Preserving Nantucket -June 2011

by: Lindsay Pykosz

The African Meeting House. Greater Light. The Unitarian Meeting House. The Methodist Church. The Oldest House. The Old Gaol (jail).

The Oldest House on Sunset Hill was struck by lightning and badly damaged in the mid 1980s, but careful restoration returned it to service as an important island museum.

The word “old” may be the giveaway, but it is only one adjective that can be used to describe this handful of historic buildings that line the streets of Nantucket.

These landmarks make up the essence of the island’s history, a history forged by its legacy as the world’s leading whaling port from about 1740-1840. Since then, the entire island has become an historic district, from the uneven lanes of Siasconset – once a remote fishing outpost and then a summer actors’ colony – to the cobblestoned streets of downtown, a surviving example of a classic New England seaport.

Without these landmarks – tangible monuments to the island’s past – Nantucket’s history would be nothing but a distant memory, a picture in a book or a story passed down from generation to generation.

That is why preservation organizations on the island strive to keep these structures standing, a goal at times threatened by a desire for change and Nantucket’s evolution into a high-end summer-vacation destination.

It is a task that people like Michael May, executive director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust, and others from groups like the island’s elected Historic District Commission, ReMain Nantucket, the Nantucket Historical Association, Sconset Trust and Preservation Institute: Nantucket keep at the top of their list on a daily basis while encouraging others to do the same.

It is also why these same organizations come together year after year to celebrate preservation month in May, a tradition that has now extended until the end of June.

“Our whole message is really to educate people about historic preservation and encourage and inspire them about the architecture of the island,” May said. “The whole island is an historic landmark, and sometimes I think we forget how important it is to the whole economy for the island – from why people come here to real estate values, historic preservation is key.”

The nonprofit Preservation Trust focuses on educating homeowners of historic houses and community members alike of the value and need for historic preservation. Through various programs, the organization explores the history and architecture of the island’s buildings both inside and out.

“We’re trying to get that message out that you should save historic buildings, including interiors too, and we do that here as well through a lot of different programs, tours and books,” May said.

One of those programs involves the promotion of preservation easements, where owners of historic properties make a legal agreement with a nonprofit organization to protect the architectural integrity of a building – often both inside and out – by restricting future use and alterations. These easements provide an out- come that is twofold, as it ensures the integrity of the building while preserving the structure’s place in the community, May said.

The Preservation Trust will also complete a “House History” on a property that essentially follows the evolution of the structure from its origin in the 18th or 19th century to the present day, complete with illustrations, deeds, plot plans, family papers and town records.

“We feel that houses have so much to tell us and we can learn so much about them,” May said. “Once you know the history of a house, who built it and how it has changed, through that information you can learn a lot more about this house.”

While the Trust makes it easy to learn about the valuable history of these structures and the importance of preserving them, there are a whole series of challenges accompanying them, mostly centering around owners overlooking the importance of preserving the inside of their structure, resulting in the loss of big chunks of Nantucket history.

“The hardest part is that we have this incredible historic resource and there are a lot of people who don’t understand that, so we’re losing a lot of our interior fabric,” May said. “This is all about getting to realize that you can live in an old house, maintain its historic integrity and make changes. And I think that’s what we’re trying to tell people. There’s a way that you can have both.”

May and his team are resources for homeowners to utilize who are full of suggestions for where to install a new bath without compromising the historic integrity of a home, for instance, or how to restore an historic chimney without completely deconstructing it.

“It’s all about trying to have people look at historic buildings slightly differently than a new project,” May said. “With old plaster in a house, old mortar, it’s all about using the right material. We’ll analyze and figure out the correct composition. You need to figure out what materials are the best to restore it.”

Wendy Nicholas, director of the Northeast Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, visited the island for the first time in mid-May to kick off this year’s Preservation Month celebration with a talk at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum, an historic place in and of itself.

Nicholas was introduced to some of the island’s most historic places, like Greater Light, the African Meeting House, and the Maria Mitchell birthplace, and applauded Nantucket for jumping on the preservation train so early back in 1955.

“Nantucket was one of the very first communities in the country to recognize that it had an extraordinary past,” Nicholas said. “It is an extraordinary place and it needs to be protected, and the way to keep a place standing is for it to have a viable active use and adaptive reuse.”

This is true for most of Nantucket’s landmarks, whether they are occupied by homeowners or open their doors to community members and visitors, as each preserved building serves a purpose.

One of the biggest issues that Nicholas said she has been encountering is the replacement of historic buildings with “green” and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. Recycling existing buildings is actually the greenest practice, she said.

“When you think about it, historic and older buildings have always been pretty green in the way they were built,” Nicholas said. “Builders or property owners often worked very carefully to orient buildings for maximum solar and breeze benefits. Eaves, shutters, porches and awnings – many older historic buildings are designed so as to capitalize on passive natural features. The greenest building is one that already exists.”

May said that a little bit of preservation goes a long way, and if everything can’t be maintained, it is better to save some than lose all of a building’s original history.

“Our historic resources are one of the key parts to why people come here, why we’re so successful and why real estate values are so high,” he said. “The hardest part is that we have people who are going through archaeological sites with a bulldozer. They’re not taking their time and losing all of that information. Historic windows can be maintained, you can keep the beauty of old glass, but not everything has to stay exactly the same as it was before.” 

Latest issue...

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