The Monaghan Sisters of Greater Light -Winter 2008

by: Ben Simons

Nantucket is hospitable to eccentrics. A great tradition of “Nantucket characters” has contributed significantly to the cultural landscape of the island-such figures as town crier Billy Clark; Captain Baxter of Sconset; Fred Parker, the “Hermit of Quidnet;” and the unhygienic genealogist Benjamin Franklin Folger.

The Monaghan family sitting at a table under a tent. Left to right: James, Gertrude, Hanna, and Anna.

In the 1920s, when two Quaker sisters from Philadelphia, Hanna and Gertrude Monaghan, moved to Nantucket to “take the airs” and purchased William Holland’s cow and pig barn on Howard Street to convert into a home and studio dedicated to the arts, their neighbors looked at them with amazement and suspicion. They were, as the late David Wood of Gardner Street recalled, “the epitome of oddness.”

Few people at the time were willing to grant that this spirit of creative eccentricity formed an essential twist in the yarn of island character. The Monaghans were simply invigorating the tradition.

The 1920s were a time of reinvention on Nantucket. The townspeople who inhabited the treasury of historic buildings in Nantucket Town were the survivors and heirs of generations of primarily Quaker whaling families. The legacy of whaling, the island’s economic dynamo for two centuries, was to be seen on every street corner. In spite of Nantucket’s recent awakening as a tourist resort, times were still sleepy, and the lanes and byways were draped in a haunted air. Along the wharves, in the old fishing shacks and warehouses, as in many outlived New England coastal towns, the artists were moving in. A Nantucket art colony was blossoming. What more appropriate embodiment of that change than a pair of “Quaker-raised” artistic sisters who would “reinvent” a utilitarian barn as a parlor for the muses?

Though not Quakers by birthright (their mother had been “read out” of Quaker meeting for marrying a non-Quaker), Hanna and Gertrude hailed from a long line of staunch Pennsylvania Quakers and according to their niece Anne Bullock, were “reared as Quakers.” Hanna refers in her book “Greater Light on Nantucket”to discussions at the dinner table about “our ancestor Beniel Bowers . . . the most imprisoned Quaker in all New England.”

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and affiliated their whole lives with the Swarthmore Friends Meeting, the sisters experienced an early conversion akin to a religious awakening. As Hanna recalls, “Something happened in this Quaker household. A virus struck under the pseudonym of art. How it entered this sanctuary and hit two who came from a long line of Quaker martyrs cannot be explained. Thereafter these two victims lived for nothing but art.”

When the sisters discovered Nantucket in the early 1920s, they had completed a varied art education that included attendance at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, traveling fellowships and residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. At the behest of their friend, the illustrator and muralist Violet Oakley (1874-1961), the Monaghans journeyed to Nantucket, and were among the first tenants of Florence Lang’s waterfront studios. In addition to exhibiting at the Candle House Studio, they showed regularly at the Easy Street Gallery and became members of the art colony.


Hannah describes a typical afternoon: “I see Gertrude with me on our patio in a warm summer afternoon. She is drawing with a few deft strokes our greyhound curled up in the sun on the soft green turf.”After living in studio apartments for several summers, the Monaghans one day followed a herd of cows out upper Main Street to the 18th-century barn on Howard Street owned by grocer William Holland. After much solicitation, Holland sold them the barn under the condition that, unlike others who wanted to buy it, they would not tear it down. Under the suspicious eyes of neighbors, whom they would refer to as “peepers,” Hanna and Gertrude converted the structure into Greater Light, a summer residence and informal temple to the arts. They would decorate the building with a motley collection of architectural fragments, decorative embellishments, and-their master stroke: a beautiful garden, at once inviting and enclosed, centered around a balcony and patio that were the setting for dramatic performances, readings and musical recitals – in short, anything that furthered the spirit of the arts.

The process of furnishing Great Light was the supreme expression of the Monaghan sisters’ creative outlook. While preparing for the renovation in Philadelphia, they built a scale model of the building to plan its contents with precision. The sisters were “providential scavengers” of junk yards, demolition sites and old buildings. They channeled the age-old Protestant notion of the hand of God’s “grace” into their search for furnishings. A typical example of this occurred in the plans for the patio, formerly the pigpen where neighbors would bring morsels and slops of trash, a kind of neighborhood dump.

In “Greater Light,” Hannah remembers: “Inside our patio,” I said, “we should have a wrought-iron railing running here along the balcony,” I pointed to the tiny model. “And down the steps to the pigpen, I mean (to have) our patio. It should be of iron to go with the grilles. But we have not got it . . .We haven’t the iron, so we will have to plan something else.”


At that moment the telephone bell rang. I remember it all clearly. It came like a clap of thunder.“Why limit God?” said Gertrude.

