Every old home has its own personal history

Clara Urbahn’s artist’s retreat

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

Many early houses throughout the historic district of Nantucket were moved from other locations on the island to their present in-town sites. The history of these houses is always fascinating, many remaining in one family for several generations, others having been used as businesses as well as residences.

One such dwelling, the Thaddeus Hussey House, built in 1735, is one of the oldest houses on Union Street. While we know it was once located elsewhere on the island, there is no record of where it was first built.

Clara Urbahn with her fanciful creatures, Stella and Homer, which will be part of an exhibit next year at Robert Foster Fine Art on India Street.

The “lean-to” was a modest style, predominant among early dwellings on Nantucket. Most characteristic is a large central chimney and a sloping roof over a shed-like extension at the rear of the house. Also referred to as a “saltbox,” this style can be found throughout New England. At some point, as ownership changed, the roof was lifted and the house was transformed into one with two stories. This alteration may have occurred when the house was moved from its original location sometime between 1796 and 1809.

From a candlemaker’s house to restaurant to artist’s retreat

At that time, candlemaker Thaddeus Hussey and his family owned the house, where he also ran his business. After the Hussey family, there were several interim owners until the house was sold at public auction in 1909 for $875. At this point the property included a large homestead and garden.

A prominent New York City architect fell in love with and purchased the old house in 1921 and turned the dilapidated property into The Chopping Bowl, one of the first summer restaurants on Nantucket. Meals were often served outside in the gardens. A large hall was added to the northeast corner of the house to create space for art exhibits and dancing. At the time Nantucket was gaining recognition as an art colony.

The next owner used the house as a real-estate office while he lived next door. In 1961, Clark Clifford, who became U.S. secretary of defense, bought the house that his family would own for the next 37 years. The dwelling went through several incarnations before the Bradley family bought it in 1998. The owners did extensive restoration with the aid of architect Lyman Perry and builder Twig Perkins. David Troast designed the landscaping and today the gardens are as magnificent as they were years ago when people dined at The Chopping Bowl.

Many owners of Nantucket’s earliest homes feel they are privileged to be a part of its ongoing history. As such, Ms. Bradley always felt she was a steward of this home and was honored to protect a piece of Nantucket’s history.

Two years ago the house once again changed hands, this time to island artist Clara Urbahn. She set about updating the house for comfortable, stylish living in the 21st century, accentuating and preserving its inherent good bones and adding her own innate sense of style.

Mark and Holly Barber and their two sons, Nate and Beau, did all the work together, along with Ken Wagner.

“It’s like walking into a heartbeat,” Urbahn said about her finished home.

Urbahn is an internationally recognized artist in many media. But here on Nantucket she’s best known for her remarkable, Disneyesque “Critters,” each one infused by the artist with visible personality traits.

You or your children may have snuggled into the lap of one of her chair creations in the children’s wing of the Atheneum library, or into the arms of the whimsical Newfoundland dog chair at the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, or in Dr. Tim Lepore’s waiting room.

Maybe you own one of her paintings, exhibited at Robert Foster Fine Art on India Street. Or perhaps you’ve read one of the nine books she’s illustrated, among them “Lulu Turns 4,” “Good Bad Wolf ” and “Emily’s Tale.”

“I’m often frustrated with the illustrations because I see the characters as three-dimensional and I want to take them off the page and bring them to life,” Urbahn said.

Ultimately, she made them constructive, turning them into chairs so people can interact with them.

Blindness a blessing in disguise

What is remarkable is that this prolific artist, who not only creates in all different media, is al-

most completely blind, and sees only with the edges of her eyes. As an artist, Urbahn has an innate feeling for good design in all aspects of her life. When you walk into her house it’s as if she has imagined each room as a theatrical set design, using natural materials and handmade creations from all over the world to make each as comfortable, both visually and physically, as possible.

“I feel like I’m living in a painting,” she said.

Urbahn grew up in Guatemala, where her father was in the agricultural business of raising cardamom spices.

“We moved to the States when I was 10 years old,” Urbahn said. “My progressive blindness comes from a disease known as Stargardt’s.”

It is an inherited juvenile macular degeneration that progressively affects vision over time, a condition without a cure.

“I’ve learned to hear with my soul,” Urbahn said about the effect it has had on her life.

“I truly feel it’s a blessing in disguise. When I first learned about the impending blindness, and that I wouldn’t be able to see faces, it became the blessing.”

Urbahn wants to encourage others with any kind of disability to know they can learn to make friends with it, embrace it and “go to the moon with it.”

