on the corner of Ocean Avenue, serving as its headquarters and dining hall.
However, by 1918 Hills had fallen on economic hardships and was cited for failure to pay property taxes. He also failed to pay in 1919, and in December of that year he sold off a parcel of land on Magnolia Avenue, with the cottage called Genesee Lodge, to Levi Starbuck Coffin. Levi Coffin was a well-known ‘Sconset citizen and owner of Bloomingdale Farm, but Coffin was also involved in the tourism industry centered on Sunset Heights, having served as the proprietor of the Ocean View House in the 1880s. Shortly after purchasing Genesee Lodge, Coffin turned a storehouse on the property into what the Inquirer and Mirror described as a “very comfy igloo.” This new cottage, at 6 Magnolia St, was then rented with along with the other Magnolia Avenue properties as “Tis a House.” Evidence shows that the structure was originally constructed by Hills at the rear of the lot, and moved forward and expanded. A small building appears on Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1904 and 1909, with the map of 1923 showing the expanded dwelling closer to Magnolia Avenue.
Much of the old Sunset Heights is now lost: Ocean View House has been demolished, as have many of Robinson’s original cottages. But the dwellings that composed Isaac Hills’ Cottage Club are still visible along the south side of Magnolia Avenue. Genesee Lodge is now called The Good Tern, Villa Marguerite is now called Tern Too, and Tis a House is now called Rosehip. These cottages, together with Rudder Grange, Casa Fortunata, and Thorny Croft, form a block of intact late-19th and early-20th century buildings that offer a glimpse into Sunset Heights’ development as a resort destination.
 “’Sconset Notes,” The Inquirer and Mirror, May 15, 1920, Historic Digital Newspapers Archive – Nantucket Atheneum.