Nantucket is, and always has been, much more than a summer community. It is a place forged in its salty past that can be your year-round residence or 'health retreat', writes Ari Kellerman. The Maine-based photographer and antiquarian explores Nantucket's history and shares an insider's guide for an unforgettable weekend on the charming island.
BY ARI KELLERMAN | SEPTEMBER 2023
Today, Nantucket - a National Historic Landmark on America's East Coast - is one of the most popular destinations in the world, home to nearly 800 pre-civil war buildings that have kept the island's heritage at the forefront of its tourism industry.
This feat in preservation is largely due to the early founding of the Nantucket Historical Association, in 1894, the Nantucket Historic District Commission, and Nantucket Preservation Trust. Much of the island's charm is that it appears untouched, a historic seaside village with some of New England's best architecture, lined with cobblestone streets and front-yard gardens each lovelier than the next.
A great amount of effort and easements have created this picture. Nantucket's earliest history saw the island inhabited by the Wapanoag Indians for millennia. In the 17th century, it became an English frontier settlement built on agriculture; tradesmen were encouraged to settle and work on Nantucket in exchange for half a share in the island. The 18th century saw a transition into a maritime community, trading along the eastern seaboard with whaling voyages throughout the Atlantic. By the early 19th century, Nantucket became the whaling capital of the world, and as industry boomed, it began to reflect cosmopolitan tastes with influences from abroad.
Housewrights transitioned from saltboxes and shingled Quaker houses to substantial Greek-Revivals. In the mid-19th century Nantucket began to see a decline in maritime activity, and in 1846 the Great Fire consumed a third of the island. Many islanders followed the work to the mainland, but those that stayed began to advertise the now isolated island as a summer health retreat for Bostonians, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians. This quieter period left much of its early architecture neglected but standing. Like many other picturesque remote islands throughout New England, an art colony arose in the early 20th century. Alongside this, the US began to take interest in its own history, and with the Colonial Revival movement came funds for preservation, and tourists and transplants alike have flocked to the time capsule ever since.
Because of Nantucket’s uniquely rugged and cosmopolitan past, it remains distinctively different from the numerous islands dotted along the New England coastline. Its heritage and craft is still alive in the making of traditional lightship baskets, passed from generation to generation, still spotted on every fashionable arm on Main Street. You’ll find one of the only scrimshaw (the engraving of bone or ivory) artists in the US on island, and weavers set up on looms producing blankets and throws in the same way as they were made in the 18th century, but with the added luxury of mohair and cashmere. Nantucket is and always has been much more than a summer community. It is a place forged in its salty past that can be your year-round residence, or your “health retreat” à la 1880, but with every added 21st century amenity a stones throw away.
What to See & Do
Greater Light: The Summer home and artists' studio of Quaker sisters, Hanna (1887-1962) and Gertrude (1889-1972) Monaghan. The creative pair were instrumental in Nantucket's artist colony of the early 20th-century, restoring a former livestock barn into a bohemian residence filled with architectural salvage.
Hadwen House: A wonderful Greek Revival house museum built in 1845 by a whale oil merchant. Hadwen House features rotating exhibits of culture and craftsmanship, including a permanent installation on basket weaving.
Oldest House: This house museum, known as the Oldest House on Sunset Hill, or the Jethro Coffin House, is believed to be the oldest house on Nantucket. Built c.1686 by the most prolific of the first families as a wedding gift for Jethro and Mary Gardner Coffin, this hall-and-parlor dwelling offers a wonderful walk through history.
Whaling Museum: More than a whaling museum, this fascinating collection of American maritime history is housed in the 1846 Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory.
Scrimshander Gallery: A museum with a difference, the gallery features the work of one of the only Scrimshaw artists in the country. (Scrimshaw: the decoration of bone or ivory objects, such as whale's teeth or walrus tusks, with fanciful designs, executed by whale fishermen of American and Anglo-American origin.)
Jetties Beach and Surfside Beach: Sandy beaches with umbrellas, chair rentals and close-by food options, with Surfside Beach offering larger waves for water sports.
Sankaty Headlight, Brant Point and Great Point Lighthouses: Three incredibly picturesque Nantucket landmarks; not to be missed.
Nantucket's charming houses © Ari Kellerman
Where to Eat
Languedoc Bistro: A charming French Bistro in an 18th-century colonial inn; serving up classic, French-inspired cuisine and a warm atmosphere.
Born & Bread: A brilliant artisanal bakery in downtown Nantucket, serving year-round delicious bread, sandwiches and pastries. Perfect for a quick breakfast or lunch.
Something Natural: A real Nantucket sandwich stalwart, established more than 50 years ago, with lovely parkland surroundings. This cute sandwich shack is the place to stock up for picnics on nearby Steps Beach, or picnics in general. They make huge, piled-high sandwiches and home-baked breads.
Galley Beach Restaurant: A Nantucket landmark that first started as a clam shack and has since evolved into a fine dining experience with beautiful beach views.
CRU Oyster Bar: A stylish, waterfront restaurant and oyster bar, with a well-deserved reputation as the hottest spot in Nantucket for oysters.
The Beet: A great little spot that’s carved out a niche for delicious Latin and Asian-inspired health food.
Sister Ship: A Mediterranean restaurant, cafe, and cocktail club featuring colorful, lavishly decorated interiors.
Eleish Van Breems Home, Nantucket © Ari Kellerman
Where to Shop
Eleish Van Breems Home: An elegant Scandinavian-style boutique that embraces Nantucket’s coastal and laid-back-yet-stylish sensibility.
John Rugge Antiques: The best kind of eclectic antique store, John Rugge Antiques - now helmed by dealer, Francis Farrell - is full of interesting furniture, intriguing artworks and unexpected finds - from sculptures and fine paintings to hanging lights and homewares. 5 India St, Nantucket; +1 508-332-4256
Erica Wilson: Founded by the ‘first lady of stitchery’, Erica Wilson, this lovely boutique houses womenswear and needlework accessories.
Serenella: A refined boutique, with sister outposts in Boston and Palm Beach, Seranella sells clothing and accessories blending the best of European and American fashion.
Four Winds Craft Guild: Representing artists, artisans and craftspeople on Nantucket and throughout North America, Four Winds Craft Guild sells entirely handmade (crafted, painted, carved, woven) objects and homewares, including Lightship Baskets from the island's artisans and early American antiques.
Nantucket Looms: A brilliant homewares store in a quaint setting, specialising in handwoven blankets and throws, home decor, art and decorative objects.
Freedman’s of Nantucket: Founded by long-time Nantucket resident, Don Freedman, this creative store trades in unique homewares, such as one-of-a-kind light fixtures, wall clocks and home furnishings. 14 Centre St, Nantucket; +1 508-228-3291
Four Winds Craft Guild, Nantucket © Ari Kellerman
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