Smith’s Point: Nantucket’s Far West End

Smith’s Point, the far western end of Madaket over Millie’s Bridge across Hither Creek, feels like a remnant of a former Nantucket. Although it is unclear how the Point got its name, the Wampanoag called this area Nopque, meaning landing place. In A Natural History of Nantucket, Peter Brace describes Smith’s Point “all outwash sand deposits held in place by American beach grass and some snow fencing,” and his part of the island is particularly shaped by eroding waves and winds. Historic maps show the Point used to extend all the way to Tuckernuck, and until 1869 Nantucketers could drive cattle and other livestock across Smith’s Point to Tuckernuck at low tide. In 1961, Hurricane Esther opened up a break in the point, and the resulting Esther Island remained severed from the rest of Nantucket until accreting sand re-connected it in 1986. More recently, in 2016, a winter storm took much of the beach away and turned Maine Avenue into a dead-end street.

Map of Nantucket including Tuckernuck, detail. 1838. Curtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

The Point has long been known for its excellent fishing, but few dwellings were constructed here, outside of a handful of fishing shacks and modest homes along Hither Creek. In the 1910s, Otis Emerson Dunham, owner of several hundred acres in Madaket, contracted with the Massachusetts Coastal Company to develop a subdivision he called “Maddequet Terrace,” including much of Smith’s Point. Though there was an early frenzy of buying, little development followed, and by 1920, many of the parcels were forfeited to the Town of Nantucket for delinquent tax benefits. For others, however, the ease of travel brought on by the introduction of the automobile to Nantucket inspired the building of simple cottages near the beaches of Smith’s Point.

One of the oldest buildings on Smith’s Point is the Eel Skin Inn at 9 Maine Avenue. It was originally constructed next to the Hither Creek Boat Yard circa 1910. It served as a shack for eel fisherman and others to skin their catch after a day’s fishing. It was also, apocryphally, a rumrunner’s shack during Prohibition. It was moved to its present site on Maine Ave in 1975 by Tom Lazor, also known as Colonel Bat Guano. A small addition was put on following the Inn’s move across Hither Creek, but the structure’s historic character is defined by its low roof profile and varied fenestration.

The Crooked House, c. 1950. Curtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

Another one of Smith’s Point’s oldest homes is the iconic Crooked House, noted in Building with Nantucket in Mind as “a delightful example of additive massing.” It was built along Massachusetts Avenue before 1938. It was owned by Henry Coffin, who together with his wife Anna owned many parcels in Smith’s Point. It’s most notable summer resident, however, was Fred Rogers. After first renting the cottage in the summer of 1960, he and his wife Joanne received the house as a Christmas present from his parents, James and Nancy Rogers, and spent decades visiting each summer.

Just up the street from Crooked House is 23 Massachusetts Ave, a quintessential Madaket fishing cottage. The property was also once owned by Henry and Anna Coffin, who sold it to Mary B. Gardner in 1935. The cottage was built shortly thereafter and still retains its simplicity and charm.

Houses at the end of Massachusetts Avenue, 2020.

The eclectic mix of early fishing shacks, cottages and ranch-style houses built between the 1910s and 1940s, and more angular, mid-century homes on Smith’s Point are unified by their integration into the landscape, materials, and generally unpretentious scale and massing. As development pressures increase, care must be taken to ensure the Point retains its unique character.

North Liberty Street’s Threatened Streetscape

Friday, January 8 at 10 AM the Historic District Commission will hold a special meeting to hear a proposal to renovate and relocate on its lot  the home at 27 North Liberty Street.  Click here to view the proposed plans and other supporting documentation. View the meeting agenda here.


Threatened: North Liberty Streetscape

In 2014, the North Liberty streetscape near the Lily Pond was threatened by a controversial application to move a barn off the property at 29 North Liberty Street. The proposal was denied by the Historic District Commission (HDC) but overturned by the Select Board on an appeal. Later, the HDC reversed their own decision and approved the move. An appeal in Nantucket Superior Court resulted in the upholding of the HDC’s original denial. A later appeal in State appeals court also upheld the HDC’s initial denial.

The same developer now desires to move a cottage at 27 North Liberty Street. The home, built in 1798, was originally the Seth Ray cooper’s shop. This time, the requested move is not off the lot, but rather six feet to the southeast on the current lot, with plans to relocate the barn on the property next door. What may seem to some as slight alterations are concerning to preservationists as moving historic structures should only be done as a last resort to demolition.

It is true that Nantucket has a long tradition of house moving to ensure a structure is not abandoned or demolished, but instead reused in a thoughtful way. It is unsettling when this practice is repurposed in an attempt to justify moving a structure on the same lot.

The proposed moving of structures on North Liberty Street threatens the historic fabric of the buildings, and the streetscape itself.


This article originally appeared in the 2020 edition of Ramblings.