Although the town has many early 18th century structures– the commercial core largely dates to the mid-19th century due to the Great Fire that occurred the night of July 13, 1846. The Fire was started by a defective stovepipe in a hat shop and spread quickly through downtown –fueled by wooden buildings, high winds, and whale oil in the warehouses. The fire destroyed over 250 buildings, but with the help of donations from the mainland, the residents began rebuilding almost immediately. Many new buildings, like those along Main Street, were constructed of brick for fireproof purposes in the then popular Greek Revival style.
Did you know the cobblestones that pave Main Street were installed during the whaling heydays? In 1838 residents finally tired of the impassable conditions of the street and pooled their money for the purchase and laying of Gloucester cobblestones. In the early 20th century the cobblestones were the topic of great debate when cars were introduced to the island with many islanders advocating for paving them over. Residents and visitors quickly realized the value cobblestones added to Nantucket’s historic character and saved them, giving us the Main Street we see today.
Did you know that Nantucket once had its own narrow-gauge railroad? The Nantucket Railroad began in 1881 and operated for thirty-six years. It transported visitors from the steamboat wharf ,through the Creeks and moors to summer resort hotels and cottages at Surfside and ‘Sconset. Unfortunately service was rarely reliable or profitable and storms caused frequent damage along the south shore line. The railroad finally succumbed to the automobile and in 1918 the rails, two cars, and engine No. 2 were sent to France, for use during World War I. Today one of the passenger cars can be seen on Main Street ,now part of the Club Car restaurant.
(Photo courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association)
“Did you know that the roof platforms on a historic Nantucket house, referred to as “widow’s walks “on the mainland are called “roof walks” on island? They were used not only for observation, but to provide easily access to the roof and chimneys in the event of fire. Roofwalks were constructed during the whaling heydays, but by the late 19th century most were in poor condition and often removed. A 1937 survey showed that only about 10% of the roof walks remained. Today roofwalks can be restored if photographic documentation indicates they once existed on your house.
“A View of Siasconset a Fishing Village on Nantucket” by David A. Leonard, 1797. (Photo courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association)
Did You Know…That ’Sconset, first established as a fishing station in the late 1700s, was among the first summer resorts in the nation? Those calling ’Sconset their home away from home included whaling captains and their families, prosperous whaling merchants, and retired mariners, including Benjamin Lawrence, a survivor of the ship Essex. By the end of the 19th century the village was referred to as The Actors Colony due to the large number of Broadway actors and artists who summered there. Today ‘Sconset retains much of its early architecture and still charms islanders and visitors alike.
Experience ‘Sconset architecture at the 2014 August Fête featuring Sunset Heights neighborhood and Underhill Cottages click herefor more information.
Did you know… that the first English settlement on-island occurred west of the present town? Islanders began to move to the easily accessible Great Harbor by the early 1700s to what is known as the Wesco Acre Lots, along Liberty, India, Hussey, and Quince streets. By 1717 the Fish Lots were surveyed—they are along Orange, Fair and Pine streets and included lots for tradesmen and craftsmen who were encouraged to build houses and shops. Both areas contain some of the island’s earliest buildings.
*Discover the kitchens of Wesco Acre Lot houses at the 2014 Summer Kitchen Tour. To learn more and purchase your ticket click here.
Most Nantucket houses originally had wood shingle roofs made of white pine, oak, or cedar. Other natural materials such as slate were found on a handful of public buildings, mansions and commercial buildings in town.
Wood shingle roofs, although historically accurate, went out of fashion because of the concern about fire. Asphalt shingle roofs have been installed on most historic houses over the past 50 years and still meet the local HDC guidelines. However today fire retardant wood shingles are making a comeback and can be found in many recent restoration projects.
“Nantucket’s Historic Landscape”
June 30 and July 4 Segment
Gardens, yards and open space are vital parts of the town and historic districts but most have changed dramatically over the years. The town’s landscape was rather barren until the mid 19th century. There were small dooryard gardens but rear yards held outhouses, carriage houses, sheds, stables and even chicken coops. These spaces were often separated by plank fences to keep animals in and to shield the yards from public view. It was not until the mid to late 19th century that flower gardens and exotic plants came into fashion—first at the homes of the wealthiest islanders and eventually at the quaint summer cottages in Sconset.
Old floors are a feature that everyone loves about an historic house. Care should be taken when refinishing old floors, especially ones that have never been sanded. Hand sanding is the safest method for any softwood floor to retain its hand planed character. A later hardwood floor can usually be mechanically sanded to expose a clean, surface for refinishing– but waxing and buffing may be sufficient to renew its appearance.
Old floors are worth preserving and help make a Nantucket house historic.
“The Typical Nantucket Home”
June 16 and 20 Segment
The most common historic house on island is the 2 1/2 story home with four openings per floor along the building’s front. Known as the typical Nantucket house, these dwellings first appeared about 1760 and became the predominant house on island through the early 1800s. Today more than 175 typical Nantucket houses remain in town–by far the largest number of any house form. Although long associated with Quakers, the house was built by others in coastal southeast New England. It was likely adopted here due to its simple functional form–easily adapted to the town’s lanes and narrow lots.