Taking Pride in Nantucket Architecture

For Pride month, NPT Executive Director Mary Bergman explores two homes on Nantucket associated with pioneering members of the LGTBQ community.

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.

While their time in Nantucket was marked with unrequited love, whiskey, and endless days at the beach, 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  by Derek Bothelo and Rancho Pancho by Gregg Barrios.

 

 5 New Street, Siasconset: Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford

5 New Street, Siasconset, childhood home of 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 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 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 its 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.

Her marriage to homeopathic physician Joseph A. Hanford would eventually take her 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.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, 1860s. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, 1860s. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.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.

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.