Many thanks to Nantucket Preservation Trust board member Michelle Elzay for sharing this special guest blog post.
It has been a month of dinner parties. Set at a long wood table beside a fire that is always hard to start but has a glowing coal bed by the end of the night. The first night we had roast chicken and toasted our friend’s birthday. We had planned a weeklong spring break visit to Nantucket with another couple. But as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, it became clear that we should remain on the island. A week has spread to four, with no set date to leave. Houseguests have become roommates.
I am staying in a house that a partner and I restored five years ago. This house, on Union Street, was built in 1834 by prolific island builder John B. Nicholson. Before our preservation, the house had not been lived in since World War II. Though in need of extensive repair, the interior of the house stood intact as it was built almost two centuries ago. It struck me, after a few days of “shelter in place,” that the rhythm of how I was spending my time in this house might not be unlike those of the people who occupied it at the time of its construction.
The square block bounded by Union Street, Orange Street, Maiden Lane (now York Street), and Dover Street was developed in the 1830s largely by John Nicholson. Before that, four small homes had stood on the block. By 1836 Nicholson had added at least eight homes, two since removed, turning what was a more rural and African American part of Nantucket “Newtown” into a dense nineteenth-century urban environment.
Every year, Nantucket Preservation Trust’s Sense of Place Exhibition and Auction offers bidders the chance to win unique, hand created items from dozens of Nantucket makers and artisans. Among these special auction items this year will be the Nantucket Dream Dollhouse. Volunteers led by Gussie Beaugrand, Beth Davies, Barbara Halsted, and Michael Sweeney have been spending countless hours creating a representation of a Nantucket house that models modern living in a historic home. The completed dollhouse will have three bedrooms and sleep nine, with custom hand-dyed gray shingles; hand painted walls, clapboards, and trim; tiny curtains; and custom furniture. Thank you to the volunteers who made this unique project possible!
Last week, Nantucket Preservation Trust put out a call asking Nantucketers, or anyone who loves Nantucket, to send us artistic representations about what they love most about their Nantucket home, or any building on Nantucket. So far, we have received dozens of fantastic pieces. To submit your own, please email an image with a brief caption to email@example.com.
Continue reading below to see more photos, paintings, and drawings.
Adjusting to life during the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19 means that Nantucket residents will be spending more time in their homes for the foreseeable future. For Nantucket Preservation Trust, celebrating Nantucket’s unique architectural heritage also means celebrating the interior spaces where we will be keeping a safe social distance for the time being.
In an effort to forge connections during a time of isolation, at NPT, we’re asking all of our Nantucket community—whether you are physically on the island, or just dreaming of the time when you will be—to show us what you like most about your home, or any building here on Nantucket. Is it the way the light comes through a certain window in the morning? A corner with your favorite comfy chair? Some lovely architectural detail? Send us a drawing, a photo, or any other artistic representation about what you like most about a house, or any building on the island that you love, along with a brief caption, and we’ll share what we receive in a web gallery.
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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
 “’Sconset Notes,” The Inquirer and Mirror, May 15, 1920, Historic Digital Newspapers Archive – Nantucket Atheneum.
Originally published in the 2019 issue of Ramblings magazine.
If you have been to the Nantucket Preservation Awards ceremony in recent years, you might have already met Colin Evans. In just six years on Nantucket, Colin has already made a name for himself as a craftsman with a solid grounding in historic preservation. He’s worked on numerous award-winning projects alongside master craftsman like Pen Austin and Michael Gault, and recently established his own business—Colin Evans Preservation and Restoration. With a hand in everything from timber frame repair to masonry and lime plaster work, Colin approaches a project with a whole-house understanding.
Originally from New Hampshire, Colin arrived on the island late one summer. With a background in mechanics, he secured work at the docks. But when the rest of the summer crowds left, Colin stayed and began working with Pen Austin. “In my life before,” Colin says, “everything I knew was modern, but I took a liking to traditional materials.” Colin stresses the importance of the on-the-job training he received while apprenticing with Pen. There are some lessons you just won’t learn in any classroom.
It wasn’t long before Colin saw that the island’s historic structures were threatened. “Even in those first few years, I saw building material get lost and destroyed on Nantucket,” he says. Recalling the demolition of 27 Easy Street, he says, “I saw a perfectly fine structure that was destroyed.”
