In historic preservation, it’s good to let the future people who come along know that you have been there in some way. To leave a paper trail, document with drawings and photographs, even physically leaving a small mark – at least I believe that!
In the vein of leaving a mark and marking history and when something happened, I asked all the MMA employees last week to “sign” the new concrete ramp that the mason created between the two basements in the Research Center – you know that three-foot thick piece of concrete? Well now, it’s a perfect doorway with a great ramp for moving collections back and forth! It also allows us to maintain the two old basement staircases from the 1920s and 1930s.
So, everyone showed up at 1:30 and patiently tried to write their names in wet concrete that was made with a heavier mixture to offer a non-slip surface. Added to that, I wrote MMA and 2017.
The other influence in this “marking for the future people who come along” is the fact that I distinctly remember my Dad doing this when they poured the concrete floor of the garage addition at our house that also had a second floor apartment for my Nana. Bent over the wet concrete in his old Air Force khakis and white t-shirt – his working outside wear of my youth – he carved out all of our names – Jack, Melodee, Jascin, Jarrod, Sahsha, Gloria, Greta. Sahsha was our Siberian Husky and Great was my Nana’s (Gloria) Miniature Schnauzer. Our house is now owned by a woman who worked for my Dad for many years – I consider that still in the family – and our names are still there.
Everyone leaves a mark – we are all just the shepherds of the houses we live in and the buildings we work in. It’s our responsibility to take care of them properly and pass them along to the next owners. We are just stewards – it really is never ours.
We have daylight! We have broken through!
As you can see from the images here, Wayne Morris has cut through the two basements which will allow us easier access between the two for moving collections back and forth and working with them. Remember that they are two foundations created at different times and sandwiched together. It’s like Fort Knox – I am NOT kidding. Mr. Morris has never seen anything like this and he is a SEASONED mason who has been working on Nantucket for his entire career. It has taken countless hours. He is using both a special wet saw and a jackhammer of sorts and both require an extreme amount of strength in order to get through the walls.
You can also see what the wall is made of. There is a large aggregate in the grout (cement), particularly in the upper portion. The lower portion of the wall is unbelievably a softer grout than higher up. We are not sure why that was done or how it happened unless it was a symptom of mixing – or a different person who created the mix!
But in any case, we are getting there – it’s just been a very slow slog through almost 100-year-old grout! Next up, the engineer is finishing up a support system based on what was revealed when the 2 ½ feet was cut through.
Well, sidewall and roof shingling is completed! If you walk or drive by, you will note that the façade of the cottage at 3 Vestal Street is now re-shingled. We think this is only the third or fourth time this portion of the cottage has been shingled. But, there are portions of the cottage that have never been re-shingled – you can tell this by the nail holes – and also the removal of shingles has revealed some things to us which are quite exciting.
As you can see by two images, the house has been altered since it was built in the early 1830s. The roof-line was changed – likely to accommodate better living space on the second floor, the chimney removed, and a pent roof and more Victorian front door was added (such a thing was not of the 1830s) but then later removed. When I was a child, a porch existed on the east side – removed when the Observatory Seminar Room (the shingled addition that “bumps” into the east side of the cottage) was added in 1987.
What’s even more interesting is the back of the cottage. This questionable area was better able to reveal itself when the shingles and tar paper were removed on the sidewalls. As you can see in the image, the sheathing is separated – it has an almost perfect cut down it. Where that cut exists, there is a corner post! That means this last sheathing portion is a later add-on or “wart’ as we commonly call them on island. This is also apparent inside the back kitchen ell where the floor drastically slopes towards the bathroom and pantry. So, while the kitchen ell may have been added after 1830, the even further back portion of the kitchen ell was added at a later date – likely to provide the cottage with a bathroom once running water was introduced. This is also why kitchen ells are so important – this was always where water was first introduced to a house – the kitchen where it was needed for cooking and cleaning and because of this fact, the kitchen ell was always where the one and only bathroom was introduced – unless the house had a full basement and the toilet often went there right under the kitchen. Many years ago, before the MMA put on the back addition to Hinchman House there was an old summer kitchen. And in the basement, the toilet. It used to be enclosed by a very rickety shed-like structure to make it a bathroom. I remember being terrified of it!
And that’s how we learned a little bit more about the Astronomer’s Cottage during this exterior work which has been funded in part by a Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund matching grant. A special thank you to Eric Nordby and his Yankee Construction crew for doing the work!
