May is Preservation Month

Citizens in Nantucket, MA will join thousands of individuals across the country to celebrate National Preservation Month this May. “Celebrating America’s Treasures” is the theme of the month-long celebration sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation created Preservation Week in 1971 to spotlight grassroots preservation efforts in America, it has grown into an annual celebration observed by small towns and big cities with events ranging from architectural and historic tours and award ceremonies, to fundraising events, educational programs and heritage travel opportunities. Due to its overwhelming popularity, in 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation extended the celebration to the entire month of May and declared it Preservation Month to provide an even longer opportunity to celebrate the diverse and unique heritage of our country’s cities and states and enable more Americans to become involved in the growing preservation movement

Here in Nantucket, Preservation Month 2011 will be celebrated with a variety of events and lectures hosted by several different organizations.  For more details on upcoming Preservation Events, please click here.

NPT Benefit Day

The Nantucket Preservation Trust has been chosen as a beneficiary of Nantucket Bookworks “Love Month.”  Each day in the month of February, Bookworks will donate 10% of their total proceeds to a local non-profit.  Bookworks is an independently owned bookstore that carries a wide variety of books, cards, gifts, toys and children’s items.  This is the perfect time to shop for a Valentine’s gift.

February 9th is NPT’s benefit day – please visit Bookworks on this date and help support two worthy groups, working year round on the island.  10% can make a big difference to a small organization such as ours.  We thank Bookworks for their generosity and thank our supporters for shopping local!

Click here for Bookworks website


Stroll Through Tony Sarg’s Former Home

Image Courtesy of N.H.A.

On Saturday, December 3 from 1- 4 pm, the Nantucket Preservation Trust will open a historic home for tours and host a small holiday boutique for unique gift items.

Located at 3 North Liberty Street, just minutes from the Pacific National Bank on Main Street, this historic home is best known for it’s most famous owner, Tony Sarg. He and his wife, Bertha, acquired the house in 1920, and owned it for twenty-two years. Tony was a well-known illustrator, author, toy-maker, and puppeteer. He designed the first mechanically animated display window for Macy’s Department Store in New York City, and created the first huge hot-air balloons for the store’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The current owners of this home have preserved it’s historic beauty and display many collectors items from Sarg’s prolific career. Trained docents will provide a brochure of the home’s history and point out interesting architectural notes.

This holiday tour is open to the public with a suggested donation of $5. For more information, contact the NPT office at 508 228 1387 or visit the web site at

3 North Liberty Street

Houses On The Move

Heads Up!

Moving houses on Nantucket is a tradition dating back to the early 1700s when buildings in the original Sherburne settlement were moved to new lots laid out near the Great Harbor. Today houses are still moved often to make way for another structure on a lot, to save them from erosion along the shoreline or to provide for new foundations and/or basements. This winter at least four cottages in the heart of ‘Sconset along Shell and Center Streets will be lifted and a circa 1990s secondary cottage moved to a new location closer to Town.

HDC Implements New Review Process

Properties in the Old Historic Districts will be heard in the beginning of each Historic District Commission meeting (Tuesday’s at 5:00 p.m.) starting this month. This is good news for owners of historic properties as well as neighbors and community boards. Residents in the historic core will be able to attend meetings for multiple properties in their neighborhood without having to sit through the entire review meetings.  In the past applications were heard according to the time applications were submitted. So gone are the days when review of projects affecting historic properties in one neighborhood were heard hours apart. We believe this important step will not only encourage residents to attend the meetings, but also help the commissioners focus much of their discussion on the island’s historic buildings.

The History of The Coffin School

The imposing Greek Revival structure on Winter Street known as the Coffin School has played an important educational role in the lives of Nantucketers since its completion in 1854. The school, however, can trace its origins to 1827, when Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin,a veteran of the Royal Navy with ties to Nantucket’s Coffin descendants,provided funds for the establishment of the school. Known as the Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin Lancasterian School, this educational institution was founded by Coffin for the purpose of “promoting decency, good order and morality, and for giving a good English education to youth” who were descendants of the late Tristram Coffin, one of the original proprietors and to whom a great many Nantucketers were related.

