At the peak of Nantucket’s whaling industry wealth, the island began to see new brick buildings and whaling mansions that symbolized the stability and success of the town. In 1821, Frederick W. Mitchell (1784-1867), acquired this property on Main Street, demolishing the previous wood-frame house on the site, in preparation for his own mansion. Frederick Mitchell was a successful whaling merchant and one-time president of the Pacific National Bank. Mitchell was married twice but left no children from either marriage. The house remained in the Mitchell family until 1889 when it sold it to Caroline Louisa Williams French (1833-1914) of Boston, who summered on Nantucket until her death in 1914. A devout Episcopalian, French gifted this house to St. Paul’s Church in Nantucket for use as a Parish House. The church deaccessioned the house, and it eventually sold in 1962 to Walter Beinecke (1918-2004) acquired the house for his home. A central figure in the preservation and revival of Nantucket in the second half of the 20th century, Beinecke sought to preserve the island and reduce the damage done by tourism by creating a higher-priced resort that would reduce the number of day tourist and aim at increasing the number of wealthy tourists who would come as summer residents or for extended visits. Working towards this goal, Beinecke acquired large numbers of buildings (more than 150) in the commercial core of the town as personal investments through his private company Sherburne Associates, restoring many. The house is one of the finest examples of late-Federal residential architecture on the island with its recessed entry and fanlight transom, symmetrical five bay facade, decorative parapet and belvedere at the roof.
Nantucket Historic Houses
Eliza Starbuck Barney House // 1873
Another of the less common Victorian-era houses on Nantucket is this beauty located right on Main Street, named after its first owner. Eliza Starbuck was the third child of Joseph Starbuck and Sally Gardner, a Nantucket family that had become wealthy in the whale oil industry. At 18, Eliza married Nathaniel Barney and despite their wealth, the couple shared a home with Eliza’s sister, Eunice, and her husband William Hadwen. The husbands became business partners, opening a whale oil refinery on the site of the current Nantucket Whaling Museum. This house was built around 1873 for Eliza Starbuck Barney after the death of her husband. Mrs. Barney is best known as an abolitionist, a temperance and women’s suffrage advocate, and a local genealogist. The home is a fine example of Italianate-style architecture. Note the round-arch or Roman windows and bracketed cornice typical of the style.
Fosdick-Calder Double House // c.1745
This 2 ½-story, five-bay house was built for Benjamin Fosdick (1713-1801) and his family on Nantucket. After Benjamin died in 1801, the house was inherited by two of his surviving sons and they divided the house into two, creating a double-house for them and their own families. The symmetrical home was divided down the middle at the central chimney, and two front doors provided access to the two dwellings. The right section was once the home of Capt. William Calder, who escaped shipwreck at Cape Horn
on his first voyage at age 13. He later was captured by the British during the War of 1812, and escaped from Dartmoor Prison in England, making his way back to Nantucket. The double house has retained much of its original design since 1801 until the 1960s when the projecting entrance porch was added.
George C. Gardner House // c.1834
On Nantucket, even the little houses can pack an architectural punch! This is the George C. Gardner House. The house on Main Street was built in 1834 for sea captain George Gardner, a descendant of Richard Gardner, an early white settler on the island (who’s house stands nextdoor). The house exhibits a five bay facade with Ionic columned portico and balustrade at the roof and widow’s walk. By the end of the 20th century, the house was sitting, decaying after years of deferred maintenance caused by a bitter divorce dispute between the owners. From this, locals told stories about the house being haunted, including stories of a Chinese servant of the Gardner family who was hanged after becoming infatuated with one of George Gardner’s daughters. The body is rumored to have been buried on the grounds of the house. There is not much to substantiate these stories of local lore, but they are always interesting to hear. A truth is that the home was purchased in the early 2000s for millions and restored faithfully before being sold for shy of $10 Million. Now that is really scary!
Gorham Hussey House // c.1820
This Colonialized Federal period house sits just down Vestal Street from the Maria Mitchell Association campus on the ever-charming island of Nantucket. The home was built around 1820 for Gorham Hussey (1797-1879), who would have been around 23 at the time. He married Lydia Macy in 1820 and the couple had twin daughters that same year, likely right after this house was completed (talk about a busy year)! The home was later owned by photographer John W. McCalley, who photographed this and other houses in the area. The home retains a high-style Colonial Revival fanlight over the door, likely added in the first three decades of the 20th century as colonial homes were romanticized.
