Historic Renovation on Farmer Street -Spring 2015
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
Nowhere in this country are there more charming and diverse cottages featuring small pocket gardens and window boxes than here on Nantucket.
Many of these cottages are now being renovated and restored by responsible homeowners, designers and artisans for modern-day living, without losing their original appeal. There is something incredibly humbling about these cottages that take you back to a gentler time, and it makes you realize it might be achievable today.
Walk down any street or lane on the island and you will likely find a darling cottage tucked neatly between two large family homes or in back of another. To a large extent, the character of the island is reflective of these little early homes. They were originally built by and for island residents at a time when some people, those who lived in them, didn’t require, didn’t desire, or couldn’t afford anything larger. These houses contribute to the island’s diversity, something we are coming dangerously close to losing as larger, newer homes nudge them out of the way or simply overshadow them.
Even at a time when modern techniques and taste in home furnishings change with each new influx of homeowners, the classic design elements of cottage style have survived on Nantucket. Many historic houses have been reclaimed, and fortunately have passed into the hands of people with taste and imagination and the means and awareness to restore and adapt them for current use without destroying their history.
Joan and Edward Lahey have had much experience with old houses, this being their fifth renovation. They had restored one of the large whaling captain’s houses on Orange Street where they lived for many years, as well as early houses in Connecticut where they live when not on-island. Eventually they decided to downsize from the big family-style house with lots of bedrooms to a smaller space and a more efficient lifestyle.
“I was looking for a house that spoke to me,” Joan said.
They knew they wanted an early home so they began looking on all the little lanes and side streets in the downtown historic district.
“When I stumbled upon the cottage, practically in our old neighborhood, I knew it was perfect even though, at the time, it was a falling-down wreck,” Joan continued. “But I could imagine it for us. I knew this house could be restored and made comfortable without compromising its historic background.”
Best of all, Joan and Ed enjoy the challenge of restoring an old house from scratch
and there was enough property to add a new kitchen as well as a master bedroom and bath on the first floor. Much of their furnishings – antiques and heirlooms that have been in their families for generations – are appropriate for an historic home.
The Farmer Street cottage was built in the 1700s by a chair-maker and remained in the Christopher Swain family until 1906. The chair-maker apparently wasn’t overly concerned with accurate measurements as this in-town house has a charming list to it. Over the years the house settled so that doorways, floors and walls all leaned this way and that. Being in the house is a bit like being on a ship.
When Joan first laid eyes on it, the cottage was a mess. There was glass and chunks of cement in the yard. Weeds had taken over the place. Nothing had been done to it since the 1950s and it would take someone with vision to see the potential. When the Laheys first saw it, “It just spoke to us. I fell in love with the front room and the three tiny rooms, even the sloping bedroom with a fireplace. I could see beyond the weeds and broken glass,” Joan said.
But, even before the restoration work began, the couple lived in the house for a summer.
“It was like camping out,” Joan said. “but I was able to get a feel for the house.”
Working with island architect Chris Dalmus, they designed the restoration and renovation that would include the new additions.
The Laheys purposely avoided “fixing” the slant of the doorways or the uneven floors as they felt they should be preserved. In fact, the floors tilted so badly that chair and sofa legs were reconfigured to compensate. When the house was finished, they received a prestigious award for the restoration part of the cottage from the Nantucket Preservation Trust, an organization that strives to preserve Nantucket’s architectural heritage.
As with many people who move into old houses, they are a family living in modern times, and so there are now new bathrooms and a spacious kitchen, elegantly crafted with care. Joan studied painting techniques at the famous Isabel O’Neil studio workshop in New York City and used her talents to design the new kitchen with its striped floor and coordinated tile work on the stove wall.
The kitchen opens to a sweet outdoor patio area designed for minimal maintenance. The new master bedroom wing is so in scale with the rest of the house that it seems as though it could have been part of the original cottage. A balcony upstairs overlooks the kitchen and there are two more bedrooms and baths. There’s also a living room, den and dining area that are so true to the original they seem to have been untouched.
The original front door opens to a narrow hallway, a winding staircase and the original living room. The door doesn’t get much use now (nor the staircase), as everyone enters through the newly-created front door on the side. A new, wide and comfortable stairway to the upstairs rooms was added as well. It’s an interesting combination of the new and the very old. The dining room is but a wart off the kitchen, furnished with traditional family heirlooms mixed with a modern twist like the molded Lucite chairs around a mahogany table. The walls are covered with an eclectic mix of paintings. The cozy den with a fireplace is where everyone seems to find a comfortable, leather barrel chair or well-worn sofa to curl up on for easy conversation. It’s a room that gets as much use now as it probably did years ago.
Today the house sits nestled into the landscape and the completed restoration is proof of the homeowners’ abilities to recognize the potential of a neglected home and have the confidence to know it would be worth restoring. ///
Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author on decor and design. She is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.