In speaking with Colin, it is clear he has a real reverence for the past and for the work of those who came before him. He wonders what his historic counterparts might have thought when they encountered a new hand tool—objects that seem old fashioned to us today were at one time technological innovations. How long did it take for new technologies to reach the faraway island?
While Colin can’t talk directly to the people who originally constructed or even repaired the properties he works on, they’ve left clues to be decipher. “You can see the repairs, their thought process,” he says, recalling a recent project on Fair Street. And despite the centuries that span between Colin and the work of the original craftsman, he considers the rhythms of island life that link them. He knows what it is like to work in terrible weather, to wait for the boats to start running again, and to dig out from a sudden April snow squall.
It should come as no surprise that someone as curious as Colin makes for a great instructor. Colin has led traditional building demonstrations for North Bennet Street School students, and those just entering the field often seek Colin out to learn more. Educating the homeowner about the importance of historic building materials, their history and their care, is an important part of preservation and one Colin enjoys
With projects from Main Street in town to Broadway in ’Sconset, you may have already admired Colin Evans’ work.
Contact Colin Evans Preservation and Restoration, LLC by visiting www.ceprllc.com.
At just about 6.5 miles long, Milestone Road connects Nantucket’s two historic cores: the bustling harbor front of downtown and the quiet village of ’Sconset. Yet Milestone Road is not simply a way from here to there, but an important historic corridor with unparalleled views of Nantucket’s rural landscape, critical to the island’s status as a National Historic Landmark.
The NHL entry illuminates further: “Land conservation efforts have preserved more than 40% of the island as open land, large portions of which are managed as cranberry bogs and open land subject to annual controlled burns; this conservation land preserves the windswept maritime setting that has characterized all periods of Nantucket’s historic past.”
By the late 1600s, Nantucketers started establishing cart paths to Siasconset. The paths were free flowing and often diverted obstacles such as ruts, but generally followed the now established road. Early 19th century deeds provide evidence that the road was well established just west of the village from Cain’s Hill (public golf course) east to Sconset.
In 1824, the milestone markers were placed to time horse races from and to ‘Sconset and town. On June 1, 1833 The Inquirer & Mirror reported that many hundreds of cart loads of clay have been intermixed with the sand and the “prospect is very favorable that an excellent road will be established from town out to the first milestone marker.”
In 1855, Nantucketers wanted a clearly designated road to the east end of the island. A road was surveyed and improved. In 1856, Mr. Joseph Vincent planted a row of pine seed on each side of the ’Sconset road, “from the corner just below the Asylum to Philip’s Run.”
By the 1880s, the road to ’Sconset was commonly referred to as the Milestone Road. Throughout the 1880s the road required repairs as the ruts became quite deep. Schemes for an electric railway along the Milestone Road were proposed in the late 1880s.
By 1893 the condition of the road was so poor that the town petitioned for Milestone Road to become a state road. The road was again surveyed. Over the course of several years in the late 1890s the Milestone Road was paved with crushed stones. The State Road to ’Sconset was completed in 1910.
By 1896, a bike path had been constructed from town to ’Sconset and was repaired in 1900 after heavy use. It was paved in 1958.
According to Dr. Frances Karttunen, in “A History of Roads and Ways in Nantucket County,” around 1900, a handful of motor vehicles were brought to Nantucket by summer residents. Nantucket voters successfully requested a special act of the Massachusetts legislature to make it illegal to operate an automobile on the island. This ban passed in 1908 and was held until the spring of 1918. Within ten days of the repeal, there were 24 cars and a car dealership on island.
In 1977, Milestone Road was beautified by the planting of 21,000 daffodil bulbs alongside the road by the Nantucket Garden Club. More than forty years later, the daffodils still delight each spring.
Milestone Road has long captivated those journeying to ’Sconset, as this 1896 poem A Picture by Anna C. Starbuck printed in The Inquirer & Mirror details:
Starbuck Cottage, 19 Main Street ’Sconset, the latest to succumb to the gut rehab virus, passed from history earlier this week at the age of (at least) 163.
First built sometime in the 1850s by Thomas A. Gardner, 19 Main Street was sold to Matthew Starbuck in 1856 for $1,600—a high price for the time. The son of Joseph Starbuck, Matthew Starbuck’s year-round residence was the Middle Brick on Main Street in Nantucket Town. Fishermen’s cottages in the village of ’Sconset sold for less than one thousand dollars at the time, and sometimes for as little as three or four hundred dollars. Already Main Street ’Sconset was becoming a desirable location for a summer cottage for residents of Nantucket Town.
