Ramblings

Liberty Street

Excerpted from Off Centre: The Wesco Acre Lots The Houses and Their Histories
An NPT publication written by Betsy Tyler

Laid out in 1678 as the southern boundary of the Wesco Acre Lots, Liberty Street is older than Main Street, which was created by the Proprietors more than thirty years later but did not become widely used until after Straight Wharf was built. The dwellings on Liberty Street are some of the earliest in town, but among the eighteenthcentury dwellings are a few houses built in the mid-nineteenth century, and even in the 1870s and ’80s, on sites where much older houses once stood.

It was the custom on Nantucket in the seventeenth century, and for most of the eighteenth as well, to build houses facing south for the obvious benefit of light and warmth, making the north sides of the parallel streets in the Wesco Acre Lots the preferable house sites. This is certainly true of Liberty Street, where the houses on the north side are generally older than those on the south, which is broken up by the side streets Walnut and Winter. At Liberty Street’s origin on the north side of the Pacific Bank there is little distance from Main Street, and up to Walnut Street there is but one dwelling squeezed behind the Main Street mansions. As Liberty Street heads directly west, Main Street veers slightly southward, creating more expansive lots for those grand houses and providing room enough for dwellings on the south side of Liberty as well.

An important house no longer standing on the northeast corner of Winter and Liberty Streets was the home of Walter and Elizabeth Folger and their children, one of Nantucket’s most accomplished and interesting families. Walter (1735–1826) married Elizabeth Starbuck (1738–1821) and they had eight talented offspring, among whom were Walter Folger Jr., inventor and state representative; Phebe, a talented artist and poet who also taught both navigation and needlework; Gideon, who was a whale oil merchant; and Rebecca,whose only surviving son, William C. Folger, became a renowned historian and genealogist. The Folger’s eighteenth-century dwelling was replaced by a new house in the 1830s. An eighteenth-century house belonging to Silas Jones Jr. at 20 Liberty was also removed, and a new house built there in 1885. East of Jones’s house was “a small piece of common land next to the claypit.” Henry Barnard Worth, author of Nantucket Lands and Land Owners, confirms that the clay-pit area included Winter Street and land extending about fifty feet west. Perhaps island potters and brickmakers used the clay in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but there is no evidence of it today.

The Nantucket Lean-To House

Most people think that the lean-to house was the earliest house form on island, but it wasn’t. The lean-to house is easy to spot—having a full two-story façade, or front elevation, and a one-story rear elevation connected by a long sloping north roof (called a catslide), and a single massive chimney.

Nantucket’s earliest house styles, known as English or Medieval, often evolved into lean-to houses by the addition of a one-story wing. The leanto, like other early house forms, came to Nantucket from the mainland. The form was so popular that by the first decade of the 1700s most houses on Nantucket were constructed with lean-tos incorporated into the original design.

The addition of a lean-to or the construction of a house with a lean-to incorporated into the original design (known as the integral lean-to house) occurred because it made sense. The lean-to house provided additional rooms on the first floor, including a keeping room (kitchen) that left the hall and parlor available for other uses besides cooking. Like other early houses, lean-tos were built facing south, thereby providing protection or insulation for the main section’s north side. Early builders knew that placing the lean-to’s long sloping roof to the north helped to direct wind up and over the structure. Clay Lancaster in The Architecture of Historic Nantucket notes that of the forty integral lean-to houses extant about twothirds face southward. Some of those not oriented southward were moved from their original sites.

This functional form remained in favor with Nantucketers for many years. The construction of integral lean-to houses continued into the mid-eighteenth century, and it was not until the introduction and acceptance of the typical Nantucket house (see Ramblings, Vol. 4) that the form fell out of fashion. Even so, the lean-to was not abandoned but incorporated into the design of houses including the smaller lean-to (1 ¾ stories high) built from the late eighteenth century and into the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The early integral lean-to houses generally fall into two categories: the three-bay-wide half house and the full house (either three or five bays wide). Both versions employed heavy timber frames. Common interior features included a porch (entry way) with winder staircase and lower closet directly ahead against the massive chimney, exposed corner posts, low ceilings, and summer beams (often with chamfered, or angled, edges); paneled fireplace walls, mirror boards, and plank cradle boards.

