On Nantucket, a legal maneuver to protect historic homes from decay

On an island where average home sales topped $4 million last year, the Ginger Andrews shanty town is the golden ticket.

If she had her way, Ms. Andrews, a fourth-generation Nantucket resident, could sell her waterfront property next week for a life-changing sum of money. The prospect is intoxicating – at least for some of her acquaintances.

“They’ll say, ‘You could have a chef!'” Ms Andrews said. “‘Or, ‘Don’t you want to travel around the world?'”

But she has a different goal: to defend her weather-worn 19th-century shack from buyers who would destroy its unadorned interior, install modern layouts and luxuries, and erase the heavy heritage that has already largely disappeared from the island, 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast. .

With no children to pass the estate on to, Ms. Andrews turned to a little-known legal maneuver that is having a moment in Nantucket and elsewhere in New England. She attaches a conservation restriction to her title deed, requiring any future owner to maintain the building’s essential features. She also intends to ensure that the scallopers, who have long butchered their catch in its cramped kitchen, can continue to use the building, the last working shantytown on Old North Wharf.

“It’s my way of looking at the flow of development here and saying, ‘Stop,'” said Ms. Andrews, 69, standing in her bare-bones kitchen one morning last month as a tiny space heater worked against the chill. “It’s the last vestige of a working waterfront.”

To the tourists who throng its wide brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets each summer, Nantucket looks like a stunningly complete time capsule, thick with pristine examples of Colonial and Federal architecture. Elegant mansions built by 19th-century whaling captains give way to warm brick storefronts, lovingly restored. The National Library, with its tall white columns, is a Greek Revival masterpiece.

Behind the perfect exteriors, however, a steady erosion of history has been going on for years, conservationists say, as ultra-rich newcomers have remodeled the interiors of antique houses, erasing centuries-old walls, staircases, fireplaces, doors and windows.

The trend first raised alarm in 2000, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Nantucket one of the most endangered historic sites in the country. Demolition of old buildings, removal of original interiors and new construction that was not in accordance with the character of the island are mentioned.

While all of Nantucket is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — the largest list in the country, encompassing 5,000 structures — local officials have the authority to protect only the exteriors of buildings. As more owners have sacrificed original interiors in favor of new floor plans and amenities, more longtime residents are considering preservation restrictions as a last resort to preserve history.

After adding about one new prohibited act each year for the past two decades, the island now has five pending, said Mary Bergman, director of the Nantucket Conservation Trust. which administers the deed restriction program. A similar regional effort, run by the nonprofit group Historic New Englandadded last year six homes in four states to the list of 125 protected properties, tying the previous record, said Carissa Demore, the organization’s conservation services team leader.

The numbers are small but may reflect evolving attitudes, conservation leaders said.

“Eventually, the old house, with its integrity and authenticity, will be a rarer and perhaps more desirable thing,” Ms. Bergman said. “There’s something deeply appealing about keeping something real, and that seems to be increasingly important to younger people raised in the digital age.”

Philip Carpenter, 74, a retired builder, grew up with an appreciation for old things. His father, an antiques dealer, and his mother, a collector, bought the house on Nantucket’s Fair Street in 1962 for $12,000, he said, and carefully preserved its original features. With its five fireplaces, interior wooden shutters and classical Greek Revival staircase carvings, it remains “remarkably undisturbed” nearly two centuries after it was built, he said.

After watching numerous new neighbors destroy the interior of their historic homes, and grieving each time, Mr. Carpenter said he had no doubts about the ban on preserving the house he inherited from his parents – even after friends in the real estate industry urged him to they warned it would reduce the value of the property.

“There are more important things than money,” he said, “and we’re losing that sensibility.”

Peter Dorsey, a real estate broker specializing in antique homes north of Boston, said the foreclosure ban could increase the home’s value to the right buyer, guaranteeing its historic significance. “It complicates things in a good way,” he said, “because it makes sure the buyers are real people.”

Like Mr. Carpenter, Ms. Andrews is grateful to older family members for teaching her the value of the past. Her grandfather, a Nantucket fisherman, bought a gray shingle cabin perched above the harbor around 1906. Mrs. Andrews learned to shell scallops there and played “king of the hill” on the pile of discarded shells outside.

By the time she inherited the building in 2000, the wooden pillars on which it stands were rotting and sinking. As she propped it up—leasing space to scallopers who dumped their catch there—the surrounding docks were rapidly changing. Other old waterfront buildings have been sold for millions, being converted into luxury cabins with coveted boats.

Welcoming visitors on a still, sunlit winter’s day, Ms Andrews said she hoped to turn her shack into a working waterfront museum – with working scallopers as one of the attractions. In the loft, a former sail loft reached by climbing a ladder, she displayed a treasure trove of artefacts, including old ropes and sails and iron rakes.

In the kitchen, where orange rubber aprons hang on hooks next to the front door with wooden locks, she described the art of shelling a scallop with infectious fervor, from the delicate trail of a knife along the shell to the critical movement of the wrist when “grabbing the guts and throwing them in the barrel.”

Not that scallop hunting is any more romantic. “It’s hard work in the cold,” said Ms. Andrews, an ornithologist, artist and writer who fished in her youth and lives in The 300-year-old house also passed down through her family. “You have to put up with snot falling down your face all day.”

Of course, the high cost of housing on the island threatened more than just the historic architecture. Year-round residents, including fishermen, laborers and city employees, are struggling to stay on the island, an issue that seems more important to many than preserving the antique houses.

As the housing crisis intensified across the country, more preservationists sought to work with housing advocates, including on Nantucket. That’s where leaders plan buy a historically protected former lifeguard station use for housing the workforce, and a “home recycling” program relocates and reuses older homes which are slated for demolition.

At $5,000 to $20,000 for each easement, much of which will go to lawyers, preserving history isn’t cheap. The Nantucket Preservation Trust monitors deed restrictions once they are in effect, hiring experts to inspect protected properties each year to ensure no unauthorized changes have been made. Thanks to the successful fundraising, the trust is prepared to go to court if anyone attempts a prohibited construction project.

Four years after Mr. Carpenter initiated the restriction on his Nantucket home, the legal agreement has cleared a state review and is awaiting city approval. He said he had opted for “draconian” measures, banning future owners from installing insulation or replacing the original skirting boards.

(Kitchen and bathroom updates will be allowed, as are most such agreements. “Nobody wants to live in a museum,” Ms. Bergman said.)

His three grown-up children, who will inherit the property, were not entirely happy with his decision, Mr Carpenter said, “but it is non-negotiable”. As an added bonus, he said, the deed restriction will likely lower his property tax bill.

Once the legal documents are signed, he expects to feel a great sense of relief.

“I’m going to feel like I’m leaving the legacy I want to leave,” he said. “It’s a beautiful old summer house, and that’s what it’s going to be.”

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