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Beginnings, Endings, and Edges

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterays Island, 2004


It was really a beautiful weekend - even if the fog meant that we were stuck on the rock. My wife and I decided to take a stroll into town from our location in the mid-island. (I must confess a certain love of the idea of walking into town, even if it’s a mile away.) Fortunately for us, we have a very nice sidewalk to carry us to the necessary roads. During this time, I was reminded constantly of one amazing Nantucket architectural feature. It has beginnings, endings, and edges to its streets, its buildings, its whole architectural makeup. Something which planners and designers strive for every day in the rest of America is literally at our feet.
Let me put you in the right frame of mind to understand these three concepts. First, imagine a subdivision in suburban America. Buildings are set back uniformly about twenty feet. Streets are uniformly thirty feet. You gaze down the street only to see - nothing. There is no end. There is no building to end your visual gaze down the street. Perhaps, if you are lucky enough, the street bends away from you and you are gratified to have an end. You turn to your left (or right) and you notice that the edges of this street are made up of the buildings marching mechanically down the lane. To you, the viewer, you only have the beginning - yourself.There is nothing else palatable. The missing piece is what is called the "room" feeling, a critical element to establishing a great sense of place.

Now let us imagine South Water Street in downtown Nantucket. Perhaps we are standing at a point where your back is to the Whaling Museum. Directly ahead, at the "end" of the street, is Zero Main Street, the large red building. To your sides are the Sunken Ship store or the Police Station. Your viewpoint opens and closes as you move down the street, opening here for the Atheneum, closing for Fog Island Café. Trees close in above you. All of these aspects conspire to create a "room" which shelters you, comforts you, and creates a true sense of place. Nantucket is blessed with the ability to have edges, beginnings, and ends. It is not something about which we should think lightly. This is one of those architectural/planning elements that tends to elude many.

On our very nice walk this past weekend, we strolled up Lower Orange, which does not have such endings, but has very nice edges. In some places it opens up, in others it closes. Suddenly as you pass the turn onto Union Street, the viewer realizes that the edges have become much more defined. There is now an ending to strive for as you walk forward. As the viewer reaches that "ending" the street bends and a new goal is established. Pick any street in the Old Historic District or in Old 'Sconset and you will find the same experience.

Then to add to this wonderful experience, Nantucket's architecture is such that it has beginnings, endings, and edges. Buildings, for several hundred years, sat on solid bases, sometimes a brick foundation, sometimes just a wooden sill. All had a direct expression of their first floor, second floor, and roof. Corner boards defined edges. Roofs were simple in their design and capped the building. Occasionally a dormer provided a bit of expression to that ending. Modern houses - born out the Modern Movement's need for no beginning nor end - tend to not have these essential components so readily understandable. Buildings are like words with their own expressions. Without the beginning or end of a word you can become lost. If you read a set of buildings, you can arrive at a "sentence" or a neighborhood. When you read that sentence, it should tell you the history of that street or area. Without the indicators of beginning, end, or edge, you can become lost in time. One of the skills I am most proud of is that I was taught how to read that sentence. I can read most of the words with ease, but reading that architectural sentence is much harder. In modern housing, I am often lost at sea trying to figure out the historical patterns of development.

Of course, the history inherent in a building also speaks to beginnings, ends, and the edges. We strolled past a building, on this lovely weekend, and saw examples of what Stuart Brand calls "How Buildings Learn." This book is a great discussion of vernacular architecture and the ways they grow. A family starts small, buildings a simple three bay house (bays as defined in Building With Nantucket in Mind, are regularly repeated main divisions of a building design), then adds on to increase living space. The history is readily apparent in the design of the building. A corner board in the middle of a structure belies the fact that it once stopped at that point. Therefore, when a part of a structure is removed, it destroys the evidence of past additions, changes, and learning. The beginning may be intact, but the ending has been changed.

So what then of preservation? Should we be advocating for the total incorporation of historic additions, ells, and the like into new designs? Or should we destroy the history and move on? By my tone, you can probably assume that I would say no to the destruction. However, I also feel that the wholesale preservation may be a step too far. My real focus has always been to make sure those historic elements are recorded. Honor them and acknowledge them before moving on. Measured drawings are one method. A photograph on archival paper is another solution. Obviously if the historic addition can be made part of this new change, do so. Honor the beginning, but honor the endings as well. You are writing a new version of the ending. Do not fool yourself to think that the building is just growing and changing. The people are a critical part of this story. When a building is changed, part of their history may disappear. I referenced some of this in my previous piece and it still rings true.

One of the most critical parts of this article I hope you take with you is that beginnings and endings - as well as edges - are important in so many ways. Whether they be in the design of our neighborhoods, whether they be in the design of our buildings, or whether they be in the way we understand the history of our buildings, the beginnings, endings, and edges are all critical elements of understanding our community and creating a better sense of place

Finally, I would like to use this article to record the passing of Walter Beinike Jr. It is the ending for a person whose vision helped shaped the modern Nantucket. Without his forethought, Nantucket, as we know it, may not have existed. While I did not know him, he did great things for preservation on Nantucket, and for that I am proud to know of him.