The former whale oil storehouse and candle factory at 21 Washington Street began as an industrial, utilitarian structure, but the building took on a new life in 1928 when it became the home of the Byron L. Sylvaro American Legion Post #82. Over the past ninety years, it has a central hub in the lives not only of Nantucket veterans, but the wider Nantucket community. Countless dinners, dances, fundraisers, meetings, and performances have been hosted at the building. From its 19th century industrial origins to its current usage as a community space, the building has maintained many historic elements and is a standing reminder of Nantucket’s whaling past. A new preservation restriction placed on the structure with the Nantucket Preservation Trust, now in the final phases of completion, will ensure the historic character of the building is maintained in perpetuity.
The brick warehouse at 21 Washington Street was built in 1837-38 as the William French & Jared Coffin Candle House. The building housed equipment for processing, then storing, whale oil and spermaceti. The building lies just to the east of Commercial Wharf, which would have been bustling with whaleships in the 1830s. Jared Coffin, a 6th-generation descendant of Nantucket proprietor Tristram Coffin, was a wealthy Nantucket businessman who partnered with his son-in-law William French.
The warehouse survived the Great Fire of 1846, but French and Coffin’s partnership disbanded in 1847. French left Nantucket and returned to his home of Providence, Rhode Island, and Coffin relocated to Brighton, Massachusetts. Henry Kelley of New York City purchased the building and land in 1857 but sold it less than a year later to Matthew Crosby. Eventually the warehouse became known as the Charles and Henry Coffin Warehouse, likely in the ten years after the dissolution of French and Coffin’s company and before their sale of the structure. By the turn of the 20th century, Joseph Barney, son of whale oil merchant Nathaniel Barney, owned the property. His heirs sold it in 1916 to Henry and Florence Lang of Montclair, New Jersey.
The Langs, influential Nantucket summer residents, purchased many historic Nantucket buildings in the early 20th century, a period when the decline of the whaling industry was still harshly felt among the island residents. Florence was an artist, and the Langs were patrons the arts on Nantucket and across the country. They purchased old commercial real estate along Washington Street and the wharfs, then turned the dilapidated storehouses and fishing shanties into artists’ studios. Deeply committed to supporting artists, Florence founded the Easy Street Galley in 1924, the first place on island where artists could display and sell their work.
In 1928, the Langs deeded the Charles and Henry Coffin Warehouse to the Bryon L. Sylvaro American Legion Post #82. The post, founded in 1919 and named after a Nantucketer who died in action in France in World War I, has been an organizing force in the lives of Nantucket veterans for over 100 years. Nantucket Preservation Trust is thrilled to join with Post #82 to preserve their historic building. By placing a preservation easement on the property, the Legion will be eligible to receive Community Preservation Commission funding for restoration work. This important landmark will continue to host community meetings, dances, and many other events. Its continued reuse today reminds us not only of Nantucket’s past as an international whaling port, but also Nantucketers’ resilient nature. To learn more about preservation easements, click here.