Dexioma -Fall 2015

Living “rough” in Sconset.

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

The little village of Siasconset, at the east end of the island, had a modest beginning, as a hamlet of fishing shacks.

The first of these shacks, “Auld Lang Syne,” was thought to have been built in 1675, and more were added in the 18th and early 19th centuries as Sconset grew into a seasonal fishing village and inshore whaling outpost.

The one-room shacks, with cooking done outside, offered a simple life that appealed to the fishermen. But then the women began to visit and, of course, added some sprucing up in the way of “warts” or tiny bedrooms not much bigger than a ship’s cabin. A porch, actually a crude kitchen, came next. Since it was most impractical to bring wood from town, these additions were constructed from a mixture of cast-off materials. Wood from a torn-down boathouse or a storage shed was commonly used. The pump in the town square served the cottages, though they all had cisterns, little slate sinks and hand pumps as well as coal stoves in the kitchen. Some of these little shacks were used as a general store, a post office or a teahouse. Shununga, one of the best-preserved cottages with the original section dating back to 1680, was a tavern and in 1873 it was a post office.

When the town of Nantucket became popular as a summer resort, Sconset was discovered and soon earned a reputation as an arts colony with many actors, artists, writers and musicians coming to stay and perform at the Sconset Casino.

Today the village of Sconset is pretty much the way it was. Each side of the in-town streets is lined with the charming, low, slant-roofed, shingled cottages. The little yards are open to the street and roses grow up and over the rooftops.

Many of the little whale cottages have remained in the same families for generations. They appreciate the quaintness of the place and the isolation from the summer activities in the town of Nantucket. The village is quite self-sustaining with a market, post office, package store, a little café and a take-out restaurant for lunches under a shade tree on the porch – all clustered around the Sconset Rotary. Both the Chanticleer Restaurant with its lovely, low-key garden setting and The Summer House overlooking the beach provide elegant, sophisticated meals for discerning tastes.

But it is the little cottages along Broadway (so named, not for the theater people, but because it was the broadest path leading into town), Centre and Front streets, and the cottages of and around The Summer House, that give this eastern end of the island its overwhelming charm.

One of the earliest cottages, built in 1780 on Broadway, is called Dexioma, which means “Welcome” in Greek. It has been referred to as “the most perfect gem” by Henry Chandlee Forman, an architectural historian and the author of “Early Nantucket and its Whale Houses.”

The south end of the cottage is the oldest section, while a north kitchen was added in the early 19th century. By the late 1840s “warts” were added to both ends and an early boathouse was attached along the Front Street side. From the kitchen window and little back patio enclosure, there is a clear view of the ocean. The two gentlemen who occupy this early whale cottage are no strangers to historic homes, having previously lived in an early home in Bucks County, Pa. Michael May is the executive director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust and Housley Carr is a journalist who specializes in writing about energy. They appreciate that they are becoming part of the history of this historic cottage.

The house tilts so much that being in the bedroom can lead to vertigo, but one has to marvel over the fact that it is still standing, having been built more than 100 years ago, and without the benefit of modern materials and skills. This cottage, like the others in this part of the village, was unplanned and haphazardly built. Nothing seems to be aligned.

Mary Williams, who owns several early cottages in the village, designed and planned the restoration, mostly confined to making the kitchen functional. You cannot tell what is new and what was original as the new parts were made to blend seamlessly with the old.

“The best part of this house is the indoor-outdoor living. The double kitchen doors open onto the back sitting area where tourists and neighbors stop for conversation as they pass by on the shell path that divides the rows of close-knit houses. All summer long roses and clematis grow up trellises, some onto rooftops," Carr said.

“This house is such a wonderful example of architectural preservation and how the houses evolved over time,” May added.

While the cottage was once used only as temporary shelter, with a fireplace for cooking and heating, it seems to be made up of tiny rooms that evolved into multiple uses over time. There is, however, one large bedroom with a fireplace and built-in storage, a small bathroom and another tiny guest room as well as the living room and new kitchen, the largest room in the house. It is so fitting for a preservationist at heart to be living in this house, and adding to its legacy. Here on Nantucket we have an opportunity to preserve history inside our homes as well as on the exteriors. Once we’ve lost evidence of the past it’s gone forever. There’s no recreating what is authentic. ///

Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author on design. Her latest book is “Nantucket Cottages & Gardens,” with photographer Terry Pommett.

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