Finding the Soul of a Historic House

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Chris Tan

You had to look at the house at 55 Union St. with the right eyes to see the value of restoring it. Trees were growing through the floorboards. Its history sat inside like a threadbare ghost. It was facing a demolition by neglect order from the town.

It was built at the height of whaling, by a man named John Nicholson, and owned by a whaling captain named Charles Andrews. The timbers for the frame were once part of a house that was built before this nation even declared its independence from

England – a house owned by Essex Boston, the uncle of Absalom Boston, a Black whaling captain with an all-Black crew.

There was a lot of what was once called greasy luck soaked into the very timbers of this house. But you had to have the right eyes to see it. Pen Austin, who bought the house with a business partner in 2014, has the right eyes.

“Homes like this are irreplaceable. You don’t get that quality of building anymore. Old-growth lumber went into the frame of this house, 18to 20-inch wide white pine. It’s hand-carved, hand-worked. I absolutely love the aesthetic,” Austin, one of the island’s first preservation artisans and a specialist in traditional lime-related plaster work and chimney repair, said.

Historic homes have souls that echo through their post-and beam-timbers, fit together without nails, the hand-tooled moldings and goat-hair plaster on the walls. Once they’re gone – the rooms gutted, windows ripped out, new floors and ceilings installed with modern tools and materials – the soul is, too.

Pen Austin and Evans in a playful moment, at the house on 55 Union Street.

“If these homes are lost, we lose our identity. We lose our history,” said Austin, a native of Great Britain who holds a degree in architectural conservation.

“The modern aesthetic is massive, open, everything in one space, a cavernous interior. I don’t think that scale is very human,” she said. “I like the scale of these older spaces. They are too good to waste.”

Mary Bergman is the executive director of Nantucket Preservation Trust. She likes to see historic houses through the metaphor of a book.

“If you’re reading a story with some of the pages ripped out, you might be able to get the gist, but you’re not getting the whole story,” she said.

“On Nantucket, every time a house is destroyed, or renovated without any thought to the materials inside – the things that made it special – more and more pages fall away, and it’s harder to understand the story.”

The Trust’s primary mission is to advocate for historic preservation. It helps homeowners be better stewards of their properties, and make informed decisions about what is important to them, and the choices and tradeoffs involved in renovating an historic home. It holds more than 20 preservation easements restricting future alterations and uses of historic buildings.

“Architecture is one of our most direct links to the past. You can go to a museum and see artifacts behind glass. But when you are in an historic structure, it’s a visceral thing to be able to see a window someone has made by hand, that has stood up to harsh winter storms and seen long summer days,” Bergman said.

The entire island of Nantucket is a National Historic Landmark. There are more than 800 pre-Civil War houses here. Very few have any semblance of their historic interiors remaining, Austin said.

“Too many interiors are being lost. Often times you’re just walking past a shell,” she said. “If you think you’re walking past an historic house, you’re not.”

Marrying past and present

Preserving an historic home – and its soul – does not preclude 21st century living. Modern kitchens and bathrooms, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems and brighter color palettes can coexist with the original elements of an historic house.

“Nantucket is not and should not be preserved in amber. There should be some of those, but there is always going to be a balance between modernity and the past,” Bergman said.

It comes down to how the work is accomplished. Usually it involves performing that work from the outside or underneath, rather than ripping up floorboards and tearing down walls to run new ductwork, plumbing or wiring.

The house at 6 Gull Island Lane is receiving that treatment. Built around 1800, it was up on jacks and wooden cribbing in late February awaiting a new foundation, its shingles stripped away and floorboards removed.

“It’s all totally doable. A wall might need to get bumped out a couple feet to get more kitchen space, but as far as invasiveness, there’s no reason to gut to the studs to run ductwork. You can do it from the outside. Nine out of 10 times a house is going to get re-shingled. You can bring it up to code, insulate, and still be mindful of the frame itself,” said Colin Evans, who’s overseeing the project.

Austin’s work on the house at 55 Union Street did exactly that. She retained the oversized windows, the wide whitepine floorboards, the balance and symmetry of the floorplan that allows cross-ventilation to cool the house in summer and closing doors to retain heat in winter.

A small, eight-foot addition that did not alter the original construction allowed for modern bathrooms. The kitchen at the back of the house has an oversized granite island, a porcelain farmhouse sink and appliances concealed within wood-paneled cabinets. It blends seamlessly into the remainder of the house.

