A Shed of One's Own
As Director of the Nantucket Historical Association, Bill Tramposch spends most of his working hours with people, which is why, when day is done, he needs a little time in his shed. Nantucket is full of old backyard sheds. Even I have one. So does my neighbor next door. But nobody I know has a shed like Bill Tramposch’s, and once you’ve seen it, you’ll realize how sorely lacking your life has been.
The house Bill and his wife Peggy occupy (33 Orange Street) is owned by the NHA. When Bill and Peggy arrived from New Zealand in 2006, the back shed was functioning like most sheds—a place where stuff predestined for the dump waits in limbo on the off chance that its broken, moldy, rusted state can find redemption. But it had a nicely pitched roof and several beautiful old windows with rippled cylinder glass panes. And it was a good size, 12 ft. by 14 ft. Besides, Bill is an old hand at shed conversions. “I’ve always had a shed,” was his comment when I asked where the impulse came from.
When Bill was a teenager, he worked on his father’s nursery in Monroe Connecticut. One day he drove by a chicken coop and realized it was just what he needed to put the right amount of distance between himself and his dad’s new marriage. Each would get the privacy he needed. The coop owner told him he was welcome to it, so long as he got it off the property in the next 24 hours because it was coming down then anyway. So Bill moved it that night, to the back edge of his dad’s property. He installed a bed, a wood-burning stove, a small desk and there he lived, a small glow of warmth far back behind groves of fruit trees, until he grew up and it was time to leave home.
I had no trouble envisioning that first coop when I sat in Bill’s Orange Street shed. Tucked into the corner is a very spare single bed—just a mattress sitting on a wooden crate-like frame covered with a maroon and green woolen blanket. It’s much easier to think of a 15 year old boy in that bed, collapsed after a day of hauling shrubs and digging out root balls. 15-year-old boys can sleep on rock, on dirt, on tree limbs. But Bill is 6’2” and talking about retirement and the bed is a camp bed. Still when the house gets so full of family and friends that the old urge to find sanctuary returns, this is where he sleeps.
Disregard the mattress and you can see why Bill loves it here. There’s a wooden Crosley record player next to this bed and behind that a stack of LPs beginning with Brahms’ symphonies. He bought much of his collection, eight feet of it to be exact, for 6 dollars a foot at a yard sale. Beside his pillow is a nook with two shelves where Thoreau’s Walden gets top billing. Stretching out for almost the entire length of his bed is a shelf supporting a 1909 edition of the 51 volume Harvard Classics. The Classics were Harvard President Charles Eliot’s selection of all you need to read to become an educated man. Here this educational metamorphosis is within easy reach of the sleeper-- a little Pliny digestive before the Nantucket air works its anesthesia.
The Shed isn’t only for sleeping. Bill installed two desks, one he constructed out of branches he salvaged from one of Robert Frost’s trees. Both face windows that give Bill sweetly mottled views of the garden and one is the perfect perch for a view of Orange Street’s gold dome, especially proud when viewed over wood- piles and back yard fences. One of the desks doubles as a worktable for woodworking projects. Bill studied with Paul McCarthy the master craftsman who carved The Whaling Museum’s “Going on the Whale” relief. Bill’s tools are hung in careful rows on a support beam. He’s made pockets for them out of leather straps bolted down to form loops. I’m reminded how a man’s love of a craft is revealed in the care he gives his tools.
I first learned about Bill’s shed from a friend who referred to it as his man-cave. She was a woman of course. True, the shed has a buffalo skin rug and a harpoon hangs on a rafter; on its walls are sketches of Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, a bronze mask of John Burroughs and Harvard Classics doesn’t include a single female writer in its 51 volumes (but then again, what female non-fiction writers were there before the 20th century?) There are baseball gloves, a model boat, a model plane, scads of mason jars filled with nails, even dare I add, a collection of balls, all manner of them—baseball, whiffle, tennis, cricket, bocce. “I love balls,” Bill acknowledged with a smile. “Got it, “ I thought, but it’s all so beside the point. When we walk into a Nantucket house with floral chintz curtains and blue and white china plates displayed on the mantel do we call it a woman cave?
“The rooms of your house should be like scrapbooks,” Bill explained. “They’re like autobiographies only better because you don’t have to write them and you can endlessly edit them simply by removing, adding, and rearranging what’s on your walls, shelves and tabletops. Everything in this room means something to me. Otherwise it wouldn’t be here.” Bill told me that he was reading about how the Kwakiuti people of North West Canada take special care in naming places. He is thinking of naming his shed hē ladē which is Kwakuiti for “having everything right.”
As someone who has thought long and hard about houses, I was delighted by Bill’s clarity. The shed is nothing if not intense and that’s because it tangibly manifests so much of Bill’s personality, his experience and also the places his imagination takes him. “Donner St.” as well as “Muse St.” are two metal street signs that hang on his walls. A book titled, Ordeal by Hunger, the Story of the Donner Party sits on a cabinet. The Oregon Trail, Yanks in the Redwoods --Carving out Life in Northern California, and Burroughs, In the Catskills all can be found in this shed that for all the world looks like it belongs within their pages more than on Orange Street. He can sit on his cot and read about the pioneers of the Sierra Nevada, while a kerosene lantern flickers and a coarse blanket scratches, and all conspire to assist a rejuvenating escape.
Contrary to what one might think, I didn’t feel the slightest bit excluded from the shed’s fantasy life, or even left out by its subtext of personal associations. Instead, I felt very much inclined to ride along. When Bill graciously invited me to sit at his desk and enjoy the view of the church dome, I wanted to say, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll stay.”
Photos taken by Lauri Robertson : www.laurirobertsonphotography.com
Sherry Lefevre is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing for Film and Television at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pa. In 2009 she bought and refurbished a house on Pine Street in Nantucket town that she made the subject of a book called The Nantucket House That Ebay Built, available on the ibookstore in October.