In their hit song “Built to Last,” the Grateful Dead croon that some things are “built to last while years roll past like cloudscapes in the sky, show me something built to last or someone built to try.” I wonder if any of “The Dead” (as loyal “Deadheads” refer to them) ever visited Nantucket and wandered the streets of the old Historic District? If so, they likely took note of the long-standing and timeless architecture of the historic homes – some dating back to the mid-1600’s. Tenants and first time Nantucket home-buyers are often pleasantly surprised to discover how well-built the homes were in the “good old days.” Recently, I heard a local builder describe a 1700’s home as having “good bones.” That’s contractor speak for “built to last.”
As real estate changes hands on the island and new owners are provided an opportunity to bring their own sense of style and design to their homes, it’s both exciting and intriguing to watch these houses undergo a transformation. Within the Old Historic District, the Historic District Commission (HDC) helps ensure that the original architectural design and integrity of the homes is preserved while giving new owners the freedom and flexibility to bring their own contemporary vision and lifestyle needs to the historic dwellings.
On some of the smaller lots in town, ingenuity is the name of the game. One project I’ve enjoyed watching evolve this winter has been the restoration of an antique home on Fair Street pictured in the photo above. The new owners apparently wanted more living space than the quaint home afforded, so they simply jacked the house up and dug a full basement under it. This is a common practice on Nantucket where additional footprint or a second dwelling may be restricted due to the size of the existing lot. Even with the addition of a new foundation, which could potentially alter the exterior appearance of a house, there are creative ways to preserve the original design and elevation of a property. A local architect told me recently about a historic restoration his firm was just completing. He said the exterior foundation of the home had all the original “rubble” dating back some 200 years, so when they sought approval to raise the house to pour a basement, it came with a contingency that the “rubble” be preserved…down to the last stone…and put back in almost identical fashion to what it was before. The project is now almost complete and if you didn’t know there was a brand new full basement underneath you would never guess by the exterior appearance.
Building a basement under an antique home isn’t just about creating additional living space. It’s also about homeowners putting a solid foundation under age-old dwellings…”shoring” them up and ensuring that in another 200 or 300 years they will still be solidly intact. These houses still have “good bones” but now have solid concrete reinforcement as well.
The next time you find yourself in Nantucket’s Old Historic District, spend some time lingering outside some of these historic homes. Admire the unique architectural design, features and building materials. If you’re in the market for your very own Nantucket treasure, but concerned about space constrictions, engage one of the island’s architects or builders to discuss creative options for maximizing its renovation. Start with the “good bones,” add in some contemporary upgrades, perhaps pour a new foundation and then continue the long-standing Nantucket tradition of creating homes that are built to last.