Finders Keepers, part 2
by Sherry Lefevre
Before the motor vehicle inspection station occupied its new digs on the Polpis Road it was hidden mid-island, up, over and behind the third building on the left. The first time I got lost looking for it, I drove down a dirt road that took a few turns before ending in what looked like a funeral pyre of cannibalized houses: a two room fully shingled wing missing a wall; a pitched roof missing a house; a freestanding wall with doors but no room. For me it was a dream come true.
The dump used to look something like that. In the days before Waste Options, Inc. civilized the place, construction debris was a free-for-all and many a house built in the 1960s and 70s and 80s has unmatched windows for reasons other than aesthetic. A wonderful article by James Sulzer in the NHA’s Historic Nantucket Vol 50, No.3, describes two houses built courtesy of the dump. Each was owner-built, the first in 1976, the other in 1986. But our new age wariness of lawsuits brought those halcyon days of dump diving to a close. Waste Options allows for a few well-vetted windows and doors to enter the “Take it or Leave it” area of the dump, but most construction or demolition “waste” goes to piles that are off-limits to the average salvager. I know. I tried to get my hands on some big rocks.
So what’s a Nantucket salvager to do?
I asked Duncan Fog, an architect, landscaper, sailor, wooden boat enthusiast and many other things but definitely a salvager. His salvaging career began when he was 25 and stashed a forecastle table from a 1928 schooner in France in his transatlantic luggage. Heading home after two years of skippering the yacht, owned by a famous restaurateur, Jean Castel of “Chez Castel”, Blvd St Germain des Pres, he thought the table would make a nice memento. It had been replaced by a new one. Why not ask? Ultimately “Why not ask?” became Duncan’s mantra and his reputation for saying yes to unwanted strays in the construction department helped him develop a network. With no dump access, the only way to salvage on Nantucket is “to be at the right place at the right time,” Duncan concedes, “And you’ve got to project what you want or need with your eyes wide open at all times.” It’s helped, of course, that he’s built, renovated and acted as caretaker to many houses on Nantucket. But the current practice of house gutting is pitching the island’s history into the dumpster at a faster pace than even Duncan’s networks can handle. “It’s a real shame,” he understates.
For Duncan, the interaction between past and future makes putting a house together with salvage an art form. The process is organic and intuitive like art. Rather than forge ahead with a concept, an ideal plan, or worse, a stock plan, a good salvager makes sacrifices at the altar of Chance. He might start out envisioning a “one-room schoolhouse” but when a treasure trove of ceramic tile lands on his doorstep, he’s dreaming in Andalusian courtyards. What he imagines and what his materials suggest are perfect skating partners, a synchrony where one only appears to lift the other when in fact both are lifting. And given that salvaged materials on Nantucket are likely to contain rich historical narratives, if only the scavenger will listen, the potential for artistic expression is even greater.
Duncan owns two houses in Shimmo, one of whose core is a whale industry building that he rescued from the house equivalent of the SPCA. Discovering the building’s history became a key to helping it evolve to a future in Shimmo. But first, here’s how Duncan and the “Whale House” as he calls it, first met:
It started out as any ordinary Thursday morning. Duncan was reading the Inky Mirror while sipping his tea when he came across an article announcing the impending demolition of two wharf cottages. “They have no historical interest,” stated the HDC, at that time approving the demolition. Immediately he set off to pay them a visit. “First dibs” is everything in salvaging. He recalls that when he walked into one of them, “the bones and spirit of the place spoke to me loudly.” Hastily (you have to use that adverb in a story like this) he went to the offices of the agent in charge, John Michelson. But no one was there, so he sat on the steps and waited. When the agent finally arrived he assured Duncan that no one had beat him to the punch. All that was needed was to gain the approval of the HDC, the zoning department, school superintendent, the utility companies and finally the Town Manager. Oh, and a dollar for the purchase.
It didn’t take much detective work for Duncan to uncover the shed’s historical interest. Its 20 inch wide sheathing boards and forged iron T nails indicated it probable began life in the 1840s. If that is true it might have witnessed the Great Fire of 1846 which burned so many of the wharf buildings and contributed to the demise of Nantucket’s industry. At some point after WWII it served as a gas station for yachts.
In the late 1940s it was cut into three pieces and moved off the wharf onto Candle Street and became Elizabeth Saltonstall’s painting studio and apartment. Saltonstall was a nationally recognized painter and lithographer, a leading member of the so-called artist’s colony that gave Nantucket such character in the early part of the 20th century. From 1922 to her death in 1990, she missed only one summer on the island. Many of her paintings are views from her studio: a host of unmanned sailboats, half-furled; a tangle of fishing nets; a couple of half-buried dories tucked behind a shed. Her palette -- turquoise blues and khaki browns and her style—nature personified--are happy reminders of the great Thomas Hart Benton era she grew up in. During Saltonstall’s chapter in the history of the building, it had become a place where the sea entered the imagination in wonderful ways.
For Duncan Fog, who is as much a sailor as he is an architect, the personality of this resurrected structure was a perfect match. Whether out of habit or deliberation, he refers to the cottage in ships terms. The Whale House is a she. “Shimmo was her third move,” he told me.
Having finally secured the cottage’s relocation, Duncan began to consider that it might need to make a few accommodations to adapt to its new site and his intended use. A wharf building is naturally constructed to withstand nature’s temper tantrums. Its windows are generally small and it hunkers down under a pitched roof like an Eskimo wearing a hat with earflaps. Duncan’s property in Shimmo, on the other hand, is sheltered by trees and set back from the coastline. Nature is not so threatening. In fact, given how lovely Duncan’s gardens are, it’s rather friendly and worth inviting in for tea. So Duncan decided to set the building over a natural swale and add on to it a shed roof addition. On one side he added a bedroom, bath and study whose windows are large enough to draw light and green vistas. At the far end from the entry, he created a high-ceiled sitting room whose beautiful arched windows were salvaged from a house on Cliff Road.
Still, Duncan kept much of the original building in tact as he could, adding period details only. He left the sheathing of the shed’s exterior wall exposed and kept its side window in its “as found” condition, even when these became part of an interior hallways; they can be enjoyed as you walk down the gallery hall that separates the building from the shed addition. The front door to the cottage is painted a green that was Saltonstall’s pick for its interior framing. You enter the cottage first and experience its protective embrace before walking back towards the light and open spaces of its new life. As you go, you pass a whale ship windlass that supports the second floor and a halved beetle cat mast that frames the doorway to the shipboard cabin. Duncan just couldn’t resist. When you enter the back sitting room you notice… well what else would it be but the forecastle table, the start of it all.
I suspect that the back lot of house parts I encountered in my detour from the inspection station meant that I was (unwittingly) trespassing on Glowacki’s land. This might have been one of the lots, recently sold to a development group. Here’s an idea—let’s persuade the Land Bank to buy a small lot and dedicate it to a non-profit architectural salvage depot. Are you in?
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. It will be available in Apple’s ibookstore mid-August. In her column on NantucketChronicle.com, Wise Old House, she tells the stories behind our historic island houses: who built them, how they came to look as they did, who lived, loved and changed them over the years.
Part 1 of Finders Keepers is here.