Nantucket has been home to many novelists, poets, playwrights, and lovers of words over the years. It’s currently the year-round home to (at least) three New York Times bestselling writers, and the summer home of countless others.
This month, we honor Nantucket’s literary history through buildings where great writers found inspiration.
31 Pine Street: Tennessee Williams & Carson McCullers
“It was a crazy but creative summer.” –Tennessee Williams
How did two of the 20th century’s greatest southern writers find themselves 30 miles of the coast of New England?
In June of 1946, Tennessee Williams rented a house on the island for the summer. “I seldom remember addresses, but this was 31 Pine Street in Nantucket, an old gray frame house with a wind-up Victrola and some fabulous old records, like Santiago Waltz and Sousa band numbers,” he said in an interview with Rex Reed.
The Glass Menagerie was on Broadway, but Williams and his partner Pancho Rodriguez were looking to get out of New York. Williams had long admired Carson McCullers—he called her the greatest living writer—and wanted to meet her.
Williams was in poor health when he wrote a characteristically dramatic letter to McCullers, declaring that he had gone to Nantucket to die, and he’d like to meet her before his death. The two had never met before, but McCullers took him up on his offer and arrived on the boat.
“This tall girl came down the gangplank wearing a baseball cap and slacks. She had a radiant, snaggletoothed grin and there was an immediate attachment,” Williams said.
The two writers found inspiration at 31 Pine (ca. 1850). Williams recalled “…The fireplace was always filled with beautiful hydrangeas, and we sat at opposite ends of a long table while I wrote Summer and Smoke and she wrote The Member of a Wedding as a play.”
Williams and McCuller’s time in Nantucket has inspired two contemporary plays, 31 Pine Street and Rancho Pancho.
We’re thrilled to add another house to our 2018 Nantucket Preservation Symposium. The Levi Starbuck house at 14 Orange Street (built 1837) was home to whale oil merchant Levi Starbuck and is an iconic example of a grand Nantucket home. Built by William M. Andrews, 14 Orange Street is one of the earliest examples of Greek Revival architecture on Nantucket.
Andrews was only 26 years old when he completed 14 Orange Street, after completing another house with Greek Revival features at 22 Hussey Street. Andrews may also have built 24 Hussey and 8 Orange Street.
Levi Starbuck purchased the Andrews house in 1838, by which point the 69-year-old was already a successful businessman. He was a member of one of the most prominent whaling and merchant families on the island. He spent the last ten years of his life in the opulent new house on Orange Street.
Over the years, owners of the house have been thoughtful stewards and additions and upgrades have been sensitive, keeping at the forefront the home’s historic interior.
Join us on June 7th for a look at this gorgeous Greek Revival home and step back in time.
Need some inspiration for your Daffodil Festival tailgate picnic next week? You’re in luck! We’ve recently received a collection of vintage recipe cards, books, and clippings from the early 1900s to the mid-1940s.
America’s relationship to food changed drastically during those 40 years. By the end of the 1930s, many homes had replaced ice boxes with modern refrigerators, ushering in a new era of “cooking with cool,” even on the faraway island. Gelatin and mayonnaise factor heavily into these recipes, creating savory or sweet salads for all occasions.
Early refrigerators were smaller than the ones we have in our homes today (8.6 cubic feet of space for food compared to 18 to 26 cubic feet today). The design of refrigerators has changed. Once the centerpiece of the kitchen and a point of pride, today many favor appliances that blend in with their kitchen surroundings. Still, there are those who like the look of the retro “futuristic” appliances that hearken back to a time when refrigeration was a modern marvel.
While you’re planning your ‘Sconset tailgate picnic, take a look at some of our vintage recipe finds.
On Nantucket, we think about transportation more than most. Will the boats run in this wind, or will they be canceled? Will the planes fly in this fog, or will they be grounded? Will I find a parking space downtown? Transportation shapes the places we live, and the types of buildings we construct.
Nantucket banned automobiles on town roads until April of 1918. Within 10 days of the repeal, 24 cars had made their way to Nantucket, and an auto dealership set up shop. The abundance of automobiles that followed allowed people to live further from the town center and the village of ‘Sconset.
“Along with the promise of profits for investors, it was the distance to the south shore and eastern beaches and the cottages of Siasconset that drove the efforts to establish a railroad, even on such a tiny island.”
-Peter Schmid, Historic Nantucket, Summer 2000
Before cars, Nantucket had a railroad that ran from 1881 to 1917. The railroad had a great impact on the way Nantucket was developed by land companies. Perhaps the best illustration of this impact is the story of the Surfside Hotel.
