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Doors discarded in renovation of 2 Cliff Road.

Developer Wayne DuPont's Domino Theory of House Gutting

18 Pine St under construction

In my Wise Old House column, I have spent the summer blissfully ignoring the crisis of historical preservation on Nantucket. I’ve rationalized this decision, arguing that the topic has become so political that everyone has dug in on one side or the other. I’ve argued that sprightly articles about people who love their old houses will persuade others to follow, more than any polemic could. But truth be told, it’s always more fun to hang out with your own species and old house lovers are my homies, my posse, my mates. So I had a good summer.

But now it’s fall, and I've determined that I should walk out of my comfort zone. I called Wayne DuPont, a developer who has renovated 40 plus old houses in Nantucket since the early 90s, three on my street. Since three “antiques” have just come on the market in my neighborhood, I feel an urgency to meet the issue straight on. I hope that if I understand the premises underlying Wayne’s house gutting, I will be able to wrestle with them. He was thoroughly gracious in his willingness to talk.

According to Wayne, it's a case of dominos. The gutting of old houses on Nantucket begins with the current generation’s need for central air-conditioning. To put in the ducting required, and the plumbing for en-suite bathrooms, you’ve got to take out the old horsehair walls. (You don’t have to…but it’s cost effective to do so.) Once you’ve taken out the horsehair walls, you’ve made the doorframes obsolete. This is because horsehair walls are only an inch thick, while new studs and drywall are about four inches thick; the frames and the doors, with their 19th century hardware no longer fit and it’s more costly to modify rather than replace them. You’re now doing so much demolition that you’re subject to new building codes for fireplaces. The distance between the opening of the fireplace and the wood mantle on 19th century houses violates current code so mantels need to be replaced. 

In an old Pine Street house, currently under construction, DuPont has managed to preserve the paneling around the living room fireplace; the front staircase (not the back one), the floors and the window sashes. The paneling was removed while the entire interior was gutted and then it was restored to its original position after new walls were constructed. During the demolition process, the old floorboards were removed and then sanded. For a time, you could peak in through a crack in the opaque paper masking the house’s windows and see straight to the back wall; there was nothing but studs. After the new interior’s construction, the floorboards will be laid over a plywood base that will create the levels and tightness of new flooring.

There’s no doubt that Wayne strictly conforms to the Historic District Commission’s rules about old house exteriors. But the HDC has no jurisdiction over interiors and that is why he generally preserves only the floorboards and window sashes inside the antique houses he remodels for resale.

When I interviewed Wayne DuPont he suggested that I meet up with the man he has hired to restore the window sashes of 18 Pine Street. Brian FitzGibbon’s window restorations were already known to me, and Wayne was right to be proud of engaging him. Sure enough, when I visited Brian in his workshop, Wayne’s sashes were in their final stages of painstaking restoration. Their panes of rippled cylinder glass, with their various subtle tints of magnesium, gleamed.The many thin layers of paint that Brian had applied were smooth to the touch but hard to the fingernail. Beautiful work, but at least partly inspired by the HDC’s jurisdiction over the exterior; had Wayne replaced rather than restored his windows he would have had to conform to standards that make them about as expensive as restored windows.

His firm, Nantucket DuPont Rentals advertises its product on a Youtube video as houses that have been “restored with great attention to detail and respect for a home’s history and original architecture.” The camera pans the interiors of living rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, all with beautiful paneled wainscoting and simple Quaker style fireplace mantels. Because they are all new, the walls and woodwork are without blemish, the corners are squared, here and there are high hats for lighting.

It’s interesting that Wayne’s promotion includes language that suggests clients care about “respect for a home’s history and original architecture” but his presumption is also that the client doesn’t care that little has actually been retained of the original interior, little is “restored” in any conventional sense and the “attention to detail” generally refers to new detail. My guess is that Wayne isn’t trying to mislead, he isn’t even being disingenuous; he believes that the difference between restoring and retaining the “ambience” of historical features (as one of his videos calls it) is negligible to most of his clients.

Is he right? I called several realtors to find out what their experience had taught them. Heidi Drew at Atlantic East was the first to confirm that Wayne was spot-on about the newly perceived need for central air. “Our buyers are from off-island, and they want what they have at home.” And the number of clients interested in authentically old houses? “Well,” she said, “First there aren’t many un-gutted homes left… and second, no, not many clients, though once in a while…”

Another realtor I spoke with was adamant, if not aggressive on the issue. He asked not to be identified, “What’s the point of expressing my regret?” He said. “It is what it is. The animals are already out of the barn. The majority of old houses are gone, just shells. The period when summer people cared about Nantucket’s whaling history is over. “ Finally he said, before hanging up, “It’s too late to have this conversation.”

Being a Pollyanna of sorts I was shocked by his defeatism; ironically my anonymous source gave greater impetus to my pen’s swordsmanship.  The unadulterated 18th and 19th century houses for sale in my neighborhood (7 Judith Chase Lane; 3 Traders Lane, 24 Union Street, even the NHA’s 33 Orange Street will hit the market soon) are animals not yet out of the barn. They’re worth saving.

Why?

This is the ultimate question that leaves too many preservation advocates sputtering with sentiment. Why should patchy horsehair walls, and hand-planed doors with hand-wrought ironmongery and sloping, undulating floors be preserved and not be replaced by new ones? Why isn’t it enough that we have a few antiques preserved as museum houses for those who want to keep a record?

Old house lovers like myself are always tempted to simply proselytize. We sound like lovers of classical music, appalled at youth’s depravity, “But Brahms is so beautiful!” Is that an argument? If I write lyrically about the softness of worn edges, the subtly shifting hues of old wood, the sensuousness of smells like beeswax and charred brick and sunbaked wall-paper, the connotative power of clicking a latch that delivered the same clang to a whaler who once lived where you live…is that an argument?

I bought and, to the best of my ability, preserved, an old house on Nantucket because I wanted my family to feel rooted in an extended past. I believed tactile reminders of earlier lives give our present lives greater depth and assurances of an extended future. I would even venture that the painfully maudlin theme of The Velveteen Rabbit holds true for old houses, a house becomes more real, it gains energy and soulfulness, from showing the tattering marks of life under its roof. I’m fairly certain that my children have learned respect for many other things by learning how to respect old houses as they would grandparents.

But does everyone have to share my sensibility?

Of course not. But there will be some who do. The strongest argument for preserving what’s left of Nantucket’s antique interiors is that demolition is irreversible. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Our experience of other travesties of environmental destruction tells us that If we let one generation’s disinterest erase all of Nantucket’s interior architectural legacy, future generations are likely to blame us. They will be incredulous when they learn that central air-conditioning operated on antique houses like lobotomies in the 1950s.

As I was leaving Brian FitzGibbon’s workshop, I realized I had been so spell-bound by his window restorations that I failed to notice the collection of antique doors that lined the workshop’s walls. “They’re from 2 Cliff Road, “ Brian explained. “Wayne DuPont offered them to me and so I’ve restored some of them and sold them, ten already.” The doors run the gamut in size and type, plank doors with heavy hand-carved wooden levers, paneled doors with fine brass thumb-latches like the ones in my house, made in Nantucket and featured in Charles Carpenter’s book on Nantucket decorative arts.

2 Cliff Road was built in 1767 by boatwright Joseph Swain, whose grandfather was one of the island’s original purchasers. I know this because it’s the lead on the video Nantucket DuPont Rentals made to advertise the property. The house’s 18th century doors were at least as beautiful and historically significant as its restored windows, but they are not part of the house anymore. The HDC couldn’t protect them. Wayne DuPont didn’t value them. Future owners of the house won’t have the chance to.