The school first opened in a pre-existing building at Fair and Lyons streets with 130 children aged seven to sixteen; girls and boys were taught separately in the Lancasterian style—a discipline where older students served as tutors and monitors and taught the younger classes.

In 1846, the Fair Street School was closed, most likely due to the island’s declining population and economy. At that time, the Coffin School Trustees decided to allow the endowment to grow with the hope of opening a new facility on land they had acquired on Winter Street. By 1852, funds had increased significantly and construction began.

The architect of the present structure is unknown, but early records show that the builders were James Thompson and Edward Easton. In 1854, the brick school opened its doors to the first students, now with an expanded faculty (the Lancasterian method had been abandoned in 1831) and classes that ran six days a week. During its early years, however, the Coffin School struggled to maintain a steady number of scholars, largely due to competition from mandated public schools. An upsurge in enrollment occurred in the 1870s as the island economy improved, which allowed for construction of a rear addition, but in 1898 the school again fell on hard times and was forced to close.

Rebirth came in 1903, when the Coffin School Trustees, working with the public schools, offered ninth- through twelfth-grade students subjects such as woodworking and mechanical drawing for boys and home economics for girls. With the introduction of electricity, evening classes in specialized skills such as basketry and sewing were offered for adults.

In 1918, another addition at the rear of the school was built to serve the home economics courses. By 1941, the school was fully integrated with Nantucket’s public school system and classes continued until 1968. The following year, the school became the site of public kindergarten classes that continued until 1978. Throughout the late twentieth century, the building also served island nonprofits for purposes such as lectures, classes, and musical events.

In 1996, the Coffin School Trustees provided a long-term lease for the building’s interior to the Egan Maritime Institute, providing a home for the new organization. Today, Egan Maritime Institute shares use of the building with Nantucket Community Sailing, and the main hall continues to be used for lectures and concerts by other island groups. The Coffin School Trustees, some of whom are descended from the original trustees, or who went to school at the Coffin School, or who had family members who were teachers at the school, continue to own the Coffin School and continue their work of education – providing grants and scholarships to island youth and island youth-oriented programs.

Written by Jascin Leonardo Finger, a Coffin School Trustee, and curator of the Mitchell House, Archives, and Special Collections at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association.

Liberty Street

Excerpted from Off Centre: The Wesco Acre Lots The Houses and Their Histories
An NPT publication written by Betsy Tyler

Laid out in 1678 as the southern boundary of the Wesco Acre Lots, Liberty Street is older than Main Street, which was created by the Proprietors more than thirty years later but did not become widely used until after Straight Wharf was built. The dwellings on Liberty Street are some of the earliest in town, but among the eighteenthcentury dwellings are a few houses built in the mid-nineteenth century, and even in the 1870s and ’80s, on sites where much older houses once stood.

It was the custom on Nantucket in the seventeenth century, and for most of the eighteenth as well, to build houses facing south for the obvious benefit of light and warmth, making the north sides of the parallel streets in the Wesco Acre Lots the preferable house sites. This is certainly true of Liberty Street, where the houses on the north side are generally older than those on the south, which is broken up by the side streets Walnut and Winter. At Liberty Street’s origin on the north side of the Pacific Bank there is little distance from Main Street, and up to Walnut Street there is but one dwelling squeezed behind the Main Street mansions. As Liberty Street heads directly west, Main Street veers slightly southward, creating more expansive lots for those grand houses and providing room enough for dwellings on the south side of Liberty as well.