“Why limit God?” Gertrude had said.

The bell rang, I picked up the receiver, and heard a voice say, “This is Jump, the Demolition Company calling . . . Do you want a wrought-iron hand railing?”

“Yes,” I cried excitedly.

“We have one.”

“How long?”

“Sixteen feet, and we have the stair-railing also.”

“Yes, yes, send it over, all of it,” I cried, putting down the receiver.

“Should we not go to the junkyard to look it over?” asked Gertrude.

“No,” I said, “Have you no faith? It will have to be perfect.”

The idea that “divine mind” was directing their renovations served the sisters well. Again and again, a whimsical fortuity led them to discover “perfect” additions for their new summer home. A “timbered English restaurant on 7th Street in Philadelphia” was under demolition, and provided marvelous hand-blown amber-glass windows that provided privacy in Hanna’s bedroom. Hanna discovered the balcony rails for the converted hayloft in Greater Light by climbing the scaffolding under the tarp of another building being torn down in Philadelphia. She gave the foreman her address in Nantucket and a deposit. Miraculously, they arrived some months later. The kingfisher tile that presides over the garden fountain was discovered one day by chance in the Hospital Thrift Shop. A perpetual openness of mind allowed the sisters to make such discoveries in an ongoing fashion.

Another hallmark of Greater Light and of the Monaghan style could be termed historical eclecticism. In the sisters’ plan, carved Moorish harem screens occupied the great hall alongside Spanish church pews, an early Russian samovar, Navajo carpets, a Chinese camphorwood chest, Tapa cloths, and a needlework sofa – all placed against the backdrop of a fireplace they designed themselves using old bricks set in a flame-stitch pattern, adorned with carved gilt Italianate columns. Everywhere on the walls in their original installation were relief sculptures (often the Madonna and child – very post-Quaker), lighting sconces and wall hangings from India.

Add to this an assortment of Gertrude’s own paintings of Morocco, of the river Tagus in Portugal and her own portrait, and you detect the spirit of the place – all centuries, all systems of belief, all styles, gathered in a magical kaleidoscope of design. The sisters had traveled a long way from Quaker plain to invent their own spiritual concoction of historical styles. An elderly Nantucket man walking past the gate some years later said to the Monaghans’ niece, Anne Bullock, “I see that you are staying at the place built by those two flappers from Philadelphia.”

Greater Light served as Hanna and Gertrude’s summer home for many decades. They enjoyed Nantucket summers in the company of their parents, James and Anna, and their equally-fascinating brother Jay, a historian of the American West who lived with Native American families and wrote a book entitled “Schoolboy, Cowboy, Mexican Spy.” The sisters always welcomed visitors to their home and enjoyed sharing what they had created with artists, friends, and neighbors.

Gertrude died in 1962, survived by her sister Hanna, who on Dec. 24, 1972, decided to bequeath Greater Light and its furnishings to the Nantucket Historical Association.

The NHA is now beginning the timely and necessary restoration of Greater Light. It was the Monaghans’ intent that Greater Light would be used, according to Hanna’s will, “in all ways possible to benefit the public.” With its restoration, the house and its charming garden will become a venue for lifelong learning in the arts and for small gatherings that extol the arts and culture – exhibitions, poetry readings, plays, musical performances and garden parties – much in the way the Monaghans engaged the community.

The $2.4 million Greater Light project is being undertaken in two phases. In 2007, the NHA received the community’s endorsement of the restoration with receipt of a $400,000 matching grant from the Community Preservation Committee. Through the generosity of many supporters, the NHA has already met the CPC match. In the fall of 2008, the NHA began phase-one restoration work needed to make the building structurally sound and usable as well as to create a much-needed basement apartment for staff housing. Further donations of any size are welcome and will help the NHA raise the $500,000 needed to complete phase one by the spring of 2010, when Greater Light will open to the public with an exhibition of Susan Boardman’s embroidered narratives presenting the lives of over 30 Nantucket women. The NHA will then focus on raising the additional funding for phase two: restoration and conservation of the interior, furnishings and the garden; and development of interpretative and educational programs, tours and exhibitions. Completion of the Greater Light project is expected in 2011.

The spirit of Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan lives on in Greater Light. A walk in the garden past the brickwork patio with its theatrical balcony, impressive staircase and curtain overhang, or a stroll through the great hall and a glimpse of the massive fireplace and the elaborate facing Italianate windows, are enough to feel the living presence of those two remarkable women. At Greater Light, they had the boldness to enact their vision of the arts in a setting that formed the backdrop of their Quaker faith. The Monaghans truly hearkened to their own individual “inner light” and transformed one corner of the island into a sanctuary for the creative spirit of the arts.

Ben Simons is the Robyn and John Davis Chief Curator of the Nantucket Historical Association.






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