A Bit Of A Nor’easter

I don’t like wind.  Pretty hysterically funny given that I live on an island.  I mean, I can tolerate it, but after three (or four!!) straight days of gusts to 60 mph, I get a little nutty.   October 9-12, 2019 was a long, slow nor’easter.  We lost power here and there, limbs came down.  I, of course, can continue to work to some degree in the Mitchell House if it’s something not associated with power (and my work computer is a laptop).  I always like to say I work in the nineteenth century after all!

One thing that is not so fun is actually hanging out in the Mitchell House attic.  I don’t mind the sound but there is a large maple in the neighbor’s yard that always makes me nervous – especially when all the trees are still leafed out.  The other thing, is that with the wind blowing at 60 mph, it makes you feel like you are on a ship and that you are rolling.  I actually get a little nauseous!  Makes me wonder what it was like for the Mitchell children when they were playing in the attic during a storm.  The tree was not there in the nineteenth century but the winds were and I wonder if they pretended to be at sea on a whaleship like their maternal grandfather, Andrew Coleman (Note that Lydia’s and William’s first born and first born son was named after his maternal grandfather.  He too would go to sea – at age 13 he ran off to sea).  I could see that.  Sadly, he was died at sea in November 1807 when Lydia Coleman Mitchell was a young teenager.  But it was his bringing back pumpkin seed from Patagonia that brought William and Lydia together!


The Answer to “Where Is This?”

Hinchman House newel postThe image I posted last week and here again is the newel post at the bottom of the front hall staircase in Hinchman House, the MMA’s Natural Science Museum. The small white piece you see on top is what is often referred to as a “mortgage button.” And here is where we have some issues.

Let’s start with the newel post. As time went on, the posts became more elaborate as they became a part of increasingly elaborate staircases in some homes. In some, the newel post became large enough to support a light and the post would be made hollow in order to hide the gas lines or wiring. When these lights were removed by future owners, a large hollow place was left behind and stories began to abound that people once hid their mortgages or deeds in the hollowed out newel post. Thus, that hollow place did hide something but it was really for hiding the magic behind the lighting. The Hinchman House post, ballustrade, and railing are simple. I believe some of the elements are original, reflecting the Quaker ethics of its original owner, Thomas Coffin. But some parts, the balusters, for example, may be later replacements although they themselves are fairly old and the newel is just simply a small piece of rounded wood mounted to a simple baluster.

And then, there in the photograph you see a bit of whalebone (if indeed that is what it is). These “mortgage buttons” as they are often referred to might only have been a way of hiding the joinery beneath them. However, the legend is that they began on Nantucket in the nineteenth century. In the period and earlier, mortgages were less common, spanned a shorter time period, and usually had a large lump sum payment at the end. So the mortgage button could have come to be a display of status to show what you had accomplished. But, there is no known connection between the button and the mortgage so this is really just conjecture although a very nice story. But I like the story, so I will continue to tell both distinguishing between the two because stories are important too, even if there is only a tiny bit of truth there.

Mitchell House Goes Pinterest!

Shocking! What does a nineteenth century historic house museum have to contribute to a twenty-first century Internet sensation like Pinterest? Lots! After careful thought, I think this is a great way for Mitchell House to showcase itself – and historic preservation, art, architecture, and more! So, via Pinterest I will be posting images of the House and its activities, as well as interesting images from the MMA and other images I find that have to do with museums, historic preservation, architecture – things that fit with the mission of the Mitchell House. It’s another great way for this dear old house to fit into the twenty-first century. I will not stop this blog – it is too much fun sharing all the things we have in the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections! But if you have the time, check out “MitchellHouse” on Pinterest. I wonder if Maria would “pin” if she were here? Kind of like the whole idea of “Would Maria Tweet” that I blogged about. Maybe an image of the Transit of Venus? A dome party image?

May is Preservation Month!

Lime Parge, Mitchell House ChimneyHappy Preservation Month! In honor of Preservation Month, the Mitchell House has planned a few activities in collaboration with Nantucket Preservation Trust and we hope you will join us! While this may look like advertising, the programs are FREE – we just need you to make a reservation as space is very limited. Please call 508.228.2896 to register.

On Saturday, May 19, from 1-2:30PM, we will host “Anatomy of a Fireplace.” Mitchell House has conducted extensive conservation work on its 1790 chimney led by architectural conservator and mason Pen Austin. Utilizing historic processes, which includes the use of lime mortar, Austin works on historic chimneys both on and off the island. Come learn about the process of slaking mortar, the importance of using historically accurate methods that help to ensure the stability of your chimney and your home, and the evolution of the fireplace and hearth! We will start at the Mitchell House and visit a few other historic fireplaces nearby. If you cannot make it this time, we will offer it again in October.

