Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 39 Issue 13 • July 30-Aug 5, 2009
now in our 39th season

Preserving Maria Mitchell

by Zoë Kirsch

The Historic Mitchell House, Library Building of Archives and Special Collections, Natural Science Museum and Shop, and Vestal Street Observatory receive plenty of visitors eager to see relics, read documents, peer at a creepy-crawlies, and gaze at constellations.  This summer, the Maria Mitchell Association’s (MMA) Vestal Street buildings are under closer scrutiny than usual.  Through July 31, the grounds play host to sixteen students and their professors, all of whom take special interest in the field of historic preservation. 

The scholars and specialists are on island through Preservation Institute: Nantucket (P:IN), a joint effort by the University of Florida School of Architecture and the Nantucket Community.  Established in 1972 as the innovation of Walter Beinecke and Blair Reeves, architectural professor at the University of Florida, P:IN strives to “provide students a unique educational experience in a broad spectrum of preservation issues while helping to research and document the historic environment of the island.”  Since its founding, more than 500 students from more than 100 local and international academic institutions have participated.  The program is affiliated with the Center for World Heritage Research and Stewardship and the University of Florida Preservation Programs.  It is funded by student tuition and small endowments. 

Nantucket has copious historic pickings.  Why is PI:N focusing attention on Vestal Street starting this summer?  Jascin Finger, Curator of the Mitchell House, answers, “The MMA compound is unique as some of these buildings are quite untouched.  Mitchell House, for instance, is in its original 19th century condition with original historic paint, no electricity, and no plumbing.  The buildings are clustered together; they’re easier to study, and it’s easier to see the evolution of the campus over the course of the 20th century.”  Adds Marty Hylton, PI:N Director, “These six buildings are a microcosm of the issues we face when preserving Nantucket’s remarkable collection of historic resources.  They represent the significant periods of architectural history on the island.”

Vestal Street’s architectural saga began in 1820, when the Science Library was built as a schoolhouse.  At the time, William Mitchell, Maria’s father, taught there.  The structure was moved to Vestal Street in the 1830s after William stopped teaching.  Following Maria Mitchell’s death in 1889, the MMA was founded, comprised of the pioneer’s family members, friends, and former students.  A year later, the Association purchased the Mitchell House.  They ran MMA operations from the House, taking it upon themselves to preserve Maria’s birthplace, celebrate her legacy, and promote her passions, particularly in the areas of astronomy, the natural sciences, hands-on learning, and equal education.

In 1908, the Maria Mitchell Observatory was built.  It was supplemented in 1922 with an Astronomy Library – now the Astronomer’s Office.  In the 1920s the MMA acquired William Mitchell’s former schoolhouse, opening it as the Library.  Ten years later, the stucco fireproof wing was added to the Library.  Today, the wing houses archives and special collections, including out-of-print natural science, astronomy, and Nantucket-related tomes, as well as Maria’s personal library.  In 1945, descendants of the Mitchell family donated the Hinchman House Natural Science Museum to MMA.  The Museum opened in 1946.  In 1987, the observatory student seminar room and computer and work areas were added to the Vestal Street Observatory.  Recently, the Association purchased a new, 17” research telescope for Vestal Street.

The aged buildings require meticulous care.  Specifically, that includes work on plumbing, electricity, heat, painting, shingling, and condition monitoring.  The MMA has put its properties in capable hands.  Jascin Finger, for example, is responsible for maintenance of the Mitchell House’s structure and collections.  She has training in that department and works with conservators on and off-island to complete conservation work on the House.  The Facilities Committee, the Executive Director, and Finger have oversight of the remaining buildings.  A Buildings and Grounds Committee and Property Manager are in the mix of experts, too.    

This summer, PI:N students are focusing on how the MMA buildings have been preserved thus far, as well as enhancing the methods needed to maintain the site long-term.  They work in student contingents with mentoring from specialists: two teams of seven on the Science Library and one team of eight on the Mitchell House.  Hylton details, “We will be documenting, preparing management plans, and instituting monitoring systems and processes for the Science Library and Mitchell House.  The studies focus on exterior and interior architectural materials and features, as well as environmental conditions and collections.  As part of the House’s documentation, students work with architectural conservators for one week to take samples of mortar and paint and analyze them in the New Materials Conservation Laboratory here at Sherburne Hall [PI:N headquarters.]  This lets us identify historic paint layers on the walls, ceilings and floors.  A small team of students is also helping repair the Mitchell House brick chimney using historic lime mortar.”

One student is creating a monitoring system for the temperature and humidity of the Mitchell House and Library.  Her peer is preparing the House’s Disaster Preparedness and Management Plan.

Study of the Vestal Street properties will continue at least the next three summers.  A multi-year analysis “affords the opportunity to monitor and assess conditions throughout the year,” notes Hylton. 

This summer, PI:N scholars hail from Florida, Wyoming, Mississippi, Washington, D.C., and China.  Professors include Brian Robinson, President of the Association for Preservation Technology International and resident of Portoia, South Africa.  Other authorities have come from Brown and Columbia Universities, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and the International Affairs Department of National Park Service. 

PI:N is an elegant win-win-win scenario for students, professionals, and islanders.  As Hylton says, the program gives students, “hands-on experience in documenting, managing, and monitoring cultural heritage resources from an international perspective,” while providing mentors a chance to “contribute to the growth of the field of cultural heritage conservation.”  For Nantucketers, this means each summer brings opportunities to converse with and learn from a diverse new batch of scientists and acclaimed specialists. 

PI:N invites the community to a final presentation on Friday, July 31st at 9:30 am at the MMA, where students and conservation experts will elaborate upon the program’s summer accomplishments.  In addition to its summer program, the organization sponsors programs, workshops, seminars, presentations, exhibitions, and research throughout the year, so look out for other PI:N events.

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