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Atlantic House--for Sconset's Sake

Once a week, in the early morning from their home in Hong Kong, the owners of the familiar rose covered Greek revival house in Sconset poured their cups of English Breakfast tea and waited for Skype to connect them to  Nantucket.

Simultaneously, on the other side of the globe, a legion of contractors, architects and designers poured their cups of Chamomile or Sleepytime while waiting for their American clients from China to appear on their screens.

It was this weekly routine, enabled via modern technology, that facilitated the recently celebrated renovation of a former Nantucket legacy—the 18th century Atlantic House Hotel.  The bones of this once grand old building were transformed into a welcoming summer respite for an American family of five, albeit one that commutes from Hong Kong to the States for their favorite three months of the year.

Originally built as a tourist destination in 1848 the Atlantic House, then replete with wrap around porches and ocean views, was shut down in 1924, moved to a nearby lot and converted into a single family home. The top of the hotel was removed, bringing the roof line down from two stories to one and a half, and the porches were ripped from the building. Recognizing that the landmark structure was destined to be all but eradicated from Sconset’s landscape, the house has since been preserved with a property easement, restricting any further architectural changes for generations to come. Sconseters can now stroll down their Main Street, confident that the view they are taking in today is the same one they will see tomorrow. 

The most recent facelift to this legacy received the 2011 Nantucket Preservation Trust Stewardship Award for careful compliance with the easement's restraints.  The NPT is a non-profit, membership- based island organization started in 1997. The group helps create awareness of the importance of preserving Nantucket’s most unique asset-- its historic architecture. The 700 member non-profit has become a “go-to” resource for property owners as well as contractors, providing programs designed to “educate, inspire and encourage historic preservation across the island,” says Executive Director Michael May.  “We act as stewards and advocates of the island’s rich architectural heritage by supplying information for maintaining and taking care of historic housing throughout Nantucket”.

As “gut-rehab” projects became more common in the affluent building boom of the 1990’s, the NPT brought light to the threat those renovations would potentially have on the island’s historical integrity and ultimately its tourist trade.
“Scores of old buildings are destroyed each year, which can really change the face of Nantucket. We try to educate people on how to reuse and repair original materials, and hopefully encourage more owners looking to sell, to place preservation easements on their homes before they do,” says May.  “We were thrilled with the renovation of  “Twenty- Seven Main” (both the address and name of the award winning house) and we were delighted to honor them with our Stewardship Award.”

What was it like to preserve an old house?

“The process was both painstaking and gratifying,” said the husband, a Hong Kong based banker. “We wanted a structurally sound house, not a showy one, but we had no idea just how much effort that would require.”

“I was just two years old when my parents bought our house in Nantucket 1968,” added the wife and mother of their three young children.  “My father loved that it was once the second only hotel on Island (and the first in Sconset) during the 18th century. He was a history buff, and the lore behind the  hotel endlessly intrigued him. He had always felt the house was a significant piece of island history and should be preserved accordingly,' she said.  “Dad had always hoped that the house would eventually pass from his hands to ours and perhaps even to his grandchildren, people who loved the island as much as he did and who he knew would understood his vision.”

“Twenty-Seven Main” now serves as a collective memory for the current owners. But when it passed into their hands in 2007, they had just minor renovations in mind. Forty years of sandy, wet feet and bathing suits had left their marks on floors and furniture, while wind, rain and salt air had taken a toll on ceilings, shingles and the foundation; more than they had anticipated.

“As summer houses go, my parents did only what was necessary in the way of repairs, and sadly, my Dad was legally blind, so a lot was overlooked and swept under the proverbial rug,” said the busy mother, who spent almost all of her own childhood summers on nantucket.

Local builder Mark Godfrey took one look at the much loved but well-worn landmark and fell in love with its dilapidated jumble of jury-rigged updates.  “I had always hoped that whomever bought the old Atlantic House would keep its integrity intact”, said Godfrey. “For the most part, I primarily renovate old homes --   it is really my passion. I love taking them apart piece by piece -- plumbing, electric, windows, chimneys, radiators, hardware --   and recreating them to look original but with 21st century technological updates. This project was one I gladly took on,” he added.

