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Volume 38 Issue 3 • May 8 - 22, 2008
now in our 38th season

Dem Bones:
Saving Nantucket from Itself

by James Everett Grieder

Nantucket is fast-becoming a replica of Nantucket.

Back in my salad days at university, I had a Philosophy 101 teacher who introduced me to the Ship of Theseus paradox proposed by Plutarch, which I reproduce here from its Wikipedia entry:

“ ’The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.’

Plutarch thus questions whether the ship would remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece. As a corollary, one can question what happens if the replaced parts were used to build a second ship.  Which, if either, is the original Ship of Theseus?”

You may be more familiar with the saying about Grandfather's axe: it's had three new heads, and four new handles, but it's still the same old axe. Both examples propose the same question: does an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object?

This question has a direct – and pressing – relevance to Nantucket and its historic homes.

The Historic District Commission (HDC) is empowered by its enabling legislation to “…pass upon the appropriateness of exterior architectural features of buildings and structures hereafter to be erected, reconstructed, altered or restored in the Historic Nantucket District (which encompasses the whole island) wherever such exterior features are subject to view from a beach, public way, public park, public body of water, a street or way….” – and presumably a hot-air balloon, should one be available. Look for that in our budget request for next year.

All well and good – we all understand this.  People want Nantucket to look, well, “Nantuckety.”  The original historic districts created in the 1950s just included the oldest parts of downtown Nantucket and ‘Sconset; in the 1960s and 1970s people began to build houses outside those areas that were, well, hideous, and Nantucket voters decided to replace the original districts with an islands-wide one. It has been called a triumph for historic preservation and has been used as a benchmark for the thousands of historic districts that have since been established around the world. Now it looks like we may be victims of our own success.

Speaking only for myself (that is, not on behalf the Historic District Commission where I am employed), I’m starting to think that expanding the historic district to include the entire town was a mistake, although a well-intentioned one. The problem is that what should have been created was a design review board to address the concerns about houses outside the original districts.  That would have allowed the HDC to address its stated two-fold mission: preserve the look of Old Nantucket and ‘Sconset proper, and to protect old houses.

The board does yeoman’s work, reviewing approximately 2,000 applications per year for everything from changing the color of a new house’s trim in Shimmo to a complete renovation of a 300-year-old saltbox in town. The sheer volume of applications means that sometimes the board misses the larger ramifications of a particular project; when an historic house is going to have dormers popped in, windows replaced and additions added, and the total amount of work (often revised and amended over several months) essentially results in a complete replacement of the building, is it still the House of Theseus?

The house at 105 Main Street is a perfect example of this (it’s on the corner of Gardner Street across from the Civil War monument). The owner, whom I don’t know but I’m sure was well-intentioned, completely gutted the house, put it on a new foundation and removed the original chimney in its entirety.  The house looks nice – but it’s not the same house.  Obviously all houses need repairs eventually: sidewalls are reshingled, as are roofs; sills rot out, and need to be replaced. But in this case there is nothing left: for example, the chimney that you see there now is a plywood box faced with some of the original bricks.

The problem lies in the enabling legislation of the HDC, which limits its jurisdiction to “exterior architectural features”; but as I just noted, most of those features – trim, shingles, roofs – are no more than 30 or 40 years old. Window sashes are often the only original, historic exterior feature of these old houses, which is why the board is such a stickler for their preservation. Last year the HDC Administrator, Mark Voigt, submitted an article for Town Meeting seeking to clarify – but not expand – the regulatory power of the HDC; specifically, whether or not the board had the right to mandate the preservation of the “bones” of a house: the framing, the sheathing and the chimney in particular (the “spine” of the house, as it were).  Somewhere along the way on of the review committees added the word “interior” (which it technically is, I suppose) and people began to rant about how the HDC wanted to control the color of their curtains (as if we cared, or needed the extra paperwork). The article was DOA, and was pulled.

But “dem bones” are really what makes an historic house historic. I personally like old horsehair plaster, floors and walls that aren’t quite plum, and doors where you can see the original toolmarks of the builder from hundreds of years ago, but admittedly that’s not true for everyone.  Modern living sometimes requires a different configuration of the space in a home, which means that the interior is going to be dramatically remodeled; regrettable, but understandable. But when you combine that with the periodic replacement of shingles, trim and the like, there is very little left to preserve.

Why does any of this matter, apart from being important to those with a fetish for old stuff? Two reasons: the first is that preservation is green. The greenest house is the one that is already built — the energy needed to construct it has been converted into “embodied” energy, for which the price has already been paid.  To tear down or gut an old house means more waste in the landfill, more oil use for petroleum-based products like PVC, more fuel use to transport the new product to the island, etc.  In environmental terms, then, when someone guts and renovates an old building, even if done to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, the project is starting with a huge energy deficit.

What’s ironic is that being green isn’t a relatively new idea – not being green is.  The houses with the worst energy efficiency ratings were built between World War II and the end of the Vietnam War; energy was cheap, and we built cheaply.  Prior to that period, however, houses had to be built green (although they didn’t know it) out of sheer necessity.  No central heat or air conditioning meant that careful consideration had to be given to factors we have ignored until quite recently.  They were built to make the utmost use of natural sources of heating, lighting, and ventilation: siting the house to make use of warmer southern elevation, with their long sloping roof to the harsh north wind; a central chimney mass to heat the whole house; dark, muted paint colors to encourage passive heating; operable windows to provide cross-ventilation and light; sidelights by doors and transoms within houses to allow light to penetrate deep into the dark interior.

Environmental reasons aside, there is another, more human reason for preserving old houses: they tell us who we are.  A house is a bit like a book, and each generation that occupies the house is another chapter in the ongoing story.  It would be a boring book indeed that only had a series of identical chapters, but each chapter does build on, and refer to, the one that precedes it, and provides continuity and context for the plot. Similarly, changes to houses shouldn’t obliterate what came before, they should augment it.  Preservation should connect us to our past in a meaningful way, and root us more firmly in the sandy soil of this island that we all hold so dear.

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