Work to the Main Room has begun as of Monday, October 17! The cabinetmaker, Mike Freedman, and his team has come in to begin working with the existing 1920s shelving. We will be keeping the major components, removing some of the shelves, and where absolutely necessary, making alterations so that we can fit in the large equipment needed, including a sink, chest freezer (for all those pre-processed skins), drying oven (to dry specimens), fume cabinet (for working with chemicals), refrigerator (for specimens not lunches!), and counter space. You can see in these images some of the first steps. In one image, you can see that underneath the shelving we revealed the original planks for the flooring of William Mitchell’s schoolhouse as the Main Room was once his school. Then in the 1920s, the MMA placed lovely pine flooring over it. Then in the 1960s/1970s, we unfortunately put down a plywood sub-floor over the pine and then the tiles you see today. In order to conserve money however, we are keeping the tiles (for now). We will clean and wax them.
Most of the new supports have been completed in the basement and the structural engineer was on site recently and designed the final component – the doorway that we need to create between the two separate basements. Yes, the 1830s schoolhouse has a completely separate basement from the Wing!
So, things are moving still. Other things we are working towards – the cut between the basements, the installation of beams to “sister” along the old ones that support the first floor flooring members, and making the cuts to ready for the new HVAC install. Stay tuned!
I have to say, I did tell this rock you see here, “you are a rock!” the other day. That was, after I had gone back over to the Mitchell House and I was alone of course.
For maybe eighty or so years, this rock was doing a serious job. It was a big support. I am not kidding you. The other day, I was handed this rock by the mason – Wayne Morris and his mason tender, his daughter Andrea – while I stopped in to check on the work in the basement of our soon to be Research Center. Andrea pulled the rock out of a bucket. Wayne said, “You know where that was?” Turns out this rock was filling a void between a support beam and a concrete block – basically acting as a filler to hold it all in place.
Now, before we all exclaim, “What?!” we have to think about when and how this was done. It was done in the 1920s, so the gentleman who did this was likely born in at least the 1870s. That – and his growing up and beginnings of work life – being a time when he would have learned from and been trained by carpenters and others who worked in the mid-nineteenth century. So this rock, while something we would not do today, was a perfectly acceptable building material in the 1920s still.
I have seen this before – not just in our historic MMA buildings but all around Nantucket and even off-island. I sit on the board of a very old organization here on the island and recently when we had work done to a building we found boulders and large rocks being used to hold up building and landscaping components from the nineteenth century. Heck, there are still many foundations on island that are rubble or even one rock holding up a long expanse of a sill. It works, still does, may very likely to continue to work even when we are all dead and gone. They knew how to build then – with limited building technologies compared to today.
Despite all this, the rock is not going back. But it will live on as a testament to the builders of our past!
Been a busy summer on so many fronts and boy, am I tired! Lots still to do though. Museums may close up but that doesn’t mean we stop working on any of our many fronts!
Hinchman House is now nice and sparkly with a brand new paint job thanks to Jim Tyler and his wonderful crew! After they finished Hinchman, they returned a few weeks later and painted the trim, sash, basement foundation, and the chimney at the Astronomer’s Cottage! I made a visit to the Historic District Commission for permission on a new front door at the Astronomer’s Cottage as well. The current one is circa 1965 or so and our neighbors very nicely donated a much older door they had in their basement. Thus, fairly soon, we will have a new door on the Astronomer’s Cottage at Number 3 Vestal that is not rotting away! The Astronomer’s Cottage is ca. 1830 and from some of the images I took of the window trim and sash, you can certainly see that.
Next up, shingling and re-roofing the Astronomer’s Cottage and repairing and replacing gutters and downspouts at Hinchman House. Much of this work on the two properties is being funded in part by a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund (MCF) grant. It is a 1:1 match and we are still wrapping up that match amount should you wish to make a contribution. MCF provided $117,000.00 and MMA has to match the remainder.
More still to come – including work on the Research Center and a site visit by the structural engineer whom I have worked with for many years. He will be here to begin an assessment on the 1908 Vestal Street Observatory and 1922 Astronomical Study (the brick parapet addition) which will be another conservation project in the MMA’s future.
On July 12th, I introduced the Mitchell House intern to the finer points of cleaning artifacts – in-depth curatorial cleaning. Nikki Lohr (a Vassar College senior this year, this summer’s intern, comes to us via the MMA-Vassar College Fellowship funded by a Vassar alum. The artifacts were recently donated to us from Ginger Andrews out of her family’s home on York Street which has been in the family since it was built about 1830. We were given several child-related items which had been living in the attic for a very long time and due to being so close to the roof were quite dusty and dirty from things sifting down through roof shingles and sheathing boards from wind and even re-roofing projects. She is wearing the delightful particle mask to protect her from any mold and dust. Since we do not have an indoor conservation workplace, we have to rely on a nice day outdoors to get the job done and the 12th was a perfect day – a gentle day and no humidity! We also worked on photographing the items and labeling them as we get them ready to put into our collections database.
