Magnolia Avenue: A Window into ’Sconset’s Past

The natural beauty of ’Sconset has long attracted visitors to the far eastern end of Nantucket. Beginning in the late 19th century, builders seeking to capitalize on the village’s charms built rental communities to house growing numbers of summer tourists. The block of houses on the south side of Magnolia Avenue is a well-preserved example of the rental cottage industry building boom.

The Sunset Heights development of the 1870s was first the group of purpose-built rental properties constructed in ’Sconset. In 1873, prolific builder Charles H. Robinson began construction of Sunset Heights on a large parcel of land south of Main Street. Together with his partner Dr. Franklin A. Ellis, Robinson laid out Ocean Avenue and a series of small lanes, most named after trees. The partners constructed a footbridge over the gully to connect their development with the rest of ’Sconset, and the first cottage was completed by the summer. The new neighborhood was anchored by the Ocean View House, a hotel offering both short- and long-term accommodations at affordable rates. Robinson’s idea proved very successful; he continued building cottages in ’Sconset throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and in 1883 added the Ocean View Annex across the street from the original Ocean View House.

Plan of Sunset Heights. Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

Charles Robinson wasn’t the only builder who sought to reap the benefits of ’Sconset’s quaint appeal. In 1879, Edward F. Underhill purchased land to the south of Magnolia Avenue in Sunset Heights and laid out Pochick Avenue. Unlike the larger Victorian style cottages built by Robinson and Ellis, Underhill built cottages that mimicked the old fishing shacks turned residences in the center of ’Sconset. In 1882 he purchased additional land and laid out Lily and Evelyn Streets, along which he also built small, closely grouped cottages. The Underhill cottages along Pochick Avenue later became the center of the Nantucket Actor’s Colony.

Local landowner Isaac Hills also got in on the ’Sconset cottage craze. In 1885, the year after the Nantucket Railroad extended to ’Sconset, he purchased land on the south side of Magnolia Avenue from Robinson, abutting the land of Edward Underhill. The property already contained two houses; three years after purchasing the land Hills contracted with Robinson to build an additional two houses on the block. Hills advertised many rental properties for occupancy in the Inquirer and Mirror throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, and Magnolia Avenue became alternatively known as Hills Street. Hills grouped his rentals together the ’Sconset Cottage Club, with Rudder Grange, on the corner of Ocean Avenue, serving as its headquarters and dining hall.

Magnolia Avenue. Foreground: Genesee Lodge. Background: Casa Fortunata. Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

However, by 1918 Hills had fallen on economic hardships and was cited for failure to pay property taxes. He also failed to pay in 1919, and in December of that year he sold off a parcel of land on Magnolia Avenue, with the cottage called Genesee Lodge, to Levi Starbuck Coffin. Levi Coffin was a well-known ‘Sconset citizen and owner of Bloomingdale Farm, but Coffin was also involved in the tourism industry centered on Sunset Heights, having served as the proprietor of the Ocean View House in the 1880s. Shortly after purchasing Genesee Lodge, Coffin turned a storehouse on the property into what the Inquirer and Mirror described as a “very comfy igloo.”[1] This new cottage, at 6 Magnolia St, was then rented with along with the other Magnolia Avenue properties as “Tis a House.” Evidence shows that the structure was originally constructed by Hills at the rear of the lot, and moved forward and expanded. A small building appears on Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1904 and 1909, with the map of 1923 showing the expanded dwelling closer to Magnolia Avenue.

6 and 8 Magnolia Avenue, January 2020.

Much of the old Sunset Heights is now lost: Ocean View House has been demolished, as have many of Robinson’s original cottages. But the dwellings that composed Isaac Hills’ Cottage Club are still visible along the south side of Magnolia Avenue. Genesee Lodge is now called The Good Tern, Villa Marguerite is now called Tern Too, and Tis a House is now called Rosehip. These cottages, together with Rudder Grange, Casa Fortunata, and Thorny Croft, form a block of intact late-19th and early-20th century buildings that offer a glimpse into Sunset Heights’ development as a resort destination.

[1] “’Sconset Notes,” The Inquirer and Mirror, May 15, 1920, Historic Digital Newspapers Archive – Nantucket Atheneum.