Then, the following week on Saturday, May 26, from 1-3PM, Mitchell House will open its doors for a “Behind-the-Scenes at the Mitchell House.” Join us for a special in-depth tour of the inside, outside, underside, and top of the Mitchell House. NPT Executive Director Michael May will join me (Mitchell House Curator Jascin Leonardo Finger) to talk about the architectural elements of the Mitchell House that have been so well preserved since the house was built in 1790 and the conservation work that has been ongoing since the late 1990s. We will also discuss preservation easements, something which is held on the Mitchell House. And, if you cannot make it for Preservation Month, we will offer this again in September.

Other island organizations are also celebrating so check www.nantucketpreservation.org – Nantucket preservation Trust’s website – for the calendar!

Mitchell House Wins Preservation Award!

The Mitchell House Today

Mitchell House is pleased to announce that it has won the Nantucket Preservation Trust’s 2012 Architectural Preservation Award!

Since 1999, the Mitchell House has been hard at work on numerous conservation projects to preserve the House and its contents. Through numerous grants, many from the Nantucket Community Preservation Act Committee, the Mitchell House curator has been able to work with conservators and other specialists to: clean and stabilize the 1850s grain painting; contract with a structural engineer for a survey of the House; work with a leading environmental engineering group to study the climate changes within the unheated House; conserve the 1790 chimney with original materials, specifically lime mortar. The individuals who have worked on the House include Sanford Kendall of Sanford Kendall Old House Restoration, Nantucket; mason Pen Austin, Nantucket; Rich Sileo and Ernie Conrad of Landmark Facilities Group Inc., Norwalk, Connecticut; Shelly Sass of Sass Conservation Inc., Charlottesville, Virginia; John Kraus of Magic Brush, Inc., Greensboro, North Carolina; Frank Welsh of Welsh Color and Conservation, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; Richard Irons of Richard Irons Restoration Masons, Limerick, Maine; James Tyler of James Tyler Painting, Nantucket; and John Wathne of Structures-North, Salem, Massachusetts. A most special thank you to all of them for making the process so easy and for a job more than well-done. I have learned a tremendous amount from each of them – and still do – whether it’s monitoring environmental loggers or assisting in the resistance drilling of the House to inspect for signs of rot. A thank you also to the cheerleaders and supporters of the Mitchell House, especially past members of the Mitchell House Committee, and to the MMA and its founders for its foresight in the preservation of the House going all the way back to the MMA’s founding in 1902 by Maria Mitchell’s family, students, and friends.

Mitchell House and Observatory

The Mitchells’ Vestal Street Home (right) and the memorial observatory built in 1908. (Collection of Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association)

According to Nantucket Preservation Trust, it works each year to recognize “individuals and organizations that advance the cause of historic preservation on Nantucket. Awards are provided for preservation work on historic buildings and landscapes, and for the protection and stewardship of island resources. NPT’s awards emphasize proper preservation, showcase the island’s craftspeople, and reveal the foresight of owners who care about our historic structures and landscapes.” For more information concerning the awards and NPT’s work, you can visit their website at: www.nantucketpreservation.org.

This is exciting news for the Mitchell House and for the conservators and professionals who have worked so hard to help the House maintain its original fabric. Mitchell House is very much in its original early nineteenth century condition – an unusual thing for a historic house museum built in 1790. If you have not visited the House or not visited in some time, please plan to do so this summer. The work will always be ongoing – and it is as we speak as I work on more grants for work to be completed and the root cellar is getting another coat of lime mortar – for a historic house is a lot of work to keep in its original condition!

Visiting the Historic Home of Sarah Orne Jewett

The Country of the Pointed Firs is my favorite book. Written by Sarah Orne Jewett in 1896, it details the life of a village along the Maine coast. For many years I wanted to visit her home, now a historic house museum owned by Historic New England. Because she is the author of my favorite book and such a strong female presence in the 19th century as Maria Mitchell was, I felt it was a place I needed to see.

I like to think that a young Sarah, born just two years after Maria’s comet discovery, was inspired by Maria when she was a young girl. She was certainly encouraged by her father to be a strong, educated, and independent woman – similar to the support Maria received from her father, William.

After being disappointed last year in my attempt to visit the Jewett home, this year I contacted the site manager, Peggy Wishart, directly to ask if she would be willing to provide me with a private tour – and she was! The house is very close to its original condition and about two years ago Historic New England acquired Jewett’s desk – the one on which she wrote her books. It sits in front of the window in the upstairs hall looking over the street and center of South Berwick, Maine just as it did in Sarah’s day.

My interest is also keen on this desk area as it reminds me of the small study William built for his children – most often used by Maria. The small landing turned closet study has a built in desk and drawer and two shelves and most importantly a window that faces south and looks over the street – just as Sarah’s does. From there, Maria could see people as they made their way up and down the street, be warmed by the southern sun, and work on her “Juvenile Inquirer” on a Saturday morning away from the hubbub of her numerous siblings.