Walking on History
by: Brian Bushard
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
It was a sunny Thursday morning when Mary Bergman walked on the uneven sidewalk along upper Main Street toward the Civil War monument. As the surface changed from brick to slate to brick again, she pointed out the problem of accessibility. It’s not about the bricks or stones becoming old or dilapidated, she said. Instead, it’s about degradation caused by years of neglect.
“I think the town needs to think about its priorities,” said Bergman, who became executive director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust earlier this year. “How do you save the things that make the place unique and also make it suitable for the people living here? What’s the point of Nantucket and the beauty of this place if it can’t be shared by everyone?”
There was a time before the slate and brick sidewalks were canted by exposed tree roots, making the simple task of walking a challenge. There was a time when the cobblestones between the Civil War monument and Pacific National Bank formed a flat, even surface, before Main Street became the undulating road it is today.
But this is not the story of ordinary road repair. It’s about the ongoing debate over how to balance accessibility with historic preservation.
The question at the center of the debate is the one Bergman asks. How do you balance improving accessibility on the uneven streets and sidewalks downtown while preserving the historic bricks, slate and cobblestones that make up the very road, which dates back nearly 200 years?
The issue came to a head in 2017, when the Department of Public Works repaired a stretch of sidewalk on Main Street and Straight Wharf between The Pacific Club and the Thomas Macy warehouse. The idea then had been to widen the sidewalk, bring in new bricks and new curbstones to replace the old material, and make it easier for people walking to and from the Hy-Line.
“The flatter surface is easier to traverse, and that benefits a lot of people,” DPW director Rob McNeil said. “It’s not just people in wheelchairs. There are people who are challenged with accessibility issues that have something as simple as recovering from an injury and are using crutches. The easier it is to navigate, the better it is for all of us.”
But to Pacific Club vice president Ginger Andrews, the old sidewalk just outside the building, with its thin, smooth stone curbs and old bricks, was irreplaceable. Looking at the new sidewalk, she sees a history erased. “If you approach it as an historic-preservation project and make things smooth and level, which is completely possible using traditional materials, that’s completely possible. The half-assed compromise approach is the worst of both worlds,” she said.
“If you want to go for the Disneyland approach, you might as well tear it all down and make something fake. The fact we have something from 1772 is something we should be proud of and work to preserve.”
Andrews’ concern now is that the sidewalk-widening project on Straight Wharf will be the model for additional repairs around town.
For others, the issue is what’s beneath the surface.
Two years ago, Hillary Hedges Rayport, a Main Street resident, took up the issue with the DPW. Last year, she was appointed chairwoman of the newly-reformed Nantucket Historical Commission, the town board tasked with reviewing public projects like roadway and sidewalk improvements for historic accuracy and appropriateness.
She argued the sidewalks and streets can all be repaired without replacing the historic materials, using traditional methods. What that means is laying the cobblestones in a layer of sand, as they had been for the past 200 years. There’s no need to replace them or pave beneath the surface, she said.
“This is a national historic landmark and we are stewards of this place for generations,” Rayport said. “This is our responsibility to take care of this place. These artifacts have survived for nearly 200 years. They’re irreplaceable. You can make them look like old curbs, but the stone is gone, the tools you use to make them are gone, the knowhow to lay them or to
cobble a road is practically gone.
“We want the sidewalks fixed. We’re not looking atcrooked sidewalks and saying ‘that’s quaint.’ These sidewalks were flat when they were made. They’re made with high-quality material. We’re saying this material can be put back into flat, passable condition.”
She pointed to one example on the corner of Main and Pine streets. Last year, architectural historian Brian Pfeiffer started a construction project there to re-lay the historic slate sidewalk pieces using traditional techniques. Instead of replacing the stones altogether, the town could consult with a preservationist before it takes on another project, Rayport said.
“There’s always a creative way to solve a problem to meet these different priorities if you understand and value these different priorities,” Rayport said.
“This is a situation where you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. The crosswalks (outside The Pacific Club) were beautiful. They were brick with flagstone, distinct to Nantucket, with old curbs in great condition. And now they’re gone.”
But McNeil said there’s value to a modernized approach when laying a sidewalk, even if the only modern component is hidden under the surface. It could be as simple as laying cobblestones in stone dust instead of sand, he said.
As they are, the cobblestones are not only hard to drive on or walk across, but they do not let water flow down the street, he said. It creates puddles and stormwater backup that could be improved if the street were flatter.
“Are we beholden to some spot in history where we had the use of the materials that were here, or are we using materials that we can import because they perform better?” McNeil said. “In the end, the idea is to continue to have the historic materials be what people see.”
Mickey Rowland, who sits on both the Historical Commission and the town’s Commission on Disabilities, understands the balance between preservation and accessibility. Walking along upper Main Street by the Three Bricks whaling mansions is a game of constantly watching your step. It’s hard enough to walk, he said. It’s almost impossible to use a wheelchair or a walker.
He pointed to the new sidewalks on Straight Wharf and Washington Street. They’re wider and smoother. They’re much easier to walk on, he said. But he also acknowledged the importance of preserving a piece of the island’s history, and not replacing it altogether.
There could be creative or temporary solutions to achieve that balance, Bergman said. Maybe a part of the street could be cordoned off for pedestrians during the summer, she said.
“Is there something we could do downtown on the commercial part of the street where the road could be partially closed?” she asked.
“The priority on Straight Wharf was getting the most people off the boat at one time. That’s the priority there but that’s not the priority on upper Main Street. Are there temporary solutions? Is (Straight Wharf) something that only needs to be widened for 10 weeks out of the year and now it’s wide forever?”
The town is now looking to repair the sidewalk on Easy Street, where the bricks are not as historic as they are along Main Street, India Street, Orange Street or Fair Street.
As for upper Main Street, the goal is for the DPW and the Historical Commission to meet, and discuss what a potential solution could look like. Several Main Street residents have hired preservation specialist Matthew Brodsky, who will look at the street as well.
“The town has spent decades working at identifying the condition of the sidewalks, documenting where they both deviated in condition and deviated from accessibility requirements,” McNeil said. “The focus is on condition.”
Rayport said she is confident McNeil understands the importance of historic preservation in repairing the bricks and cobblestones. She said she was not always able to say that.
“You don’t try to make the new look like the old, so you see how things have evolved,” she said. “That’s what makes this an authentic town. People had problems, had the materials they had at the time, and they did what they could do to solve them. We have an obligation to maintain it.” ///
Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.