Later in the 19th century, Matthew’s wife, Catherine Wyer Starbuck is said, according to family history, to have planted the first tree in ’Sconset at the site. Despite assertations from friends that the soil was too sandy to sustain life, Catherine planted the tree and it grew. Sadly, this tree was also a casualty of the new construction taking place at 19 Main Street.
Many members of the extended Starbuck Family spent time in the cottage, and it eventually descended to Matthew’s granddaughter, Florence. A landscape architect, Florence married Frederick P. Hill, an architect of many ’Sconset homes. Florence is perhaps best known as the proliferator of the rosa American Pillar, the beloved bright pink climbing rose that adorns many of ’Sconset’s cottages.
In 1909, Florence bought 1,500 roses for 22 cents each and sold them to her neighbors in ’Sconset at cost. Over the next few years she repeated this feat. The iconic rose-covered cottages exist today because of Florence Hill, and the yard at Starbuck Cottage. It is hard to imagine one house that was more important to the landscape architectural heritage of ’Sconset.
Starbuck Cottage now joins the ranks of other Nantucket houses that have been stripped of their historic fabric and integrity. It will continue to live on in the memories of those who loved this house.
The end of summer events means it’s time for us to get back to our research work in earnest. I am always researching here at the NPT but fall and winter allow for more time to dedicate to research projects than the busy summer does. I enjoy finding the answer to a question buried somewhere within the registry of deeds or the archives of our local newspaper.
History and historic preservation go hand in hand. After all, the history of a house helps us understand exactly what it is worthy of preservation and protection. Architectural styles can be easy to spot from the street, but the stories of the people who lived in these important houses are sometimes hidden. Delving deep into the registry of deeds can help bring these stories to light.
You can start your search online at the assessor’s database. On Nantucket, our assessor records are all digitized and easily searchable. I’ve found that most towns in Massachusetts have easily accessible accessor records, either in an online database or online list. Assessor records will give you the location of the last few recorded deeds. Once you have a book and page number, you’re off to the races!
You can make your way backwards through the registry of deeds by following the trail of book and page numbers. Most deeds reference the deed of the previous owner, and back and back until you can find the original deed. Sometimes, property was transferred through wills and you won’t find reference to a book and page number. Instead, you’ll have to go to Nantucket’s probate court on the second floor of the Town & County building at 16 Broad Street.
Most of Nantucket’s deeds from the 20th century are digitized and easily searched online at Mass Land Records. Anything later than (and including) Book 107 is online. Everything earlier, you’ll have to head down to the registry of deeds at the Nantucket Town & County building.
Working in the registry of deeds sounds like it is stuffy and tedious—but I think of it as an adventure. You are a detective, searching through the decades, deciphering faded handwriting and ancient terms. Okay, maybe the terms aren’t all that ancient, and the handwriting is usually quite good (better than mine) but it makes me feel like a sleuth all the same.
The deeds reveal much more than who owned what property. Deeds tell of friends so close they purchased neighboring houses, with easements to allow for passage between kitchen doors. They tell of women whose husbands died at sea, but who secured life rights to their house so they would always have a place to live. Information in the deeds reflects the changing real estate market—the boom during the golden age of whaling, the crash after whaling ended, the birth of the tourism industry and the second home market. There’s a certain magic in following a thread throughout history and ending up at an answer: who built this house, and when?
From there, there are all sorts of sources that can help you determine more information about the people who built or lived in the house. The Nantucket Historical Association’s Barney Genealogical Record can help you learn more about the name you read in the deeds. It is helpful to understand family relationships, and narrow down windows of time to help you search.
The Nantucket Atheneum’s digital newspaper archive has digitized copies of The Inquirer & Mirror and other island newspapers from 1816 to just a few years ago. It is truly a remarkable database and a fantastic resource for the island community, or anyone interested in Nantucket history. You may find real estate transactions in the paper, ads for houses for sale, as well as notices that refer to the construction of the house you’re researching.
Lastly, if doing your own deed research sounds like too much work, Nantucket Preservation Trust can help. We offer a variety of house histories and house marker programs and can do the work for you!