“I feel what people are saying and seeing, and their presence allows me to hear more acutely without being distracted by their looks, or clothing, or mannerisms. It’s an invisible present,” Urbahn said.

“When nature takes something away, it has to be replaced.”

Urbahn lived in Philadelphia before coming to Nantucket in 1971 with her first husband and 10month-old son, Jason Briggs. Following a divorce, she moved to the Quaker Pence Schoolhouse on Quince Street. When she remarried, Clara moved to Sconset where she loved the peace and quiet and raised 20 chickens in the back of the property.

Souvenirs from the Voyage of the Finback

“We had a rooster to wake us up and fresh eggs every day,” she said.

During that time, Urbahn and her husband Eric spent three years sailing around the world on the Finback, where she brought back treasures including the painted tapa, bark from trees, found in the Pacific, to make the draperies that now hang in the living room of her current home.

“They were used to divide rooms in the huts in Tonga,” she said.

Now, once again living in town, she loves walking everywhere with her dog Pippy at her side. Pippy is a rescue from the Nantucket Island Safe Harbor for Animals shelter.

“Whenever I sell my art,” she said, “I give the money to them. They’re a wonderful organization that finds good homes for rescued dogs and cats and they’re a saving grace to the animals.”

Urbahn is a self-taught artist who was influenced by her surroundings in Guatemala.

“It was like living in a painting come to life,” she said. “We went to school in huts and every time it rained we were sent home because the roof would leak. As a child I was always drawing what I saw.”

One such vision was two huge oxen pulling an old rickety wagon with big wooden wheels full of wood.

As we sat in her studio, in oversized “critter” chairs, surrounded by works in progress, she introduced two of her latest creations, Stella and Homer, and said, “Wouldn’t you want to have friends like them? They wear size 16 shoes.”

An adjoining bathroom holds myriad bejeweled costumes hanging from the showercurtain rod. The room looks like backstage at a Broadway theater in miniature.

Next year Urbahn will have a show at Robert Foster Fine Art with a herd of the “Critters.” But while the studio is designated for imagination and fanciful creativity, the rest of the house exudes a whole different vibe.

The approach is by way of a long driveway where the house sits sideways on the property. When you arrive you’re not quite sure which door to enter. But Urbahn quickly lets you know that everyone comes in the side door

leading into a cozy den-like room with a fireplace, big worn, tobacco-colored leather chairs and sofa, squishy pillows covered in carpetbag fabric of spice-inspired colors, and a wood-burning fireplace.

A breakfast bar separates this room from the newly-designed kitchen with a decidedly European feel. Worn leather bar stools invite casual interaction with guests while preparing a meal.

Fine craftsmanship is seen in the original details beautifully preserved throughout this house. Wide pine floorboards worn and gently polished to a fine sheen, original nails, plaster walls, oversized fireplaces, molding, irregular simple wood doors with glass transoms above, narrow passageways and a winding, wellworn back stairway typical of early homes contribute to the character of the house.

These original characteristics are enhanced by the deliberate and careful attention to the interior design and contribute to the earthy, warm, nest-like feeling of the rooms. This house is definitely not stuck in the past, as there is a liveliness to the rooms that comes from the ongoing creative energy produced by its owner, whether interacting with friends, working in her studio or just sitting in the living room with Pippy when she needs to be “extra quiet.”

A long hallway leads to the dining and living rooms in the front of the house. Dozens of framed photographs of family and friends, casually arranged, cover one wall, creating a joyful room rather than a formal passageway. It is a style found throughout the house.

“I like earthy, cozy rooms with a homey feeling. I create little nests. Rooms should be a bit messy, lived in,” Urbahn said of the interior design.

With her lack of clear vision, “sharp edges become fuzzy, less rigid,” she added, and this contributes to the inviting personality of each room.

For example, the dining room has a large fireplace and is sparely decorated, allowing all the early details of the house to be appreciated. A built-in corner cupboard and quirky doorways traditionally found in homes of the period are enhanced by the soft, gray-green color of the walls to enliven and make the room stylish yet understatedly current.

The living room, with 12-over-12 windows and a bay window, provides views of the mature trees and gardens lining the property, wrapping it in privacy. A winding back stairway leads to the second floor where there are three bedrooms and bathrooms and a delightful deck off the master bedroom. Urbahn often has her morning coffee here, where it feels like being in a treehouse.

Indeed, this is a house that suits its owner’s lifestyle well, always evolving, always being reinvented, truly lived in and appreciated, where art and design are accessible rather than precious. ///

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.