Tuckernuck: Preserving a Lost Place

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004

The Historic District Commission had an opportunity recently to visit Tuckernuck, our neighbor off to the west (no, not Martha’s Vineyard). Fortunately, I was able to participate in this trip and see a place not accessible to many. After an unsuccessful attempt at making a beach head a couple of weeks earlier, a smaller group of us went on a warm day with a representative of the HDC’s Tuckernuck Advisory Board.

We pulled out of the Walter Barrett Pier in Madaket and drifted in Hither Creek towards the open harbor. Madaket’s buildings stretched along the southern bank in various forms and configurations, some traditional, some not. (If you remember your HDC history right, Madaket’s use of unique architectural forms was one of the driving forces in creating the island-wide historic district.) As the boat rounded into Madaket Harbor past Eel Point, Tuckernuck appeared in the distance as a small mound with long sloping edges.

The fifteen-minute powerboat ride took us out past Smith’s Point, which has supposedly gained length and is slowly reaching for Tuckernuck’s spit of land – commonly known as Whale Island. There is a short channel between the two spits of land with the shoals out beyond. Slowly the island loomed into sight and the little lagoon presented us with a view of various sun worshippers – many of whom I doubt own land on Tuckernuck.

Our guide navigated the boat into the lagoon and we disembarked at the pier. At the top of the stairs there is a long mowed strip now being used as the Tuckernuck (International Memorial?) Airport. Somehow, those of us new to the island were hoodwinked by a long-standing member of the HDC into swearing some sort of oath and looking rather silly on one knee at the end of a mowed runway. We’re still waiting to receive our official certificates.

From this point, the spit of land (which may or may not be owned by the State) spread out to our south, Madaket to our east, and the rest of the island to our north and west. A road wound out toward a western low point. I was struck with the contrast of boat arrival versus air arrival; with the dirt road versus a mowed runway; with the new style buildings (to our east along the coast) versus the old style buildings up the hill. I then realized that this island faces its own microcosm of Nantucket’s issues of growth and preservation.

The road we followed passed by a small a) parking lot or b) junk yard (take your pick). I wish I had snapped a picture of the former Parks and Recreation van with the taxi light on top. How did it get here, what is used for, and is this some sort of attempt at a sense of humor about needing a taxi on an island two miles long and one mile wide? The group of us strolled past a small golf cart buzzing towards its boat to the "mainland" – an entirely different concept here. The road turned up the hill, past what we had come to see (the site of a new house), but was largely overgrown by jaggers and ivy.

When we reached the top of the hill, we looked down towards the East Pond, a wonderful open water space, and back across the wetlands we had just passed. To our north was the so called "east cluster" of historic buildings. (The buildings and small forest form a clear edge to the space.) A simple white frame building with small additions on the rear was the high point of the island. Interestingly, this building is alleged to be a "Sears" kit house from the turn of the century – which the Tuckernuck Advisory labels a "re-creation of an Indiana farmhouse." To its right is another building, about one and a half stories tall and three bays wide, commonly known as the George E. Coffin House. Further on, moving from west to east, are two more structures, one known as the George Black Coffin House with a very distinctive cupola. Unlike the common cupolas of barns and agricultural buildings, this type was designed largely as the Tuckernuck version of the Nantucket town roofwalks. The whole area exudes a feeling much different than many other places in the region – especially on Nantucket. The only real parallel I can find is some of the very small towns in Vermont or New Hampshire.

We moved to the west, on what is known as Dunham Road. We moved through a cluster of pines and thick scrub on a simple dirt road and opened out on to the wide plain of the southwest side of the island. Off in the distance is the "Humane Society" building, which, like Vincent’s building in downtown Nantucket, was used to store a boat to save foundering boats near the coast.

The Tuckernuck Advisory Group indicated that the buildings on the island were simple structures based on the harshness of life on the island. Certainly this is evident in the few buildings we saw. The Human Society building is particularly striking in its simplicity. Other buildings exhibited a bit more exuberance, but only enough to make them different from each other, not to overwhelm the architecture of the island.

As we left (we ran out of time to see the "west cluster"), I ruminated on the importance of such "lost places." There are not many such places left in America. Nantucket in its own way is a lost place. It retains the history and character of a former time. However, Tuckernuck takes this idea to a new level. Tuckernuck is like finding a new species in the wilds of the Amazon. Historic structures in their original landscapes are significant. All too often the historic structures are overwhelmed by their surroundings. Tashama Farm was absorbed into Nashaquissett. The Old Mill is surrounded by homes where it once stood among its other industrial brothers. But the buildings on Tuckernuck are largely left untainted by modern intrusions.

A recent discussion by the HDC’s Tuckernuck Advisory Board noted that Tuckernuck’s "surviving structures were built from about 1780 to the present and nearly half of the houses are over a hundred years old. Taken as a whole they are believed to retain a layout and visual impression similar to Nantucket’s now-lost initial settlement at Sherburne." They go on to say that Tuckernuck is such a rare example of settlement patterns that "it is uniquely worthy of preservation."

No electricity, no telephone, no paved roads. Tuckernuck stands as a testament to the many places at sea which have been forgotten by modern development. Preservationists often do not have the opportunity to examine such places in situ. This stunning example of preservation – by individuals and situation, not regulation – is one those interested in preservation must take with them. The Tuckernuck Advisory Board wrote that "Tuckernuckers take pride in remembering who and what came before them and wish to continue to live and build in a way that honors the past."

Unfortunately, all too often communities do not retain this spirit. We must do this more to honor our past, respect our present, and plan for our future – or end up without those vital characteristics that make each and every place special. We must save the lost places and fight for their spirits.