“You can marry the two. An old house doesn’t have to look like your grandma’s house. It can have lighter floors, lighter paint work. You can fill it with eclectic furniture, modern appliances, light fixtures. It doesn’t have to feel fuddy-duddy,” Austin said.

“It can be very contemporary, yet the essence and the soul is still there. We didn’t sacrifice the flow of the rooms. We kept it all, yet updated it for 21st century expectations. By doing it from the outside and underneath, we didn’t have to destroy any of the original fabric.”

Traditional methods and materials have also proven to withstand the test of time.

“The National Building Council says a house built today should last 50 years. That’s nuts,” Austin said.

Evans agreed.

“There’s something to be said about the quality of materials that have been used. These buildings kind of show that. With proper care, they can last centuries and centuries.

Nothing’s a forever fix. But as long as you take care of it, it will last a long time.”

There’s another benefit.

“Get this, it’s actually cheaper,” Austin said. “We didn’t have to buy a ton of new materials. We repaired what was there.”

To the extreme

Sarah McLane, who bought the Gull Island Lane property two years ago, has taken her efforts to the extreme. When finished, the house will have all the amenities of modern living: six bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms, a new HVAC system and wiring.

But the work is being done from the exterior. All the interior plaster, moldings, wall panels and trim will remain in place once they’ve been restored. All the original windows – nearly 50 – have been saved. The original wavy glass will be reinstalled once the sashes are stripped, repaired and repainted.

“I find historic structures and the craftsmanship involved in them almost 200 years ago absolutely beautiful,” McLane said. “I hate to see that lost to today’s ideals of everything straight and perfect and kind of the same color, obliterating that history.

“You can never replicate the proportions and the materials of something that’s 250 years old, unless you literally take down a building and put it back up. But you can’t even do it then, because the age and patina are gone.”

The six fireplaces will be restored to working order with salvaged brick from the property, including the original cooking hearth and beehive oven.

Evans and Nathaniel Allen are doing the bulk of the work on the house.

They’ve taken up all the original floorboards, mapped and numbered them so they can be re-laid in their original locations once the new foundation is completed.

The work is worth it, said McLane, a retired investment banker who has been restoring historic properties for more than two decades.

“If I’m not going to do it, who’s going to? If we all say someone else can do it, it will never get done,” she said.

“It’s not going to be a museum, but a living piece of history for another 200 years, because someone took the time to bring it back to what it could have been if someone had only cared for it.

“We’re stewards. I’m only here for a short period of time. I want this house to be around far longer than I am. I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy it. That’s not going to happen unless we take the time now.”

Keeping the tradition alive

Nantucket is fortunate to have a growing number of younger tradespeople who have followed in Austin’s footsteps, Bergman said. Skilled craftsmen like Evans, who recently worked at Mount Vernon. Or Allen, Hollis Webb and Chris O’Reilly, who attended Boston’s North Bennet Street School, one of the country’s premier preservation carpentry and traditional craftsmanship schools. Rick and Valerie Norton are among the older guard, completing 12 home restorations since 1993.

“It’s an art. To be able to learn those skills and pass them on is something Nantucket should be proud of. There are people here keeping these houses in great shape, and those traditions alive. We’re not a museum. Houses adapt, and need people to work on them,” Bergman said.

Evans apprenticed under Austin, and quickly developed an admiration for traditional building and repair methods. He’s currently working with her on a project on West Chester Street.

“I believe using these methods and materials is the right approach. It’s proven over time,” he said. “When it comes down to it, timber frame, lath and plaster, traditional masonry, they’ve worked together so well for so long. Why not use them?”

Where to begin

There is no set template for preserving an historic home, but Bergman has some suggestions for where to start.

“Windows are an important thing to retain. Fireplaces, the placement of a staircase, the central floor plan. As houses became more ornate through the years, we began to see more special architectural features,” she said.

“Materials used 200 years ago like lime plaster, they have survived and endured. We encourage people to really maintain and preserve the character-defining features: the timber frame, the moldings, the original windows, the handcarved cornices. All the elements add up. When you walk into a home on Nantucket, you feel like you are in a home on Nantucket, not just anyplace.”

In the end, historic preservation is about balance. About sense of place. About slowing down and considering the work done by those who came before us. It’s one of Nantucket’s defining characteristics.

“Preservation is about people more than anything else. The people who built the homes, who lived in the homes, who are now the stewards of the homes,” Bergman said.

“A lot of other communities have beaches. There are not a lot of other places in the country that have a collection of more than 800 pre-Civil War homes. What happens if that’s no longer part of our appeal?” ///

Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.