Victorian Gem -Spring 2017

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

Victorian style appealed to the romantic idea that homes, as well as clothing (think hoop skirts and yards of fabric), should be beautiful rather than practical.
When George Korn and his late partner, artist Richard Kemble, bought the Victorian house at 14 Pleasant St., it was in good condition. As avid cooks, the only major renovation project they deemed important was updating the kitchen to suit their needs and add a bathroom on the first floor.

Today the kitchen functions well with a small sitting area at one end with a farmhouse table and painted chairs for casual dining.

There was no bathroom on the first floor so they created a small one between the kitchen and a downstairs bedroom that was turned into a combination library and sitting room. They also designed a wall-to-wall built-in bookcase to house their vast collection of art books.

Today the kitchen functions well and the house is filled with early American folk art and paintings, amassed over a lifetime, perfectly suited to the house and a Nantucket style of honoring outstanding craftsmanship.

For many years, Korn and Kemble owned Forager House Collections, an early American folk art and maritime antique shop on Centre Street. Now the business is strictly done online.

“We owned a house overlooking the ocean at Maddequecham Valley, and we loved going out there at the end of the day, away from the bustle of town. But it was difficult going back and forth, especially at night on that rugged road. So we sold the house and bought this one in town. It proved to be a good decision,” Korn said.

Most Victorian-style houses were built between 1837 and 1910. There are very few on Nantucket due in part to two events that changed the island forever. By the 1830s Nantucket was a prosperous little community due to the whaling industry. But in 1846, a major fire, thereafter known as The Great Fire of 1846, destroyed a third of the town. About a decade later, the discovery of petroleum put an end to the need for whale oil. Many young people were forced to leave the island in order to make a living and real-estate values plummeted. Nantucket became like a ghost town and would not make a comeback for almost a hundred years, this time in the form of a summertime resort.

Combine the sorry shape of the island’s economy after the fire with the drop in population and what you have is a town frozen in time for almost 50 years, untouched by the effects of the Industrial Revolution. As a result, Victorian architecture, so rampant on the mainland, generally bypassed Nantucket. Even this house, built on Pleasant Street in 1895, isn’t a true Victorian as it has many features borrowed from the Federal and farmhouse styles more prevalent on the island at the time.

Victorian houses are often more decorative, sometimes referred to as “painted ladies,” and include gingerbread trim. Some say they look like dollhouses, but Victorian architecture actually refers to styles that emerged in the period between 1830-1910 during the reign of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.

Victorian style appealed to the romantic idea that homes, as well as clothing (think hoop skirts and yards of fabric), should be beautiful rather than practical. Architects often borrowed details from the French, Italian, Tudor and even Egyptian cultures to create different Victorian homes. For this reason, few Victorian houses look alike. Even without the fire and drop in population, Victorian style probably would not have been overly embraced on an island so influenced by the Quaker population. Their credo was simplicity in all manner of speaking, and they would have frowned on the idea of excess in all ways of living.

True Victorian homes had a ground floor with a three-sided bay front window, which are projecting windows with their own roof, as seen on this Pleasant Street house. Partly because of the Gothic revival, stained glass was another popular feature. This house has a lovely stained-glass window at the top of the stairway that lets light filter into an otherwise dark area. As for the interiors, most Victorian homes were crammed with as many pieces of furniture, fabric and accessories as possible.

In this regard, Korn and his current partner Thomas Livingston have followed in the tradition, furnishing their home with a decidedly personal approach to Nantucket style. The house is tastefully decorated with whirligigs, old toys, weathervanes, posters and memorabilia by Tony Sarg, a famous island illustrator of whimsy and creator of marionettes. Early Nantucket artists’ works fill the walls in all the rooms. Piero Fenci pottery from Reggie Levine’s former Main Street Gallery, a carved wooden whale by Donn Russell and watercolors by the Beers are in good company with more illustrious artists renowned throughout the world. Nakashima chairs surround a painted folk-art table in the dining room, lightship baskets by Nantucket craftsman Paul Willer are part of the owners’ unique collection of handcrafts, family heirlooms and furniture that makes up their eclectic style and adds to the character of the house.

Their approach, as was typical of the era in which the house was built, is an attempt to both showcase cultural interests as well as the fashionable belief that bareness in a room was a sure sign of poor taste. Another aspect of Victorian interior design was the use of colors that were warm and subdued with gray or creamy backgrounds, deep, rich walnut and mahogany with aubergine, wine, musty yellow, burgundy and dusty hues.

Typically, Victorian homes displayed busy patterned wallpaper and fabrics. A modern approach is used here with ivory-colored fabric on upholstered furniture acquired through an island estate sale, and white walls. Original floorboards are intact and in perfect condition. Area Persian rugs lend a richness of texture and color in the rooms and hallways.

“The interesting thing about the floors is the pattern. Wide pine floorboards were used in the center of the dining room, where typically a carpet would have been placed,” Korn said.

In this house even the original nails contribute to its character and testify to the incredibly beautiful craftsmanship used in its construction. Fir boards were laid in a pattern around the perimeter of the room, much like the border of a quilt, with mitered corners.

“This section was made from better and harder wood as it was the only exposed area of the floor and received much wear and tear,” said Korn, who was quick to point out their beautifully-worn patina.

These preserved floorboards are also found in the exposed areas of the living room. There is evidence of the Federal style in the molding and corner “bullets” around the doorways and openings between the rooms.

“All these details are just as they were when the house was built, except for new coats of paint,” Korn said.

Victorian staircases start with an elaborate newel, often made of oak, and are highly detailed. In simpler houses, the newel could be the most elaborate piece of woodwork in the house. Handrails are also more elaborate with decorative beads and coves along the sides.

Another approach to decorating a Victorian house might be a modern, more streamlined look, which could be just as interesting. Contemporary art on the walls and island handcrafts would not only work well, but would emphasize the architectural details, size and layout of the rooms.

When you start with a home that fits into the history of the island, it becomes that much more valuable as time goes by and more early houses are being destroyed. Living in a home built during a specific period in the history of the island puts each successive owner in a lineage of ownership of that particular house. A newly-built house can’t possibly offer the same value. ///

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.

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