Exploring the forgotten history of Nantucket’s rarest architecture.
Scattered among Nantucket’s restrained and occasionally formal architecture are buildings that seem to scream for attention. With their garish colors, ornate fenestration, elaborate bracketed corners, and dramatically angled dormers, they are architectural fishes out of water on conservative Nantucket. How Victorian architecture found its way to Puritan Nantucket and the reasons why so few examples still exist are little known facts.
Whether it’s 72 Main Street, 21 and 19 on Broad Street, or the hostel out on Surfside, these Victorians add a unique, if curious, dimension to the island’s architectural character. Despite their conspicuous design, very little is known about how they arrived on island. “Nantucket has so much information about eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings, but when you come to the Victorian period, there wasn’t as much interest,” explained Michael May, the executive director of the Preservation Trust. “There was very little understanding about the importance of Victorian architecture.” Even more befuddling is that the Victorians we see today very nearly didn’t survive.
You don’t see a lot of Victorian elements on island because in the 1930s and ‘40s, and into the mid-twentieth century, preservationists actually encouraged people to remove Victorian elements because they were considered ugly,” May explained. As a consequence, many Victorians at the time were stripped of their porches and bracketed cornices, and left to look more like their eighteenth and nineteenth century neighbors. Others were simply leveled. There is no official number on how many Victorians existed on the island.
The rise of the Victorians on Nantucket traces back to the end of the 1800s when the island was transitioning from a whaling hub to a tourist destination. More specifically, these edifices have Charles H. Robinson to thank for their existence. “He probably built most of the Victorian houses and structures from the 1870s to the early 1900s,” said Michael May. “He had a house at the corner of Fair and Martin’s Lane, a Victorian house that’s still there. And next door he had a shop where he made Victorian elements like brackets for cornices and porches.”
Robinson was a developer, and as the demand for quick, inexpensive housing on the island shot up along with the tourists, the Victorian style of the times proved the most effective for creating neighborhoods such as ‘Sconset Heights located below the walking bridge in Siasconset. He was also responsible for several public buildings such as the ‘Sconset Chapel and the Surfside Lifesaving Station. Robinson’s reign was not limited to Nantucket; he also developed the majority of the Victorian buildings that exist today on the Vineyard at Oak Bluffs.
Although the same man designed each of these buildings, they feature a range of different elements typically found within the Victorian period. “It’s very eclectic in the sense that it covered a lot of different styles,” explained Michael May. “There’s Gothic revival, shingle style, Italianate, French Second Empire — they were all part of the Victorian architecture.” Moreover, while these Victorians may have stood in stark contrast to the mostly Federal-style architecture of the island, the conservative Nantucket sensibility seemed to rub off on Robinson and was reflected in his design. “It’s funny, as an architectural historian, I look at them and most of them are very conservative in their use of style,” explained May. “You go off island and you see very elaborate Victorian structures, but on island, just like the architecture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they are a little restrained and a little conservative I think that was just a trait of the island to be a little bit more restrained in their use of style.”
Today, thanks to HDC regulations and painstaking restoration efforts, many of these surviving Victorians have been returned to their former glory, most recently 21 Broad Street. One only needs to stroll down Broad Street or walk to the head of Main to see examples of these rare architectural achievements. In the case of Victorian architecture, beauty is clearly in the eyes of the beholder, but like them or not, they are an important part of Nantucket’s architectural fabric.