An important house no longer standing on the northeast corner of Winter and Liberty Streets was the home of Walter and Elizabeth Folger and their children, one of Nantucket’s most accomplished and interesting families. Walter (1735–1826) married Elizabeth Starbuck (1738–1821) and they had eight talented offspring, among whom were Walter Folger Jr., inventor and state representative; Phebe, a talented artist and poet who also taught both navigation and needlework; Gideon, who was a whale oil merchant; and Rebecca,whose only surviving son, William C. Folger, became a renowned historian and genealogist. The Folger’s eighteenth-century dwelling was replaced by a new house in the 1830s. An eighteenth-century house belonging to Silas Jones Jr. at 20 Liberty was also removed, and a new house built there in 1885. East of Jones’s house was “a small piece of common land next to the claypit.” Henry Barnard Worth, author of Nantucket Lands and Land Owners, confirms that the clay-pit area included Winter Street and land extending about fifty feet west. Perhaps island potters and brickmakers used the clay in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but there is no evidence of it today.

The Nantucket Lean-To House

Most people think that the lean-to house was the earliest house form on island, but it wasn’t. The lean-to house is easy to spot—having a full two-story façade, or front elevation, and a one-story rear elevation connected by a long sloping north roof (called a catslide), and a single massive chimney.

Nantucket’s earliest house styles, known as English or Medieval, often evolved into lean-to houses by the addition of a one-story wing. The leanto, like other early house forms, came to Nantucket from the mainland. The form was so popular that by the first decade of the 1700s most houses on Nantucket were constructed with lean-tos incorporated into the original design.

The addition of a lean-to or the construction of a house with a lean-to incorporated into the original design (known as the integral lean-to house) occurred because it made sense. The lean-to house provided additional rooms on the first floor, including a keeping room (kitchen) that left the hall and parlor available for other uses besides cooking. Like other early houses, lean-tos were built facing south, thereby providing protection or insulation for the main section’s north side. Early builders knew that placing the lean-to’s long sloping roof to the north helped to direct wind up and over the structure. Clay Lancaster in The Architecture of Historic Nantucket notes that of the forty integral lean-to houses extant about twothirds face southward. Some of those not oriented southward were moved from their original sites.

This functional form remained in favor with Nantucketers for many years. The construction of integral lean-to houses continued into the mid-eighteenth century, and it was not until the introduction and acceptance of the typical Nantucket house (see Ramblings, Vol. 4) that the form fell out of fashion. Even so, the lean-to was not abandoned but incorporated into the design of houses including the smaller lean-to (1 ¾ stories high) built from the late eighteenth century and into the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The early integral lean-to houses generally fall into two categories: the three-bay-wide half house and the full house (either three or five bays wide). Both versions employed heavy timber frames. Common interior features included a porch (entry way) with winder staircase and lower closet directly ahead against the massive chimney, exposed corner posts, low ceilings, and summer beams (often with chamfered, or angled, edges); paneled fireplace walls, mirror boards, and plank cradle boards.

Of the two versions, half houses were the more common and were built for possible future expansion. The half house usually had a chimney on the roof ridge at the end nearer the front door. The chimney could be easily added to with the expansion of a shed-roof lean-to addition or a similar sized two-story wing. These lean-to forms appear to be the first house forms on Nantucket that were originally shingled, although it is possible the earliest versions had plank board exteriors, but examples no longer exist. Like their predecessor (the Medieval or English house) lean-to houses often have articulated brick chimneys. The earliest examples had casement windows, but all surviving forms have sash windows. In most instances, windows are asymmetrically placed, and those on the south elevation were usually larger to capture solar heat—often with twelve over-twelve lights while nine-over-nine light windows are found on the upper floor and elsewhere on the building.

Because the lean-to is one of the earliest house forms, identifying them can be difficult since most examples have undergone alterations over the years. These houses were also moved, and their lean-to sections often were raised, making their rear elevations a full two stories high. Hence, many houses with lean-to beginnings hold a wealth of layers ripe for uncovering by the curious owner, architectural preservationist, or traditional building contractor.

Today, the lean-to form can be easily adapted for modern living, and those that retain evidences of their original interior features are treasured and are unfortunately increasingly rare. Fewer than fifty true lean-to houses remain, and many of them have undergone major changes that have destroyed much of their historic integrity.