Guest Blog

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To, by Mary-Adair Macaire

“You know you really don’t have to come.  It’s just a formality of signing checks and documents.  Just mail them in; the attorneys will take care of the rest.”

My realtor was trying to tell me that it wasn’t necessary to fly from London where I worked, to attend the settlement of my first Nantucket house.

But, I was determined … Even if it was “off season”, rainy and cold.

“You know how long I’ve pined for a place here, Robert!  I’m coming!”

I’d long ago fell in love with this small strip of well-preserved sand called Nantucket; spending summers during college in a room rented on Centre Street from a nice elderly lady; and later during my years in NYC – avoiding the LIE/Hamptons crawl for long weekends in one or the other of precious few town rentals that would permit a well-mannered dog.

Now finally, there would be a set of keys belonging to me!  Keys that fit the door of a house built in 1837 … A door that swung open for 19 former custodians before I knew it existed.

Continue reading They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To, by Mary-Adair Macaire

Steeped in History, by Martha Johnson

The stairs in our house are steep.

When Simeon Long built it in 1791 for his family, I imagine he was young and agile, but because of the steep slope of the stairs, necessitated by ceilings fairly high for that era, his grandmother must have had hard work hoisting her skirts and hiking up to the second floor. The front stairs are, we believe, original. Interestingly enough, one of the risers, about halfway up, is taller than the rest, requiring care not to trip. Our Scottie dog, Stuart, has fallen down them enough times to avoid the ‘very front hall’ altogether and carefully makes his way up and down the kitchen stairs, much newer, but still a mountain to a short dog.

When the house was raised in 1995, a full basement was added with a laundry and a family room where the ‘big TV ’ goes, something not imagined in Simeon’s wildest dreams. In his era, the family would have crowded into much smaller rooms, and we think the el in the back was not added until many years after he moved his family off island to Claremont, New Hampshire, where Longs still live. These underground stairs are steeper yet, and Stuart requires a human elevator to navigate them.

We are thinking we’ll carpet the newer stairs to give him a fighting chance for a longer life, and to help our old bones as we climb, carrying fresh sheets, from the basement to the top floor, pausing briefly in the kitchen to catch our breath. ‘Our own stair machine.’ We laugh. These are steep stairs. We are senior citizens, optimistic for our energy levels to remain high with this added exercise.

Our children are encouraging us to move to one floor living. We are encouraging our children to mind their own businesses.It takes a certain kind of person to live in an old house, and a few sacrifices as well. Chilly breezes sneak through ancient windows, heating ducts need clever placement on the uneven wide pine floors, and fireplace wood is expensive on this island.There’s a little sag on a house that has been settling for more than 200 years. But can anyone not find the romantic pull of history and the nighttime sense that we are surrounded by past tenants drifting through the rooms with a candle? We won’t find that in a new ranch in a housing development.

We are proud to know that our names will someday be added to the long list of previous caretakers. So many feet have climbed our stairs, puffing a little at the top, perhaps, carrying a baby, or firewood, fresh sheets, or a shaking small dog.


Martha Johnson is an aspiring essayist who keeps her family and friends amused with short glimpses into her life. There is usually a dog involved.

Just Give Me a Wall and a Door, by Sherry Lefevre

Businesses with au currant open-plan offices are now spending thousands to revert to health protecting partitions. Covid-19 has also caused a reassessment of the value of an open plan in domestic architecture, but for different reasons. With everyone at home trying to get some work done, what they need is a good ole house with interior walls and doors. My daughter who is practicing law from her dining room in Washington DC is very grateful that she opted out of a spacious open plan apartment in favor of a small Victorian house. Her husband works from a room on the second floor. It took a pandemic to bring home the wisdom of old houses. Too bad it came too late for house gutters.

My Pine Street house was built in 1819 by a man named Walter Cure who had had four children in the previous seven years. The house’s lack of ornament suggests he was in a hurry to tuck them in. It has a wonderfully ordinary Nantucket floor plan meaning that it’s a square box with a chimney down the center. Even so the box accommodates a living room, dining room, den downstairs, and upstairs three bedrooms. Like most Nantucket houses there is a one story shed of a kitchen in the back and a “wort” on the front side that affords an additional bedroom. It doesn’t really matter that the rooms are small; what matters is that when Josiah, the first born, needed a quick exit from his younger brothers Charles and John, he had plenty of options. He could run into bedrooms and dens and slam any of six doors.

