There is something in the air and soil and water that gives the place a vibrant saturation of color. Going there was almost as though I were born into a deprivation chamber and then shown a flower for the first time. I always assumed that Whistler’s paintings of New England were just romantic exaggerations, but the water lapping upon the shore of Nantucket is in fact iridescent.
I didn’t really know what to expect going there. Which I guess works. Generally speaking the height of your expectations mirrors the potential depth of your disappointment. People talked about the place in hushed, reverential terms and that was good enough for me.
As a case study in preservation, Nantucket has some interesting lessons to offer. After the whaling boom faded, the economy of the island slowed, and thus the island’s architecture remained largely unmolested. Before major redevelopment occurred in the 20th century a preservation regime was initiated and the result is a distinct lack of McMansions.
I could see that new buildings and developments had been built, but they all followed the Nantucket idiom. Modern materials were eschewed. Every house had little cedar shingles, and white window casing. They all shared a common massing profile. If it weren’t for modern windows and unimaginative site plans it would be nearly impossible to know the difference between new and old. I’m sure this is what the ladies at the Preservation Society of Charleston had in mind when they pushed to establish Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review in 1931.
Nantucket has done a better job than most other places at preserving a unified sense of character. However, I will say that the Nantucket vernacular has been distilled almost too well. After a while it all became a blur of homogeneity. It’s simply boring to see the same building – no matter how nicely done – over, and over, and over, and over again. As a casual observer I can’t say whether this is due to an overbearing zoning ordinance, or architectural malaise, but perhaps someone should try kick it in gear before Nantucket suffers from a lack of architectural diversity. Mandating the use of traditional materials and massing standards is helpful in ensuring a nice building. But don’t require everyone to build the same house.
My favorite buildings were those that bucked the standard. The small cottages that were built by people who were trying to get out of the weather. The buildings that weren’t artfully designed. It’s a little vulgar to think that these fisherman’s cottages sell for over $1,000/sq.ft., but I guess there are other people that share my sentiment. Sconset was full of little houses like the one pictured above. I’m not much of a beach person, but I could easily idle away a summer here. Reading books and eating ice cream.