Godfrey called Chris Dallmus from Design Associates, a Cambridge based architectural firm that originated in Nantucket in the 1970’s. Dallmus and Godfrey had been a team on about 10 projects, all historical renovation, some of which were for the PBS series This Old House.

“I know Nantucket’s Historic District Commission rules inside and out,” said Dallmus. “Our goal for (what is commonly referred to as) “Twenty Seven Main” was to make it look as if it had always been there, still part of Sconset's historic street pattern. Any exterior additions we made were sympathetic and cohesive not only to the original structure, but in the context of the neighborhood as well.”

Because the owner’s father had the foresight to restrict the lot, HDC approval was a no-brainer.  Godfrey got the go-ahead from the couple in Hong Kong and the texts began to fly.  “I actually created a photo blog with my IPhone. Every nail, every shingle, every pipe was documented as I worked. Once a week, the Twenty Seven Main team would check their list of  things-To-Do via the blog and by conference calls to ensure the project's progress. It was pretty cool.”

The family in China concurred. “Mark totally understood our vision,” said the father of  this family of  almost settled Sconseters.  “We wanted the house safe and functional, but it was stunning how much had to be done to make it look as if nothing has been done” he added. “Once we all embraced technology, we could visually walk through the house with Mark. Then we could almost relax and let him do his job.”

All together six bathrooms were renovated and updated along with the kitchen and a rabbit warren of rooms behind it,  cleared  to make leeway for a more family friendly space with plenty of updated culinary equipment. Part of a greenhouse built in 1927 was salvaged from a neighboring property and added onto “Twenty Seven Main” in the 1950’s. Godfrey revamped it with materials from the original maker, still in existence, and today it looks like new.  “The green house is very beautiful and unique and a wonderful addition to the house. Our girls love to play on its brick floor on a rainy day,” said the father. 

Interior designer Barbara Halstead of Fenwick House Designs in Nantucket describes the interior style as clean, simple and unfussy. “The owners wanted a colorful, friendly, family gathering place, a U.S. home base that was fresh and youthful, but timeless and tasteful.”

Again, true to the spirit of technology, the owners went on buying trips to Thailand and Beijing, a relatively easy trip from their Hong Kong home, texting photos of sumptuous orange silks, vivid blue wool carpets, art work and ceramics back and forth to Halstead.  “They would text  me their finds, and I would reply with the appropriate yardage or room dimensions, giving the thumbs up or thumbs down” she said.  “They were my dream clients. It was a wonderful, easy collaboration.”

Now, a new, third generation tracks sand across the Audrey Stark stenciled floors and run hands sticky with lemonade from their Sconset stand down the Phillipsburg Blue paint. The fireplace in the spacious living room was built with  riverstones, sandblasted to remove years of paint, and  brought in as ballast for the now defunct Sconset railroad. A lovely curbstone mantel complements the original masonary. Contemporary artwork from around the world graces the walls, and a hefty handful of inherited furniture, repainted or reupholstered, fills the sun drenched rooms. Many windows hang free of drapes and iron work light fixtures sway gently from the high ceiled entry way and dining room. Butter yellow paint warms the cabinetry in the kitchen, complete with two areas for cooking, one for the grownups and one in which to serve the  little suntanned hands that reach for treats day and night.

“In a lot of ways, it’s still a hotel,” says the current owners’ mother, a frequent guest in what was once her summer home. “We have to fill up all these rooms!”

Ryder S. Ziebarth is an essayist and freelance journalist who has been living on and off Nantucket since she first switched camps from the Vineyard in 1974.  She is also a wife, and mother of one gorgeous singer. Her laptop  is mainly located on a desk in New Jersey's horse country.

Photos:  courtesy Nantucket Historical Association and Darin Mardock, Design Associates.