Antiques and a Nod to History Complete an Island Home

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

One of the things about living in an historic house on Nantucket is discovering its individuality and eccentricities. It might be a quirky door, a delightful little alcove or early architectural details.

Located off Main Street in the Old Historic District is a fine example of a perfectly-restored, two-and-a-half story, three-bay house, built in the early 1800s at the height of the whaling industry on Nantucket. It was the third such house the designer/owner has renovated.

The master bedroom is furnished with early American furniture and the soft pink and sage green used throughout the house are found here. Checks, florals and geometric patterns are characteristic of the period of the house.

“We basically restored the house to its original elegance. We remodeled bathrooms, relocated the kitchen and reconfigured the use of the rooms,” she said.

The rooms were tastefully decorated with authentic antiques and furnishings that she researched with extreme care. Recently there has been much debate over the waning interest in antiques by new homeowners here on the island. Many have stopped furnishing with antique furniture or any of the accessories that are typical of handcrafts associated with the island’s past. Lightship baskets, scrimshaw, pond models and whirligigs are replaced with more modern accessories. Local art, however, seems to prevail.

Many island decorators, however, believe when you purchase and modernize an early island home it is important to recognize and respect its historic value by adding an antique piece or a handcrafted accessory to your decor. Some point out that, as one of its owners, you become part of its history.

Aside from being a reminder of the historic lineage of the house, an antique piece in a home filled with modern furniture gives a room character, removing it from a cookie-cutter, purchased look. Since the island has such an interesting and important history, it is a rare opportunity to live in an early home and deserves recognition as such.

In this house, each room exudes the elegance and warmth reminiscent of the era in which it was originally built. When this designer first purchased the house, she filled the rooms with interesting American and English-inspired collections – hooked rugs, alabaster lamps with pierced shades, old hat boxes, teapots lining the fireplace, patchwork quilts and an eclectic mix of artwork on the walls – just as a wealthy sea captain might have done in the 1800s.

This decorator credits the influences of Electra Havemeyer Webb, the socialite whose country house, “The Brick House” in Shelburne, Vt., is now a museum open to the public. Decorated in the early 1900s, it is filled with exquisite examples of authentic American and English antiques.

Another influence was Winterthur, the former Delaware country estate of Henry Francis du Pont, an avid antiques collector and horticulturist. The Winterthur Library was a wealth of resources for furnishing in the spirit of 18th and 19th century European country houses.

As with the interior decorations of these houses, the rules of the American colonial period have dictated the furnishings throughout this Nantucket house, and each appointment of utility or decoration bears the unmistakable stamp of its origin.

The layout and size of the rooms haven’t changed from its original footprint. They are simply reconfigured here and there for more sensible living. There is a spacious front hallway, a living room to the left and a stairway to the right, which was the typical layout of these early houses. The dining room straight ahead is cozy and small by today’s building standards. In the winter a fire is lit in the fireplace making this an intimate room for dinner parties. There’s a new

kitchen that is as efficient as any larger kitchen in a newly-built home, but proportionate to the rest of the rooms.

A family/sitting room at the back of the house also has a fireplace and provides a more relaxed environment than the formal living room. A small, winding back stairway is another typical feature in these old houses where the servants came and went unobtrusively.

Not typical of early homes, the second-floor bedrooms each have their own bathroom and there is a wonderfully-snug guest suite on the third floor. This finished attic space has exposed beams and the walls are covered with a soft butterscotch toile wallpaper pattern. When the sun comes through the windows, the room positively glows. It is the perfect aerie for guests or children and grandchildren to feel as though they are sleeping in a tree house.

It takes an experienced designer with a lot of confidence to combine patterns, colors and textures harmoniously. This house is a good example of this and reflects the opulence and grandeur of the period in which it was built. At the same time it exudes comfort for living in the 21st century. Nothing seems so precious as to be offputting for casual family living.

In the living room, two sofas are covered with blue and white printed fabric, accented with blue striped pillows. The wallpaper is a lovely contrast in a subtle yellow pattern and the floral needlepoint rug and interesting collectibles make this room personal. The variety of color, pattern and texture is an example of how a talented designer is able to combine them harmoniously.

The top half of the walls of the small dining room is covered with a patterned wallpaper, creating an intimate, elegant space. Contrasting striped window treatments soften the windows without blocking out light.

The designer believes that setting a table with fine collectibles, like the round lace placemats under ornate chinaware with pressed glass crystal, bone-handled silverware and lace-edged linen napkins is an extension of the attention to detail this house deserves.

Some decorators, and indeed many homeowners, find the absence of things peaceful. Clearly, this is not the case here. One can imagine sitting down to an intimate dinner party in this room and projecting into the past. The modern world simply does not exist and one can experience the feeling of a gentler time, if only for an evening.

The master bedroom was afforded the same attention as the rest of the house, combining checks, florals and geometric patterns. Nantucket country style often includes patchwork quilts, antique pieces, framed pieces of fabric or old lace, a cross-stitch sampler and a braided rug to reflect the character of the period for a cohesive whole. But make no mistake about it, while the bedroom seems homespun with its soft shades of sage green and pink, attached is an unexpectedly modern marble bathroom.

The extensive research to find the appropriate furnishings contributes to this stylish interior and it is a wonderful example of a responsible renovation of an historic Nantucket home. ///

Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author of design and decorating books. She writes regularly for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and Nantucket Today.