This Old House -April/May 2012
by: Trudy Dujardin
We live on an island immersed in history. Streets are paved with cobblestones, and historic houses still stand stalwart, first against sea winds and salt air, and then against the flush and fury of maritime fortunes. For anyone privileged to own an old house, with windows that were flung open to catch 19th-century breezes, or whose beams and joists were brand new when whaling ships docked in Nantucket Harbor and horses pulled carriages past the front door, there is a responsibility involved.
The home is not merely a stopping place for a family for a year or 10. Maintaining an old Nantucket home is often a labor of love, and ownership must come with a willingness to preserve the island’s heritage.
Steeped in the lore and romance of the seafaring industry, Nantucket’s greatest period of sustained commercial activity occurred as a result of whaling in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries. As the early leader in whaling, the great success of that industry lined the pockets of many an island sea-captain and ship-builder, and provided the wealth for the construction of fine homes. One of those homes was the Captain George Parker House, built at the end of Nantucket’s Golden Age of Whaling.
When I first saw the Captain Parker House, however, little remained of that Golden Age and its grand lifestyle. The two-and-a-half story Federal-style residence was struggling to maintain its dignity in the face of its venerable age. The remarkable view of Nantucket’s picturesque harbor was still in sight, as it was when Captain Parker first stood on windswept ground and chose it as the place to build his family home. But so much else had changed.
The entire building was in poor condition, requiring structural and trim repair, extensive reshingling and repainting. Rainwater had penetrated the roof and collected behind rusted tin ceilings. Daylight was visible through the joists. A poorly-supported dining-room addition was constructed on a wooden foundation, on wooden sills with no footings, and placed directly on sand. The addition had suffered considerable rot and powderpost beetle damage. This alarming state of disrepair almost deterred me, but even as I listed all the reasons to myself why I shouldn’t undertake its care, the house was speaking to me. I will always be glad that I listened.
The Captain Parker House had remained the family’s home for more than 70 years, until the turn of the last century. For nearly 40 years after that, it was used as a boarding house, until the 1940s, when John Ellis Bird purchased it and restored it to a single-family residence. I was able to trace its history and meet the families who lived within its walls through the documents and diaries that had been saved through the years and came with the house. In addition, I carried out my own research in my quest to know my new home more intimately.
As determined as I was to restore the house to its former beauty and honor its history, I would never suggest that anyone live in a museum. As an expert in the art of historical preservation and an interior designer with a passion for creating healthy homes, I believe that a home of any age must be a place of comfort and provide the best in modern conveniences. We are well beyond shivering in drafty bedrooms on cold winter nights, trying to read by candlelight, and traipsing to the well for our water.
Yet there is a saying popular among members of the Nantucket Preservation Trust: “Gut fish, not houses.” On an island with a heritage treasured well beyond our own sandy shores, we must show a reverence to the past. The work we undertake must be authentic in its approach, and meticulous in its process. I am very proud that when my work was complete, the Captain Parker House was certified as “a Historic Preservation” by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Subsequently, I was given a “Best Historic Preservation” award by the American Society of Interior Designers.
Here are five steps that I followed:
1. Learn your home’s unique history. Your home may be a dignified sea captain’s manor, a sailor’s shanty or an antebellum princess. By studying old deeds, maps and wills, you can begin your journey toward an authentic restoration. I looked at old books and photographs in libraries, at museums and at the Nantucket Historical Association. I was also helped by the diaries and photos of the original owners that came with the house.
By doing so, I was able to evaluate the changes made by several owners over dozens of years. The inappropriate addition, the jarring clash of architectural styles and the hand-carved trim obscured by layers of paint became apparent. This is an indispensable first step.
2. Establish through photographs and drawings the original features of the house. Careful study showed me where work needed to be done. The entryway on the rear ell of the building was added around 1960, and was not appropriate for the house, so it was removed and rebuilt as originally intended. The front step and banisters were replaced as duplicates of the originals, and the roof walk was reconstructed.
Room by room, I identified appropriate trim and woodwork, and began the process of hand-scraping round wooden balusters and capped newel posts on the staircase, then restoring period detail in rooms where it had been removed. No detail was too small, nothing was overlooked. My goal was to return the house to the grace and beauty of its youth.
3. Carefully select an architect, contractor and interior designer who are knowledgeable about historic preservation. One of the best parts about this restoration was hiring Nantucket-based craftsmen. They were knowledgeable about the island’s history, and the project helped sustain the island economy throughout its 20-month duration.
Much of the exterior restoration focused on gingerly jacking up the house, rebuilding the crumbling foundation and hand-splitting shingles to replace those that had deteriorated. A center chimney needed repair. Exterior walls needed restabilization. The contractor I selected lived on-island and had a reputation for expertise and sensitivity in restoration work, a must for this kind of project.
4. Retain as many of the original features as possible, including the floor plan, key to the sense of an earlier time. I knew I wanted to honor the period floor plan and retain the 19th-century design. I insisted on keeping the original plaster walls. Plaster is a perfect material for the damp sea air and cold winters of Nantucket. It is durable, and an excellent sound-proofing agent. The original wide-board pine floors were sanded, and a new oil finish applied to make them shine like new.
In addition, the original seven-panel front door, flanked by side-lights and capped by a wooden fan, was hand-scraped, stripped, reglazed and caulked. I restored the double-hung windows, eight fireplace mantels, plaster molding, interior recessed shutters and the delightful rosette detail on the windows and door frames. Even the original eagle door-knocker and sterling-silver name plaques on the front door remained. As things were polished, painted and preserved, I could feel the house breathe a sigh of relief.
5. When the major foundation work is done, it’s time for interiors. Research will once again befriend you in your search for the right furnishings, rugs, window-coverings and accessories to bring your home to life. There are so many delights in searching for just the right items. One lucky afternoon, I unearthed an old ship’s piano, hidden beneath a bale of hay in an antique dealer’s barn. When told it was from 1830, the same age as the house, I knew it had to come home with me.
I added ship’s campaign chests and scrimshaw carvings, pewter pitchers and Chinese export porcelain. After 20 months, when the existing furniture from the house was removed from storage, I found that I had unknowingly placed clocks, mirrors and tables almost exactly where they had been before. It was almost as if the house was guiding my hands. Step by step, the home became both the captain’s again, and mine.
In 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Nantucket one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States. As a living, working community, we are blessed to have what has been called the country’s finest collection of late 17th, 18th and early 19th-century buildings. For much of this bounty, we have poverty to thank. After 1840, the silting-up of Nantucket’s harbor made it difficult for whaling ships, heavily laden with whale oil, to cross the bar and sail into port here. Soon ships began preferring New Bedford as a final destination. The Great Fire of 1846 and the discovery of gold in California in 1849 were the death knell for Nantucket whaling.
Although Nantucket’s economic collapse after the demise of the whaling industry created a long and painful period for its citizens, it provided the unique conditions that precluded the whole-sale destruction of our architectural treasures. Once-neglected buildings from the Golden Age became priceless heirlooms, frozen in time.
On Nantucket, any property over 50 years old contributing to the Historic District can qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. More than 2,500 buildings are that age or older, and at least 1,000 are individually significant and eligible for the Register. In the 1950s, when teardowns and suburban sprawl were accelerating elsewhere, Walter Beinecke Jr. famously said that for the island, “Preservation is enlightened self-interest.”
The beauty of the island today, evidenced in its 18th-century village, its cranberry bogs and sandplain grasslands, will always be inextricably linked to the families who braved the ocean waves before us to make a home here. The heart of the island is found both in its seascapes, and in its history. We do well to remember it.