Nantucket Island: A Place Apart

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004

We moved here a year and a half ago—a man, a woman, and a dog. We came because my degree is in Historic Preservation and I was taking a job with one of the nation’s oldest Historic District Commissions. Nantucket, as explained to me, was the home of the largest collection of pre-Civil War buildings in America. No one in my, or my wife’s family, knew where we were going. "An island" I explained "connected only by ferry." My wife looked at me with a wary eye, friends were confused, and family was worried. Yet, with one degree finished, one on the way, we set out for this place apart.

Nantucket is a special place. It is a place of quiet wonder—even on the most crowded days. When you are here in the winter, or arrive then as we did, the streets are quiet and still. You rattle slowly down the cobbles, past buildings that are reaching towards one-hundred and sixty years old, towards the outer parts of town where the buildings give way to the open fields, windswept beaches, and mysterious moors. When winter fights its last fight and then surrenders to summer—slowly as it comes—the island blooms with daffodils and blossoms into green tree-lined streets. Flip flops and farm trucks…beaches and barbecue…sun and sweet smells.

People who come here realize quickly that there is something more than the people though. They realize that they are experiencing something that is more important than just how people wave “hello” or hug those they haven’t seen in a while. Europeans understand what this feeling is. They understand that "sense of place" is a critical part of how we as human beings interact with each other. Grand cities of Europe embrace the historic character of their communities as something which transforms us from simple humans fighting to survive on this planet to a people who relish art and literature. It is a thing that helps to move us onto that higher plane.

Sense of place—genus loci—it’s a simple idea, really. Your place, the setting you are in, gives you a feeling. As I write this, the days are lengthening and the air is growing warmer. Some evenings, when I stand downtown after a good movie at the Gaslight Theater and the streets are still and quiet, I get a sense of complete calm. It makes me feel as though I am part of a community and, perhaps, something even more important. This is the sense of place which I will refer to often.

Nantucket has a strong sense of place created from its buildings and places. For that reason, I have decided to take readers on a journey through the architecture and spaces of "this place apart." I will explore the types of buildings found on Nantucket, the specific buildings of its history, some places of obvious interest and some not so obvious. I will examine where we, as humans and as Nantucketers, fit into this puzzle. Most importantly, I will look at ways to make this "sense of place" better and why historic preservation is critical to that "sense of place."

Architecture is one of the oldest and most noble arts. Greeks were fanatical about their architecture as art. Romans, the engineers of ancient civilization, were much more in-tune with the structure. Europeans found both subtle balances and strong expressions of structure and architecture. This on-going struggle between the two found itself in England in the later parts of the seventeenth century. Having been refined and altered over time, the English had both a brute honesty to their buildings while emphasizing simple details that brought architecture to the surface.

It is this English aesthetic that was first to arrive on this land. Settlers brought with them the tested methods of structure—post and beam—and the gentle art of architecture. Even the most grizzled bits of buildings can often express themselves in delicate architectural forms. From that time forward people have refined and re-defined architecture and created more outward signs of "place." However, somewhere along the timeline of American architecture, we began to forget how to create these places. We gave up gentle architecture for architecture of speed. We left places like Nantucket behind. When the island could not bring enough people in to live here in the traditional way, we adopted that form of "open road" planning and architecture. Gas stations, sub-divisions, and roads designed for ease of speed were introduced to the island.

Traditional planning and architecture were left behind in favor of this speed oriented styles. But something was missing, something that nagged in the back of people’s minds. “Why are we destroying these gentle places of architecture?” “What has happened to our sense of place?” “Is there a "there" anymore?” People started to search for it. Some discovered it here: a place which still had slow streets, gentle architecture, and quiet places. They realized that what they had been missing from their lives were places like Nantucket.

The concept of historic preservation was beginning to be developed at the same time. A more traditional form of planning began to be pursued. People sought out real experiences in their lives. Everyone wanted a place apart for their own communities. Unfortunately, Nantucket, allowed for the "speed style" of architecture and planning to accommodate the new swell of people. The island wandered down a path which has taken years to correct. Now it seems that the island has regained its footing by finding new and innovative ways to connect people, place, and its buildings.

Please stay with me over the next few months while I explore in this column some of these old and new places and buildings. I will explore open spaces, public spaces, private spaces, and places in-between. I will attempt to reveal the histories of buildings and the lives they lead now. And I will attempt to understand why a place like Nantucket must take that next step and lead the pack towards a new appreciation of historic preservation.