Preserving History -July 2015
by: Lindsay Pykosz
The Old Jail. The Oldest House. The Old Mill.
The streets of Nantucket are lined with historic homes and buildings, an easy giveaway by the word “old.”
These structures make up the historical integrity of the island, a history shaped by its legacy as the busiest whaling port in the country from roughly 1740-1840. Since that time, the island as a whole has become an historic district, from the cobblestone streets of downtown to the quaint, uneven lanes of Sconset – once known as a summer actors colony and remote fishing outpost on the island’s far east end.
Each building and location is its own landmark, a tangible reminder of Nantucket’s past, and without them, its history would be nothing but a far-distant memory.
Luckily, there are multiple organizations on the island that strive to keep those structures standing and structurally sound, something that often times is threatened by the island’s constant evolution into an upscale summer destination.
One of those organizations is the Nantucket Preservation Trust, a nonprofit with a focus on preserving the island’s historic architecture. Founded in 1997, the trust strives to increase awareness of the history of old buildings.
“I think our mission is educational, and it’s really to become a resource for the community, to show them proper preservation methods and to advocate for historic preservation,” executive director Michael May said. “We have some core programs that we do to engage the public in various ways, from homeowners to visitors. We’ll have things like tours and events where everyone can participate, but we also have programs geared toward the owners of historic properties, such as our historic markers.”
The Preservation Trust focuses on educating the owners of historic homes and community members alike of the value and need for historic preservation. Through various programs, it explores the history and architecture of the island’s buildings both inside and out.
One of those programs is the promotion of preservation easements, where owners of historic properties make a legal agreement with a nonprofit organization to protect the architectural integrity of a building by restricting future use and alterations. The goal of these easements is twofold: it ensures the historical integrity while preserving the building’s place in the community.
“Preservation easements are the best preservation tool possible,” May said. “It provides protection of the exterior and interior of a building in perpetuity, but it’s not for everybody. Somebody who really loves their house and is worried about it and worried about what’s going to happen next is the type of person who will come and put a preservation easement on it.”
The historic evolution of a property can also be chronicled through “House Histories,” tracing a building’s origin from the 18th, 19th or 20th century to the present day. To do so, plot plans, deeds, town records, family papers and more are used or examined.
Owners of historic homes can also complete “A Nantucket House Consultation,” allowing a team of experts to walk through the structure from top to bottom, May said.
“House consultations offer a free walk-through from the attic to the basement with the homeowner and usually an architect and preservation contractor. It’s fun, especially when a house is a little unusual.”
May and his team provide a valuable resource. Each is ready with suggestions about how to, for example, install a new bathroom without ruining the historic integrity of a home, or even replacing a chimney without completely deconstructing it.
From finding the correct composition to mix with old mortar, or choosing the right way to renovate an old room in an historic home, May said the trust will help figure out what materials are best for the project.
When it comes to renovations, May said the team will work together with the homeowner to discuss the best solution to a particular construction scenario.
“We’re there to assist them,” May said. “We’ll walk through a house with them and discuss how they can preserve it. A lot of people don’t realize we have that service. Most people buying a historic house really want to do it correctly. That’s why they’re buying it.”
The general rule for labeling something “historic” when it comes to preservation is that it must be 50 years old or older, but Nantucket is unique because it is a national historic landmark. May said the federal government labeled the island of national importance in terms of preservation, and therefore, everything built prior to 1975 is considered historic.
“They extended the date up to 1975, which was up to (Walter) Beinecke’s major period (of development), and that ties into how he changed the island a little bit,” May added.
Walk along the streets in the center of downtown, and look for rectangular wooden plaques that have the Preservation Trust logo. These house markers are part of another project that recognizes structures that are 50 years old or older and have retained their historic exterior appearance.
In addition to the logo, the marker also displays the original owner, building or historical name of the structure and the date that it was constructed.
The project piggybacks off of one started by the Nantucket Historical Association in the mid-20th century in which metal plaques were used. When that program ended, May said the trust decided to take it over, and there are currently over 200 markers.
“They had stopped that program, so we felt it was important to mark the buildings, but we also wanted to mark them in such a way that provided an educational tool,” May said. “So we decided to not only do the deed research that the NHA did, but also to place on the marker the date and the original owner or one of the owners and sometimes their occupation. We thought that was an important thing to get out there. It’s still fascinating to me.”
Last month, the trust spearheaded the island’s Preservation Month with the goal “to educate, inspire and encourage historic preservation across the island by involving all aspects of our community.”
Typically held in the month of May, the organization moved it to June to reach a broader range of people.
“Preservation is a new discipline,” May said. “It wasn’t really until the late part of the 20th century when we were preserving buildings the right way. Over the years, we’ve learned proper preservation techniques. Anyone who restores a building really goes back to the traditional practices, which is really interesting because they know they’re the best ways.” ///
Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, the island’s newspaper since 1821.