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From the days when the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) gained a stronghold on this Massachusetts island, distinguishing their late eighteenth and early nineteenth century homes with deliberate simplicity and superb craftsmanship, Nantucket has been shaped into a community that is both charming and culturally rich--a gem among America’s historic architecture collections.

by Rose Gonnella

For the curious or casual stroller of Nantucket's historic streets and lanes, the abundance of vernacular architecture built by the island's early Quakers reveals a distinct aesthetic sensibility. Houses of a particular simplicity and a rigorous consistency of style create an organized, serene appearance that has come to signify the island. Behind the wonderfully ordered array of these exteriors are the comfortable and supremely functional interiors of these homes. Unseen by the stroller are the pattern of the rooms, the giant hearths and tidy cabinetry, the wide hand-planed floorboards, the carved wooden pegs joining massive beams and posts, and plaster work that exposes marks of a trowel. Exteriors reflect the taste, style, and order of the period; interiors speak of the Nantucketers who built and lived their lives in these homes.

(left) Rescom Taber House at 45 India Street was built circa 1804 in a four-bay style. During the late nineteenth century, the house was given a "makeover" that included an ornamental door surround with side windows and a bracketed overhang. (right) Front Bedroom. This early-nineteenth-century room has the original raised-panel wall sheathing that is typical of the period.

Historic Kitchen. Currently filled with antique utensils, this former work space is now used as a dining room.

Beginning in the early eighteenth century, a religious ethic and a powerful interconnectedness emerged from the Quaker Friends' weekly spiritual meeting, manifesting itself in the daily life of many Nantucketers. As a community, the Friends lived, spoke, and dressed in a conservative and communal manner. Their architecture followed these values of modesty and egalitarianism. Most members lived in a two-and-a-half-story, four-bay style house with a functional and efficient organization of space and small but ample proportions.

This plain and tidy style, found on nearly every street of Nantucket town, is known as the typical Nantucket house. The four-bay house is regarded as characteristic of the island’s historic architecture because an overwhelming number of this dwelling type were built from approximately 1750 to 1830. A period of major economic growth for this maritime community, it was also a time when the Friends enjoyed great political and social influence among the island’s varied population. The typical Nantucket house evolved from the English style models found on the mainland and had elements of Georgian and early Federal style architecture; the plan of the house was a blend of these styles and distinct to the Nantucket Quakers.

The residence at 45 India Street (shown here), expertly constructed circa 1804 by local carpenter Rescom Taber for his family, still displays the home’s original architectural character. This typical Nantucket house illustrates a Quaker sanctioned plainness on the exterior and an equally simple, ship-tight efficiency on the interior. The floor plan includes a small entrance hall and a four-room arrangement around a single chimney that serviced each of the living spaces. The Taber interior also exhibits the Friends' taste for the modest decorative refinements popular at the time such as plastered and painted walls and raised-panel woodwork and wall sheathing.

The current sage green, sky blue, and warm white colors of the walls and doors in the Taber house would have been appropriate in the early nineteenth century as well. Interested in the preservation of the house (a deed restriction protects the historic elements in perpetuity), the homeowners have not disturbed the original, essential architectural fabric of the structure. In addition, they have filled the interior with a superb collection of antiques including many that reflect the style of the early nineteenth century.

Hundreds of examples of the typical Nantucket house were removed or fell into disrepair following the severe economic decline caused by the whaling industry’s collapse after 1845. Yet nearly 200 of these plain but appealing houses still remain.

Adapted with permission from Rizzoli. Images copyright Sea Captains' Houses and Rose-Covered Cottages, published by Universe (an imprint of Rizzoli International Publications), 2003. Read more on the subject in the recent book by Margaret Moore Booker, Rose Gonnella, and Patricia Egan Butler, Sea Captains' Houses and Rose Covered Cottages: Nantucket Island’s Architectural Heritage (Universe, Rizzoli International Publications, 2003). From the simplicity of the typical Nantucket house constructed in a religious, maritime community and the fanciful Victorians of a rising resort destination, to the modern homes of today, this comprehensive volume brings to life the island's architectural and cultural heritage. Based on research drawn from primary sources, the book includes 160 color illustrations of forty diverse homes.

Rose Gonnella is an artist and author of several books on creativity and articles on art and Nantucket history. A summer resident of Nantucket, she is Professor of Design Theory and Application in the Visual Communications program of Kean University in New Jersey.

As a nation that uses images to create and reflect itself, where better to unravel our national character than at Newport, Rhode Island's National Museum of American Illustration? The museum, established in 1998 and opened in 2000, houses a vast collection of originals from the period widely considered the Golden Age of American illustration (1870-1965). Created for reproduction in books, newspapers, and magazines, these images include the largest private assemblage of Norman Rockwells, as well works by Maxfield Parrish, J. C. Leyendecker, Jessie Wilcox Smith, among others.

Vernon Court

Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), Willie Takes A Step, 1935.

New York art dealer Judy Goffman Cutler and her husband Laurence S. Cutler, an architect and author, present original artwork, prints, and memorabilia with artifacts (Rockwell’s first paint box), period furnishings, and decorative arts such as Hiram Powers’ marble America (1859) throughout their house museum, the lavishly appointed Vernon Court. The Gilded Age setting alone is reason enough to visit. A turn-of-the-century, beaux arts mansion on Bellevue Avenue, Vernon Court was designed by Carrere & Hastings (architects for the New York City Public Library and the Fifth Avenue home of Henry Clay Frick). The surrounding gardens were inspired by the pond garden that Henry VIII conceived for Anne Boleyn at Hampton Court.

Howard Chandler Christy (1873–1952), The Dawn of Victory, 1933.

On view at Vernon Court are icons of American illustrative art. Norman Rockwell's heartwarming scenes advanced the war effort three decades after J. M. Flagg's depiction of Uncle Sam rallied the cause of the First World War. Original N. C. Wyeth illustrations for children's classics include scenes from Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and Robin Hood. The magazine illustrations of women by Howard Chandler Christy ("The Christy Girl") and Charles Dana Gibson ("The Gibson Girl") became the definition of feminine beauty in the early twentieth century.

The National Museum of American Illustration, Vernon Court, 492 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI. For information, call 401.851.8949 or visit www.americanillustration.org.

Antiques and Fine Art is the leading site for antique collectors, designers, and enthusiasts of art and antiques. Featuring outstanding inventory for sale from top antiques & art dealers, educational articles on fine and decorative arts, and a calendar listing upcoming antiques shows and fairs.