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Walking with Friends

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004


My wife has come to dread it, my friends have come to expect it, and I have nothing but pride for it. It’s the "tour" or more accurately "the Aaron tour." I have a knack for learning what I can about a place as quickly as possible. I then translate that into a "point and look" tour anytime anyone comes into town, whatever town that might be. Nantucket has been great for touring because it provides an easy walking tour for most who visit. Friends and family come to our home, have a wonderfully prepared meal by Andrea, and we whisk off on the bus to our downtown tour.

The tour generally starts on upper Main Street. One starting point has been the ongoing exhibit at the Coffin School about Nantucket Architecture. If you haven’t been, go. Now. Its free (please donate!) and well worth the hour or so you can spend reading the panels. Plus, check out the great little wigwam built out front and the rest of this neat little school. However, from here we charge past all the obvious architecture and head up to the Monument. This is a great starting point and I often hold off on the exhibit until later.

We use the 106 Main "pocket park" for our starting point and I tell them all about Nantucket and its many preservation issues. I can also point out 105 Main and 108 Main and the development of different architectural styles. We go past the "This Old House" house (and its Italianate style), past New Dollar Lane (where you can see the "pony park" down at the end), and then turn onto Vestal Street. Maria Mitchell’s home provides a great opportunity to see an early twentieth century observatory. (Plus it’s right next to the fantastic grain painting in the Maria Mitchell House.) Its surprising for some to see the brick and metal structure right there in the middle of town, but it’s a good reminder for everyone who is concerned about the night sky and light pollution.

From there, we tromp up to the Old Gaol (donations please!) where everyone can marvel at its cramped quarters and the neat old Hawthorne trees. Its up to the corner of Vestal and Quaker to see the Quaker meeting ground, along the fence line (watch the gravestones, I often joke), and then back to the top of Main. I point out the Woodbury development and 153 Main Street and the relationship of farms and new subdivisions (usually I promise a trip past the new Hedgebury project).

Down from Caton Circle and to the next stop, 141 Main. This usually prompts a discussion about how can the HDC let something like this happen, to which I can finally respond that the minimum maintenance standard will be passed soon by the Attorney General. From there, we can wander down Quarter Mile Hill or continue onward and comment on the various buildings along Upper Main. From here, we turn down Howard Court and enter the Greater Light property. If you haven’t been up there, I suggest you go. It’s well worth the visit. The 1930’s style interior and the lush garden is in great need of help, but the whole site is still a diamond in the rough.

From here we go past the hose cart house at the corner of Liberty and Howard, take a peek at the old store and start to wander down Main toward the Coffin School again. (I wish there was a way to criss-cross back to India Street and up past Academy Lane to the Congregational Church, but instead I just leave that for another tour.) We catch sight of the Three Bricks, the Two Greeks, and the Big Federal (99 Main). This prompts a discussion of how identical houses should be discouraged in Nantucket. The tour then turns down Pleasant and again down Summer Street to see the Baptist Church and the funky pagoda style roof next door (you might have to move back to see it). Its then down Pine Street to Farmer, past the neat little one-and-a-half story structures and then back onto Fair Street. (We sometimes use the cut-off tour and go up Ray’s Court from Main Street, but I tend to save that for the special friends and family.)

Fair Street provides a view of the Fish Lots with the Woodbox, the great mansardic roofed house at 51 Fair Street, and then St. Paul’s Church. St. Paul’s is another treat if you haven’t been inside. This wonderful turn of the century Richardson Romanesque building has great Tiffany windows well worth a walk up from Main Street. From there I point out the Quaker Meeting House (another fine NHA property), but turn around to go back down Martin’s Lane. From Martin’s Lane we turn on to Orange and down the hill towards the Unitarian Church.

Here at the Unitarian Church, if you are lucky go inside and see one of the greatest trompe l’oeil paintings – ever. I have seen a few and this one is hard to surpass, perhaps only tied for first with the Congregational Church. Across from the Unitarian is my favorite secret Nantucket spot, Stone Alley. Careful going is required here but it’s worth plunging into the cool leafy alley way down to Union Street. Be polite to those living on this little alley and go quietly please.Suddenlyyou appear on Union Street and the hustle and bustle of lower Main is just a few steps away.

Here at the bottom of Main I will generally point out the compass rose (picture opportunity – CHEESE!) and then turn down Straight Wharf. Shopping generally ensues, but if I can help it we make sure to get to at least recognize the importance of the Macy Warehouse. From there I try to guide our group (usually on its last legs) back to Old North Wharf and a look at the Andrew scallop shanty. We finish at the Dreamland and the Library and can discuss their preservation and adaptation. Usually I suggest a walk up Main for shopping, but most times they just want to get to the bus and go home to Andrea’s cooking.

Another tour I give includes a trip along India, Hussey, Academy Hill, and then to the Congregational Church and Center Street. Of course, trips to Sconset, Bartlett Farm, the Moors, or other great spots are well worth the time too and I have my own tours for them. But I think this in town tour is one of the best. I may not be the first to take it, but I think I shouldn’t be the last. This is why I am sharing this trip with those who may read this little column. Use it in good health. Look at the buildings along your path and you will find that Nantucket has more architectural styles than you may first realize. We are more than gray shingles and white trim, especially downtown. Enjoy the fact that people have been using this island for hundreds of years. Nantucket is a special place and I encourage you all to get out there and see this great place.