Tuesday afternoon, Day 9, we received our introduction to the sites we will be documenting at the Maria Mitchell Association. Mitchell was a Nantucketer who was the first woman to discover a comet in 1846. She was also the first woman inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences and taught at Vasser College. Now, there’s a collection of buildings on Vestal Street that feature her family home, a library, natural sciences museum, and observatory. The site I’ll be working on is the house, which was built in 1818. It is kept in a preserved state, meaning later alterations were left in place and only minor repairs are made. Because it’s been a museum for so long, no bathrooms were added.
On Wednesday afternoon, Day 10, we went back and took a close look at the house to point out problems. Particularly glaring was the moss growing on the roof in the shadow of the chimney, which needs to have its Portland cement removed. There’s also a lot of lichen growth on the shingles (just about every house on Nantucket has shingles), and water drainage seems to be an issue as some shingles are warped. The interior has some plaster cracks.
The mornings of days 10 and 11 were spent with classical archaeologist Dr. Michelle Berenfeld, a professor at Brown University. Berenfeld discussed how World Heritage sites — particularlarly archaelogical sites — were at risk from looters, too many visitors, apathy, climate change, and mismanagment. Her presentation on Iraq was particularly jarring with all the artifacts being looted from that historic part of the world.
On Wednesday evening I attended a short films screening at the Atheneum. The first film lamented the loss of the way of life on Nantucket before it became an internationally known vacation hot spot. The second mourned the loss of Maine’s “working waterfronts.” Discussion afterward turned to Walter Beinecke, a developer credited with transforming the economically depressed Nantucket after World War II into the place it is today. This, of course, means he’s either loved or hated depending on who you ask. He’s also the reason I’m writing this right now, because he helped start Preservation Institute: Nantucket along with then UF professor Blair Reeves in the 1970s.
It’s human nature to be nostalgic; I bet people on Nantucket today will look back fondly on it 10 years from now. I see it like this: If Beinecke didn’t come around another developer(s) would’ve. Nantucket isn’t far from Boston, Providence, and New York City, so it’s not like it was going to stay hidden. Nantucket’s Beinecke-led overhaul kept most of the historic fabric, which is probably what is most beloved about the island. Would another developer been as compassionate to historic preservation?
Today’s Nantucket may have a lack of affordable housing, more vehicles than its streets can handle, mega mansions plopped on former pristine views, too many high-priced businesses, and rude people. But though now it’s a place to be seen, that’s still better than being a place where no one wants to be.