Of the two versions, half houses were the more common and were built for possible future expansion. The half house usually had a chimney on the roof ridge at the end nearer the front door. The chimney could be easily added to with the expansion of a shed-roof lean-to addition or a similar sized two-story wing. These lean-to forms appear to be the first house forms on Nantucket that were originally shingled, although it is possible the earliest versions had plank board exteriors, but examples no longer exist. Like their predecessor (the Medieval or English house) lean-to houses often have articulated brick chimneys. The earliest examples had casement windows, but all surviving forms have sash windows. In most instances, windows are asymmetrically placed, and those on the south elevation were usually larger to capture solar heat—often with twelve over-twelve lights while nine-over-nine light windows are found on the upper floor and elsewhere on the building.

Because the lean-to is one of the earliest house forms, identifying them can be difficult since most examples have undergone alterations over the years. These houses were also moved, and their lean-to sections often were raised, making their rear elevations a full two stories high. Hence, many houses with lean-to beginnings hold a wealth of layers ripe for uncovering by the curious owner, architectural preservationist, or traditional building contractor.

Today, the lean-to form can be easily adapted for modern living, and those that retain evidences of their original interior features are treasured and are unfortunately increasingly rare. Fewer than fifty true lean-to houses remain, and many of them have undergone major changes that have destroyed much of their historic integrity.

Interiors Matter

The historic significance of a building does not stop at the exterior. The interior matters, too. The plan of a house, its features and materials, all reflect its history and evolution and contribute to its historic character. On Nantucket, where only the exterior is regulated, what’s inside is frequently overlooked.

An important part of the NPT mission is to demonstrate what is possible. Properly preserved and maintained interiors not only have historic significance, they are valuable as real estate assets. Preserving interior features of a historic house makes sense financially and is essential for the edification of future generations.

Floor Plans

The original floor plan is essential to defining historic character. Parlors, hallways, and staircases all contribute to the character of the building and should be retained in a preservation project.

In some cases, changes in floor plans are necessary. The appropriateness of interior changes can be analyzed by using a hierarchical approach that “ranks” the significance of spaces in a building. In residential buildings, there are usually “private” and “public” spaces, reflecting the need for formal functional areas and private individual living spaces. For example, stair halls and parlors are often on the main floor, while bedrooms, closets, and service areas are on upper floors or in rear areas.

If changes are desired, character-defining “public” areas should be retained; and the proposed use, program, and plan should not alter those primary historic spaces. Features and materials such as woodwork, doors, and mantels should be treated carefully even in the areas of secondary significance. New baths, closets, and kitchens, for example, might appropriately be placed in ells that have been added to the historic structure or in a new wing.

Design Features, Materials, and Finishes

Floor plans are only part of the historic interior’s character. Wall, ceiling, and floor treatments; doors and door and window trim; fireplaces and their mantels; and other finishes are all important features. Interiors often exhibit a mix of historic styles that reflect changes in use and taste. An early twentieth-century interior that has been placed in a nineteenth-century building, for example, is part of the building’s history and might be worthy of preservation.

All sound interior features should be retained and repaired. If damaged or deteriorated beyond repair, they should be replaced in-kind. Ceiling height, another important interior feature, helps convey historic character because it defines spatial volume, proportion, and light.

New Interior Construction and Related Demolition

Historic building rehabilitation often requires new construction and limited amounts of demolition. This work should take place at secondary or nonsignificant spaces to minimize impacts to the historic resource.

New interior work should be compatible with the existing historic character. Exact duplication of historic materials and elements is discouraged to avoid confusion between historic and new. For example, where new walls or other partitions are planned, an appropriate approach is to use new trim matching
the historic in scale, material, and general profile, rather than replicating historic woodwork. Demolition should always be kept to a minimum, and limited to secondary spaces or areas of extreme deterioration. Because demolition can involve the removal of historic material, it should be planned to have the least possible impact on the historic building.

Routine maintenance is a key to preserving interior historic materials; it prevents small problems from becoming large ones. Keeping up with maintenance will preserve your house for many years to come.