I am sharing my 14 day quarantine in my Nantucket house with a couple who came with me from Philadelphia. We designated ourselves a “safe pod” at the start of Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order. Now we are alternatively working, reading and socializing in rooms that for two hundred years, graciously offered privacy when desired. One can work on the dining room table, another in the den, and another in the living room. When we sit with our books, newspapers or laptops around the kitchen island it means we are inviting interruption and sharing. But when we sit in different rooms, it means that we need to concentrate.

We all hope that normal healthy life will return. But many believe it will be altered by the values realized in the crisis. These values include flexibility in where and when we work and new ways to make contact with others. Even seaside retreats might no longer function primarily as party spaces. In the past months many Nantucket houses have needed to shelter working people who rightly panic at the sight of a vast living room, dining room, kitchen expanse. Might heart goes out to them…sort of.


Sherry Lefevre is a writer based in Philadelphia and Nantucket. She is the author of The Heirloom House: How eBay and I Decorated and Furnished my Nantucket Home.

 

41 Fair Street, by Anne Troutman

The first thing I noticed when I entered this house was the light. It was like a lantern, luminous. Bright sunlight stitched ceiling to wall, doorway to stair, stretched out across the floor, lazed over the lace curtains in the bedrooms upstairs. After over 200 years of habitation by a host of island families –Cartwright, Starbuck, Folger, Chase, Gardner, Perkins, Robinson and a few others–the rooms were a-jumble, as cobbled together with borrowings as a bird’s nest, and there was not a single right angle or plumb line to be found – anywhere. There still isn’t.

Oh, the other thing I noticed?  It was a happy house.

This spring is different from the others. ‘Sheltering at home’ during this long cool season, I find I have the time to catch up with myself; I’m letting go of years of running, doing, planning, moving around.  The slow quiet dream of the island is amplified and I feel time bend and flex with the weather.

This is the first spring I’ve heard that ringing silence throughout the day, undivided by the clatter of trucks, sanders, hammers and leaf blowers; the first spring in awhile I’ve heard so many different birds singing from dawn until the chiming of 8 o’clock church bell when they mysteriously go silent; the first spring I have daily savored the slow swell of buds on the hydrangeas by the front windows, the gradual greening of privet along Tattle Ct, the blossoming, fading and dropping of the maple’s tiny red flowers as the buds start to unfurl. The sycamore, lazier: its branches are tufted with lichen, its conical buds still tightly curled. Yesterday, two eagles circled high over Fair & Tattle, Farmer and Pine, riding a southerly current of air.

I like to imagine Lydia Starbuck waking early one morning in the year 1810. Her two young daughters, Judith and Phoebe, are still asleep upstairs. She’s lighting a fire, putting on the kettle, listening to the wind muscle around the house. Perhaps she looked out this same window at the wood smoke sifting crazily from the neighbor’s chimney; perhaps she too followed the slow progress of sunlight across the pine floors; perhaps she smiled, thinking–this is a happy house.


Artist and writer Anne Troutman lives and works on Nantucket.

A Tree, by Judy Belash

“A Tree”
Judy Belash

It’s an old tree
It’s quite an old tree
It’s a very old tree
It’s ancient

Its roots rule the sidewalks
Its branches bang on the roofs
Its trunk is worthy of Georgia O’Keefe
And its leaves echo Joyce Kilmer

When it was planted there was no thought
As to how long it would last but surely 100 years would go past
And it would continue to grow and to put on a glorious show
In the spring and in the fall

You can love that tree but be wary
Time can make traps for us all
The dislodged bricks like past mistakes
Will show us no mercy as we fall

You could cut it down, dig out the stump
Put a new sapling in its place
Banish the past as over and done
Call it history

I think not, it’s a tree after all


Thanks to Judy Belash for sharing her poem and photos, reproduced here with permission.  Nantucket’s historic trees contribute to the special experience of walking along downtown’s streets. Many of the trees were planted following the Great Fire of 1846, and Nantucket is one of the few places in the  US where elm trees that predate the early twentieth century introduction of Dutch Elm Disease to North America still thrive.

Sheltering in Place in an Old Nantucket House

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 dining room table set for Easter dinner.

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.

Continue reading Sheltering in Place in an Old Nantucket House