Like many other older cities and towns across the United States, Nantucket is a historic district that contains older buildings considered valuable for historical and architectural reasons. A commission of elected members oversees the preservation of this district. In 1966, Nantucket was also designated a National Historic Landmark District by the National Park Service, citing Nantucket as being the “finest surviving architectural and environmental example of a late 18th- and early 19th-century New England Seaport town.” Anyone who has visited this beautiful island town will find it hard to argue with that.
Nantucket’s historic district actually encompasses the entire island, as well as the neighboring islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget. Some of the oldest buildings on the island were built in the late 1600s. These homes are built primarily of wood and are very basic in structure, with very little detail or embellishment. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the island economy was booming from the whaling industry; at this time more stately homes were built, primarily in the downtown area. After the Great Fire of 1846 destroyed many of the buildings in town, they were rebuilt in the Greek Revival style that was popular at the time. Due to the fire and the fall of the whaling industry on island, the population dropped off and Nantucket almost seemed deserted. Strangely, it was because of some of this abandonment that much of this architecture survived.
Fast forwarding to the 1950s, much of Nantucket was designated as a local historic district. With that came the need for a Historic District Commission (HDC for short), which is not only responsible for overseeing preservation of historic properties, but for governing new construction and development. The goal, as stated in the original enabling act of the HDC, is to “promote the general welfare of the Town of Nantucket through the preservation and protection of historic buildings, places and districts of historic interest through the development of an appropriate setting for these buildings, places and districts and through the benefits resulting to the economy of Nantucket in developing and maintaining its vacation-travel industry through the promotion of these historic associations.” In short, Nantucket didn’t want to be like other areas where careless suburban sprawl was ruining the richness and character of a community.
Today’s HDC is composed of five full members and three associate members, who meet every Tuesday evening. Typical agenda items include discussion, approval, or rejection of proposed changes to (or addition of) any structure or hardscape. This even includes things like doors and windows, paint colors, signs, and chimney alterations. The next time you are cruising around our beautiful island, take note of the architecture and muted colors. After all, simple white trim and faded cedar shingles are one of the things that make our Grey Lady so special!