Maria Mitchell House and Observatory // 1790 & 1908
Although Hezekiah Swain built this house in 1790, the property is better known as the home of Maria Mitchell and is to this day, preserved to interpret her amazing legacy. Maria Mitchell’s father William bought the house in 1818, and Maria was born there later that year. Maria grew up on Nantucket and she became the first female astronomer in America. After she discovered a comet in 1847 (which was named Miss Mitchell’s Comet), her international recognition led to many awards and that acclaim enabled her to continue her work. She accepted a position as professor of astronomy at Vassar College by its founder, Matthew Vassar, in 1865 and became the first female professor of astronomy She established the Association for the Advancement of Women and became the first female member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences. She was also very involved in the anti-slavery movement in New England. After Maria Mitchell died in 1889, the Maria Mitchell Association, was established in Nantucket to preserve the sciences on the island and Mitchell’s work. On July 15, 1908, the Observatory on Vestal Street near the Science Library and Mitchell House was dedicated. The Observatory, built by the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association, stimulated local interest in science. The success of the Observatory’s programs prompted the construction of an astronomical study in 1922, joining the existing facility with the Maria Mitchell Birthplace. The museum operates in Summers to this day, and continues Maria’s rich legacy in the sciences.
Lydia S. Hinchman House // c.1819
This late Federal style house on Nantucket was built in the early nineteenth century for Thomas Coffin, who himself acquired the land in 1818, which would date the home to around 1819. The Federal house exhibits a raised basement with a five bay facade with central entrance. The door is surrounded by sidelights and transom with Classical enframement. Like many houses on Nantucket, the house is clad with cedar shingles. After ownership by Thomas Coffin, the property passed through numerous hands until 1929, when the house was purchased by Lydia S. Hinchman (1845-1938). Lydia deeded the property to her son requesting that it go to the Maria Mitchell Association upon his death (Lydia was a first cousin of Maria Mitchell). He died in 1944, and the property transferred soon after to the Maria Mitchell Association which was founded in 1902 to preserve the legacy of Nantucket native astronomer, naturalist, librarian, and educator, Maria Mitchell.
Greater Light // c.1790
Located on the island of Nantucket, this barn, now known as Greater Light was built circa 1790. Although the exact date of construction is unknown, historic research indicates it was built sometime during the ownership of two early Macy family members who held the property between 1748 and 1814. The barn remained in the Macy family until 1866, when Zephaniah Macy (then in his eighties) sold the property with the barn to their neighbor David Folger. Folger most likely used the barn for his herd of milking cows. In the summer of 1929, Hanna and Gertrude Monaghan, two Quaker sisters, discovered the barn and saw it as a perfect structure to become their home and art studio when vacationing on the island. The sisters began working on the dilapidated building and set about transforming it into their own summer oasis, adorning it with cast-off architectural elements, decorative objects, and eclectic furniture. Hanna Monaghan, the surviving sister, bequeathed Greater Light and its contents to the Nantucket Historical Association in 1972. The building is open in the summers for visitors who can catch a glimpse at the spirit of Nantucket as an artist’s colony in the 1920s and beyond.
Folger House // 1807
There is so much to love about this house! The lot here was purchased by Paul Macy and Gideon Folger in 1807, and they had this house built on the site that year. Paul Macy and, Gideon Folger were two major shareholders in the ill fated whaling schooner “Essex”. In 1820, while at sea in the southern Pacific Ocean under the command of Captain George Pollard Jr., the ship was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. Thousands of miles from the coast of South America with little food and water, the 20-man crew was forced to make for land in the ship’s surviving whaleboats. The men suffered severe dehydration, starvation, and exposure on the open ocean, and the survivors eventually resorted to eating the bodies of the crewmen who had died. When that proved insufficient, members of the crew drew lots to determine whom they would sacrifice so that the others could live. Seven crew members were cannibalized before the last of the eight survivors were rescued, more than three months after the sinking of the Essex. This ordeal was inspired Herman Melville to write his famous 1851 novel Moby-Dick. The Folger House was owned for some time by Walter Folger, a lawyer who served in the state senate.
Robb-Kagan House // 1939
Colonial-inspired homes on Nantucket never will go away, and that is because the entire island is a local historic district! New construction, demolitions, and alterations to existing structures all need to be reviewed and approved on Nantucket, no easy task! This home was built in the inter-war period (before the historic district), when New Englanders still harkened back to the classics, Colonial homes. The house was built in 1939 for Annie Robb, and it was later purchased by artist couple Vladimir Kagan and Erica Wilson. Vladimir had a really interesting life. A cabinetmaker’s son, Mr. Kagan came to the United States at 11 after fleeing Nazi Germany with his family. He trained at his father’s New York workshop and by the 1940s was producing his own designs. One of his first orders was a set of tables and chairs for a delegate lounge at the fledgling United Nations! Meanwhile, across the English Channel, a young woman named Erica Wilson came into the world in 1928 in the town of Tidworth, England. Her father was in the military and the family moved to Bermuda soon after Erica’s birth. A drawing prodigy, Wilson “translated her drawing techniques into needlework,” Illya said. Needlework became her artistic focus and she graduated from the Royal School of Needlework in London. The duo lived in this home as a summer respite, where they could hone their artistry and skills. Their son, Ilya Kagan (also an artist, of course) also stayed in the home and still resides on the island. Love it!