When the railroad tracks first took the train to Surfside. By 1884, the train followed the south shore to ‘Sconset. With it’s ocean breezes, tranquil surroundings, and views that stretched on for miles, Surfside soon became a resort destination. All it needed was a grand hotel. Lysander Flagg, a developer in Riverside, Rhode Island, had such property built in 1871—the Riverside Hotel. By 1882, the Riverside Hotel had been disassembled and transported on a barge to Nantucket. It took 34 carloads to transport the lumber to the hotel’s new site.
From 1882 to 1884, the hotel was reassembled with a name that reflected its new location: The Surfside Hotel. This five-story grand hotel had a piazza and frequent band concerts. During the same time, the Surfside Land Company subdivided most of the area between what is now Surfside Road and the Boulevard. By the end of 1882, 180 individual lots had been sold.
Unfortunately, Surfside really does live up to its name. Winter brought unrelenting storms and pounding surf, contributing to erosion and washouts that eventually forced the railroad company to close the Surfside and south shore section of tract by 1895.
A new overland route to the rose covered cottages was constructed, running from Old South & Fairgrounds Road to Tom Nevers to ‘Sconset. With no automobiles allowed on Nantucket town roads, and no railroad to Surfside, the Surfside Hotel was essentially an island unto itself. In 1895, the back steps of the hotel were 265 feet from the bank. Nantucket’s south shore was losing an estimated 40 feet per year of beach at that time.
The Surfside Land Company sold out the remaining 900 acres of land, at a loss, for $2.80 an acre. The many paper roads in Surfside are the result of the many subdivisions of land by the failed enterprise. In 1896, the hotel sold at auction for $650 to Mrs. Mary McClure of Boston. During much of 1897 and 1898, the hotel was advertised for sale in the Inquirer and Mirror.
Just as the rails could not compete with the receding coastline, the vacant Surfside Hotel was no match for Nantucket’s winter storms. In December of 1899, part of the hotel collapsed in on itself.The abandoned and dilapidated hotel was now seen as a folly at best, a danger at worst.
“The latest evidence of wanton destruction is at Surfside Hotel, which has been entered and the crockery hurled through the sash, gas fixtures broken off, clocks demolished, and other things destroyed in wholesale manner. The isolation of the building, and its easy access has given the evil-doers grand opportunity to operate undetected.”
-Inquirer and Mirrror, Here and There, March 17, 1900.
The property sold in 1901 for $90 at a tax collector’s sale to John H. Bartlett and Wallace Gardner. The Inquirer and Mirror jabbed in August of that year: “The Surfside Hotel is not open—except one end, very much so.”
Believe it or not, Spring is here. Well, at least according to the calendar. There are signs of life all over, and lots of work being done to get ready for the season. (I heard the peepers for the first time last night!) The quiet season is almost over.
In the 1800s, downtown Nantucket would have been anything but quiet, even in winter. The waterfront bustled with whaling and merchant ships, but other parts of town saw different industries, both of which relied on the labor of island women.
10-12 Gay Street: Atlantic Silk Company
Down a narrow side street off Petticoat Row (modern day Centre Street) sat the Atlantic Silk Company. From 1835 to 1844, 10-12 Gay Street produced woven silk products like silk vesting and handkerchiefs. Many women were employed in the production of silks, and the factory held the second power silk loom ever put into operation in the world.
Silk was a deliberate choice, as the material was preferred by Quakers to cotton that was picked and processed by enslaved people. However, the mulberry trees planted to feed the silk worms did not flourish in Nantucket’s wet and cool climate.
After the factory shuttered, the building was converted into a duplex. The 10 Gay Street side has been used as a lodging house and inn since 1870 and is today the Sherburne Inn.
76 Main Street & 17 South Water Street: Nantucket Straw Loan Association
Nantucket women also worked in the production of straw hats and mats from 1854 to 1858. At its height, the plant employed between 200 and 300 Nantucket women. The island’s rapid economic decline at the end of the whaling industry contributed to the shuttering of the factory.
The straw company’s first location was present-day 76 Main Street. The building was originally Hicksite Quaker Meeting House, built in 1829. Hicksite Quakers were the most liberal members of the sect, and by 1840 disbanded as most had become Universalists.
The building was home to a boatbuilder until the straw factory purchased it in 1853. After the straw company moved out, it became a warehouse. It was moved to Brant Point in the early 1880s and became part of The Nantucket Hotel. When the hotel went into decline, the structure was put on a barge and moved across the harbor to what is now 17 South Water Street, where it became a silent movie house.
Today, 17 South Water Street is home to the re-built Dreamland Theatre.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
The residents of 27 York Street have always been ahead of their time.
Seneca Boston, a weaver and formerly enslaved man, 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 surviving 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.
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.
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.
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.
Florence named her house Mizpah, a Hebrew word meaning beacon or watchtower, and lived there until her death in 1972.
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.
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.
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: http://maah.org/nantucket_campus.htm.