In this image, Nikki is working on a child’s potty-chair. It is unfortunately missing its pot, but it is a wonderful mid-nineteenth century chair with hand-painted details. This chair along with a child’s rocking chair, a child’s doll cart, and an image of the astronomer Loomis will now all be on display at the Mitchell House so come see what’s new!
When you visit Vestal Street you may begin to notice some more changes at the Maria Mitchell Association. We continue our work to the MMA’s former Science Library which hopefully – by late fall – will be up and running as our new Research Center. The building largely remains as it always has but now it will have a state-of-the-art climate system and an improved classroom space. It will also serve as the Natural Science Department offices and continue as a collections storage site this time with the biological collections, as well books from the former circulating collection of science books. We have even removed that very old unsightly oil tank and the garbage bins as well. The mason is currently working in the basement to replace the support posts with new posts with proper footings rather than just sitting on top of the concrete floor as they have been doing for many decades. We want to make sure that the main floor is properly supported! Yes, things are looking much nicer at Number 2.
And, if you look closely, Hinchman House has a brand new roof which I posted about a few weeks ago. And soon, the Astronomer’s Cottage at 3 Vestal Street will have a new roof. We have improved drainage in the backyard area at Hinchman House, we will be painting the exterior of Hinchman House – in fact it began on June 24th, and the Astronomer’s Cottage trim and sashes will be painted soon as well. The work on these two properties is funded largely thanks to a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. It is a 1:1 matching grant for which we are still raising the remaining matching portion so please let us know if you would like to help!
I am happy to report as well that our Executive Director, Dave Gagnon, who just celebrated his one year of working for the MMA and living on Nantucket, has moved into the Astronomer’s Cottage. He and his wife, Shelley Dresser, and their youngest daughter, Hope, have all moved in – along with friendly and sweet dogs Maddie and Winnie (Winston, yes after Winston Churchill and this Winston is a male Papillion), and lion-maned rabbit, Sebastian. And with a few new coats of paint and some other spiffing and repairs they are making 3 Vestal Street their home.
So please, if you have not done so already, come take a look and while you are at it, visit our sites!
On Saturday, June 18th, I may feel, by the end of the day, that I need several of myself to accomplish everything. As a mother of a two-year-old with a fulltime job and the business of sitting on several boards, it would be nice to have three – or four! – of me; or me, myself, and I.
In all seriousness, this is a little promotion for our Stone Cleaning Workshop from 10-Noon on June 18th. I will again be joining forces with Paula Levy, Prospect Hill Cemetery historian, to demonstrate the proper way to conserve stone monuments – aka gravestones. We have been doing this for about ten years now and it’s an interesting way to learn about Prospect Hill and how to conserve these beautiful stones, while at the same time helping to preserve them! I just ask that you call the Mitchell House to reserve a spot – 508.228.2896. It is $10 for MMA Members and $15 for Non-Members which helps to defray the cost of supplies. Just wear clothes that can get dirty.
And on another note, I have been asked to be one of the local authors at the Nantucket Book Festival’s Local Author’s Tent this year and I am very honored to do so. It runs from 9-12 and 12:30 – 3:30. Since I will be cleaning stone monuments in the morning, I will be at the tent for the afternoon session. Lots of interesting authors will be there at the different sessions so come check it out. I will be representing my book, The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island: How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women. So please stop by and say hello!
It may be something that you will not even notice but we certainly will! Another move to protect our historic properties – a new roof on Hinchman House our natural science museum located at 7 Milk Street. This beautiful circa 1810 house has a roof that has served more than its time! The roof is at least forty years old on the main part of the house and has been starting to show just how tired it is. With a recent matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, James Lydon and his crew are now hard at work on the roof.
Hinchman House came to the MMA from a descendant of Peleg Mitchell, Maria Mitchell’s uncle. Hinchman House’s front entryway is unique for Nantucket. While it boasts side lights and a transom which are typical features of a Nantucket doorway, it also has tapering pilasters and a cornice reminiscent of a Federal-style doorway. However, unlike many Federal-style doorways, the decoration on Hinchman House is restrained. The builder and homeowner, Thomas Coffin, wanted to have a doorway that still made a presence on Milk Street, but wanted to keep this entryway within the parameters of the Quaker ethic of building.
Lydia Hinchman, daughter of Peleg Mitchell, purchased the house from the Woodbridge family in 1929 in order to protect the Mitchell House and the new MMA Library at 2 Vestal Street. She furnished it so that her son, C. Russell Hinchman (who was the MMA’s board president in the early 1940s), and his family and descendants would be able to use it as a summer home. She asked that upon his death, it be given to the MMA. He would die sooner than ever expected – in 1944. He left it in his will to the MMA and the MMA Board of Managers accepted the gift in August 1944 naming it the Lydia S. Hinchman House in her honor. It opened to the public in 1945 as the Department of Natural Science and the Natural Science Museum.