Now a Cozy Home for Two
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
Back in the 1890s, the area of the island known as Polpis was dominated by dairy farms. The farmers’ children, ages 6 to 14, attended a one-room schoolhouse, erected in an open field in the area.
Typically, there was one teacher/headmaster who taught all It is a rare privilege to take ownership of a house that is part of the subjects to all the students. The pupils, not more than a dozen or so, couldn’t have imagined that there would some day be a paved road with houses and manicured lawns along the way into town, or that the building in which they learned reading, writing and arithmetic would one day become the nucleus of a stylish country home.
Historical information about the schoolhouse is sketchy, but it is believed that the building was moved at least twice, with no apparent reasons noted. It is also believed that the school operated until the late 1920s or early 1930s and was then abandoned for some time. It became derelict and almost torn down when it was finally purchased and moved to its present location, a bit beyond the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum.
In the 1960s the building was purchased by Dick and Phoebe Swain, who subsequently raised their family there. The Swains did most of the major renovations, turning the schoolhouse into a home. They added a dining room and a master-bedroom wing as well as a carport that was later turned into a garage and then a living room. All of this was done long before Peter and Jeanne Hicks purchased the property in April 2013.
It is a rare privilege to take ownership of a house that is part of Nantucket history, and rarer still to find owners who appreciate such a property and respect its past. Though Nantucket is rooted in history, it is the relationship between the island’s historic past and current influences that characterizes its appealing style.
Peter Hicks came to Nantucket in 1982, right after graduating from the University of Virginia, and prior to going on active duty in the U.S Marine Corps. He fell in love with the island instantly.
“Even though I have lived in a dozen places after leaving here, I always had a special place in my heart for Nantucket,” he said. Peter and Jeanne met while they were both living in Aspen, Colo. While they loved the mountains, they missed being close to their families on the East Coast.
“If we had to leave the mountains, we were determined to live on the water, and you can’t get any more on the water than living on an island,” Peter said.
He and Jeanne first purchased an antique, in-town house and spent a lot of time and effort maintaining its historical integrity. They take the stewardship of a home very seriously.
This may have prepared them for their next project, the Polpis schoolhouse. The fact that this was a historic property in need of much TLC was very appealing to both of them. They were astute enough to recognize its good bones and the potential in its restoration.
Jeanne is a Realtor with Lee Real Estate and comes from a long line of people with good decorating sense. Her mother was an antiques dealer in Locust Valley, N.Y. for nearly 30 years and her brother is an interior decorator in East Hampton, N.Y.
But the Polpis schoolhouse was not love at first sight, Jeanne said. The house wasn’t in great shape. There was a lot of rot and neglect, and they were a bit intimidated by the wildly-overgrown property. Since they had been looking for a long time, however, they were ultimately convinced the house met their criteria: It was the right size, had the historic factor, and they felt they could make it their own.
“We lived in it that first summer and then rented a house in town for nine months while the work was being done,” Jeanne said.
Anyone who has gone through the process of renovating an early building knows it is timeconsuming, challenging and can be expensive.
When the couple purchased the house, every room had been painted a different, rather garish color. To help them create their vision of how the house might best reflect their low-key, elegant but casual lifestyle, one that includes two springer spaniels, Maggie and Quinn, the couple sought the help of island designer Elisa Allen.
“We immediately hit it off with Elisa,” Peter said. “She knew exactly where it was important to spend more (a really nice, soft master-bedroom rug), but also advised us where it wasn’t so important (guest-room rugs). The overall success of the project was knowing the difference. The house is 100 percent us.”
Everything in the house has meaning to them, from the antiques that Jeanne’s mother helped pick out to the pieces they collected in their travels around the world. Peter pointed out his mother’s paintings lining the mantel and others on the wall in the great room.
“There isn’t an ounce of cookie-cutter here,” he said.
Today, the original schoolhouse is a delightful library with new built-in bookcases around the room. The original beams were restored and the brick fireplace that once heated the school, as well as the sign over the hearth (once mounted over the front door to the school), are daily reminders of those long-ago days on Nantucket.
“One of our most favorite things to do is spend a cold, snowy day on the couch with the dogs and a good book. Elisa made a point of getting a couch big enough for all four of us,” Peter said.
They love that there isn’t any wasted space in the house. There’s plenty of room to spread out with a modern kitchen, ample laundry room, breakfast nook, an expansive dining room with fireplace, the great room filled with family treasures and three bedrooms on the second floor. A delightful little gem of a powder room is tucked
into space under the stairway. At the far end of the property is a charming little building that Peter turned into an office. It was once a barn, and when the Swain family lived there, it was the stable for their daughter Debbie’s horse.
For Peter and Jeanne, the location of their property is ideal. They are within walking distance of hiking trails and less than a five-minute walk to boating or the beach. Town in one direction, and Sconset in the other, are just 10 minutes away. The three acres afford them privacy with plenty of room for the dogs to run free. Another plus is access to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Middle Moors and Windswept Cranberry bogs, both literally across the street.
Now that they’ve settled into their home, they enjoy the different rooms as the seasons change. While they are primarily in the schoolhouse or great room in the colder months, they spend most of the summer on the screened-in porch, sun deck or patio. Every bit of the house gets used. ///
Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author of design and decorating books. She writes regularly for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s weekly newspaper, and Nantucket Today.