Nantucket Island: A Place Apart
- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004
We moved here a year and a half agoa man, a woman, and a dog. We
came because my degree is in Historic Preservation and I was taking a
job with one of the nations oldest Historic District Commissions.
Nantucket, as explained to me, was the home of the largest collection
of pre-Civil War buildings in America. No one in my, or my wifes
family, knew where we were going. "An island" I explained "connected
only by ferry." My wife looked at me with a wary eye, friends were
confused, and family was worried. Yet, with one degree finished, one on
the way, we set out for this place apart.
Nantucket is a special place. It is a place of quiet wondereven
on the most crowded days. When you are here in the winter, or arrive then
as we did, the streets are quiet and still. You rattle slowly down the
cobbles, past buildings that are reaching towards one-hundred and sixty
years old, towards the outer parts of town where the buildings give way
to the open fields, windswept beaches, and mysterious moors. When winter
fights its last fight and then surrenders to summerslowly as it
comesthe island blooms with daffodils and blossoms into green tree-lined
streets. Flip flops and farm trucks
beaches and barbecue
and sweet smells.
People who come here realize quickly that there is something more than
the people though. They realize that they are experiencing something that
is more important than just how people wave hello or hug those
they havent seen in a while. Europeans understand what this feeling
is. They understand that "sense of place" is a critical part
of how we as human beings interact with each other. Grand cities of Europe
embrace the historic character of their communities as something which
transforms us from simple humans fighting to survive on this planet to
a people who relish art and literature. It is a thing that helps to move
us onto that higher plane.
Sense of placegenus lociits a simple idea, really. Your
place, the setting you are in, gives you a feeling. As I write this, the
days are lengthening and the air is growing warmer. Some evenings, when
I stand downtown after a good movie at the Gaslight Theater and the streets
are still and quiet, I get a sense of complete calm. It makes me feel
as though I am part of a community and, perhaps, something even more important.
This is the sense of place which I will refer to often.
Nantucket has a strong sense of place created from its buildings and places.
For that reason, I have decided to take readers on a journey through the
architecture and spaces of "this place apart." I will explore
the types of buildings found on Nantucket, the specific buildings of its
history, some places of obvious interest and some not so obvious. I will
examine where we, as humans and as Nantucketers, fit into this puzzle.
Most importantly, I will look at ways to make this "sense of place"
better and why historic preservation is critical to that "sense of
Architecture is one of the oldest and most noble arts. Greeks were fanatical
about their architecture as art. Romans, the engineers of ancient civilization,
were much more in-tune with the structure. Europeans found both subtle
balances and strong expressions of structure and architecture. This on-going
struggle between the two found itself in England in the later parts of
the seventeenth century. Having been refined and altered over time, the
English had both a brute honesty to their buildings while emphasizing
simple details that brought architecture to the surface.
It is this English aesthetic that was first to arrive on this land. Settlers
brought with them the tested methods of structurepost and beamand
the gentle art of architecture. Even the most grizzled bits of buildings
can often express themselves in delicate architectural forms. From that
time forward people have refined and re-defined architecture and created
more outward signs of "place." However, somewhere along the
timeline of American architecture, we began to forget how to create these
places. We gave up gentle architecture for architecture of speed. We left
places like Nantucket behind. When the island could not bring enough people
in to live here in the traditional way, we adopted that form of "open
road" planning and architecture. Gas stations, sub-divisions, and
roads designed for ease of speed were introduced to the island.
Traditional planning and architecture were left behind in favor of this
speed oriented styles. But something was missing, something that nagged
in the back of peoples minds. Why are we destroying these
gentle places of architecture? What has happened to our sense
of place? Is there a "there" anymore? People
started to search for it. Some discovered it here: a place which still
had slow streets, gentle architecture, and quiet places. They realized
that what they had been missing from their lives were places like Nantucket.
The concept of historic preservation was beginning to be developed at
the same time. A more traditional form of planning began to be pursued.
People sought out real experiences in their lives. Everyone wanted a place
apart for their own communities. Unfortunately, Nantucket, allowed for
the "speed style" of architecture and planning to accommodate
the new swell of people. The island wandered down a path which has taken
years to correct. Now it seems that the island has regained its footing
by finding new and innovative ways to connect people, place, and its buildings.
Please stay with me over the next few months while I explore in this column
some of these old and new places and buildings. I will explore open spaces,
public spaces, private spaces, and places in-between. I will attempt to
reveal the histories of buildings and the lives they lead now. And I will
attempt to understand why a place like Nantucket must take that next step
and lead the pack towards a new appreciation of historic preservation.