Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
History &
Volume 41 Issue 2 • May 12-25, 2011
now in our 41th season
In This Issue

Yesterday’s Architecture

by Sarah Teach

As you walk around Nantucket, every building seems covered in an ethereal veil of mystery. You bump your way over the cobblestones, and you feel that you have just entered another realm. You may even wonder, “Am I still in the 21st century, or have I landed in a bygone era?” Winding through the narrow streets lined with cedar-shingled houses, the beauty and grace of Nantucket’s architecture is stunning, and you know there must be secrets hidden within this island of yesterday. After all, why do the buildings on Nantucket look the way they do?

Between sneezes from dust layered on long-shelved books, I’ve drawn research from the most reliable sources available. In order to ensure accuracy, I consulted with local architectural historian Michael May, who is nothing short of an encyclopedia of Nantucket knowledge. May puts his expertise to great use as executive director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust (NPT), which has existed since 1997 to preserve our island’s architectural heritage. Whether you own a Nantucket home or you just make Nantucket your home for a week, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the unique building style here. Though the streets are narrow, Nantucket is not traditional New England. Though many of our buildings are antiquated, our town isn’t quite reminiscent of old England, either. Nantucket began as a seaport, and that is still evident in its architectural style.

The sturdy dignity that defines Nantucket homes was established centuries ago, when the very first settlers were abiding by the “form follows function” philosophy, long before the architect who coined that phrase was even born.; But of course, early islanders didn’t think of it in those terms; they were just trying to survive as best they could. May discusses several factors that determined Nantucket’s early architecture styles, including a few that remain pertinent. First, the island’s weather bears great significance. Without natural protection from harsh ocean winds, Nantucket homes must be tightly sealed. So next time you’re out and about, note the corner boards and trim on older island buildings. These may look purely ornamental, but they were originally established to keep our predecessors warm when winter winds whirled!

A second determining factor in foundational Nantucket architecture is the remote island setting, which has never allowed for easy acquisition of building materials. Still today, our indigenous resources are finite and insufficient for home building. "Everything - or just about everything - is transported from the mainland," states May. Material transportation costs significantly increase the price of building a home on Nantucket, so islanders have been forced to practice creative recycling since the 17th century! In fact, even in our modern day, seeing a house being moved down the street is not uncommon.

Thirdly, Quakers were once the majority population on Nantucket, and their influence impacted everything from religion to architecture. These unadorned folk grew to hold a great deal of political clout—thus, the town’s building laws favored the simplest styles. In fact, the driving force behind the establishment of wooden shingles as the siding of Nantucket buildings was Quaker culture. Simpler and cheaper than other siding styles of the era, wooden shingles were a common material for exteriors. Everyone who has ever experienced Nantucket knows that the shingles are still ubiquitous. “They’re used mostly for historical and aesthetic purposes,” May says, adding "But it’s a practicality issue too. They’re not only attractive; they’re actually very sturdy"

In addition, Nantucket was not always the hotspot it is today. During early settlements, you couldn’t simply flip open your Nantucket black book and pinpoint a professional homebuilder. Back then, if someone built homes, he or she also built ships. Thus, the maritime ideals of balance, tightness, and compactness carried over to homes. They were basic, not fancy, and no bigger than necessary. This is why you see old downtown homes that appear small from outside but really open up once you are inside. Glass was very expensive and difficult to acquire here; that’s why windows in historic homes are so tiny! This building style was the prevailing one until the whaling industry started to make ship owners, investors, and captains wealthy. In the early 1800s, larger and more elaborate houses began popping up. As more and more money began pouring into the pockets of Nantucketers, the island bid adieu to its heavy Quaker influence.

The last determinant we discuss is obsolete today: restricted finances. "The funny thing," says May as he leans forward, "Is that poverty actually saved Nantucket."  After the once-lucrative whaling industry died, people no longer had enough money to build brand new dream homes.  So they used and reused materials, and, for the most part, remained in houses that already existed.  These resourceful maneuvers were what unintentionally preserved the old Nantucket architecture that we study today.

Nantucketers didn't jump into the preservationist pool until the late 19th century.  Both feet finally dipped in during a 1955 Town Meeting when islanders decided to form one of the nation’s first local historic districts on Nantucket.  By 1971, the entire island itself had become a national historic landmark.  Building laws were expanded to protect structures more than 50 years old, and there was a newfound respect for Nantucket’s historical value.

Nantucket homeowners are in an important position: they are steward sof our island's history.  Ensuring the preservation of Nantucket’s architectural history is a matter of informed, wise decision-making by islanders.  Fortunately, the NPT makes that easier through several programs.  You have probably seen “markers” bearing names and dates attached to old Nantucket buildings.  The half-circle shaped Historic House Markers recognize structures aged over 50 years that have retained their historic character or have been appropriately restored.  In addition to the marker program, the NPT’s Preservation Easement program protects the architectural integrity of a property by restricting future alterations and uses.  It involves a legal agreement between a historic property owner and a qualified easement holding organization, and it may be considered a tax-deductible charitable contribution up to the federal level.  The first step to involvement in either of these programs is to contact the NPT by calling 508-228-1387 or emailing

As Nantucketers, we must also be concerned with our impact upon our island home.  According to the NPT, the greenest house is the house that is already built.  Even if you’ve only spent a few days on Nantucket, you’ve probably noticed bumper stickers proclaiming, "GUT FISH, NOT HOUSES."  These refer to the "gut rehab" that involves scraping the insides out of historical houses in order to modernize the interiors.  Not only does this practice erase precious history, it requires that loads of imported lumber and toxic chemicals be released upon our soil.  The NPT is very much an advocate of restoration rather than new building, and their website includes a list of fabulous tips for restoring your historic home the green way.  Even in 2011, it is actually cheaper to invest in restoration than to tear down and rebuild.  So you'll not only save the historical value of your home, but your bank balance as well!

Above all, May stresses that preservation is about education. "The truth is that anyone can become a preservationist!" he says with the excitement of a true lover of the island.  The thread that weaves through every preservationist—young or old, rich or poor—is a love of community.  So go ahead; begin your own journey of preserving our beautiful island home.  Take advantage of the walking tours offered by NPT.  Whether you choose to embark upon a group walk or you opt for a self-guided tour, you’ll be surprised and delighted to be privy to many of Nantucket’s historical secrets.  This is yesterday's island; take the chance to enjoy yesterday’s architecture.


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