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On Historic Preservation in Nantucket

Nantucket Preservation Trust , Nantucket, MA
July 27th, 2007

Good morning. It is a great pleasure to be here again on this extraordinary and amazing island, which I know is beloved to everyone in this room, and which I should say has also played an important part in my own life, even though I have not been back here for almost twenty years. All the way back in 1979, a year which I know in some ways now seem to feel closer to Nantucket’s whaling years than to the Nantucket of this era – anyway, in 1979 my then-girlfriend and I rented a house out in Polpis for six weeks, largely because we wanted to go away to someplace that neither of us had a history in. By the end of the summer we had decided to get married. We are still married, I am happy to say, but somehow, other than one brief and pleasant visit in the late 80’s, circumstances have never brought us back to Nantucket. So this trip is a special privilege for me, and when I say it is a pleasure to be here, I am doing much more than uttering the usual polite phrases a speaker says – I actually mean it.

I mention my brief but meaningful personal history with Nantucket for another reason, though, which is because it gives me what I think is the most important underpinning of any meaningful and effective effort at historic preservation, and that is memory. Memory is what underlies almost all of our preservation efforts – memory, and love, which of course are closely tied together. When you remember a place, when you have particular recollections of things that have happened there that are meaningful to you, you tend to want to see it kept as it is, just as you want to hold your memories intact inside your mind. If you have no prior history with a place, you do not have the same degree of emotional attachment to it that you do if you have those memories, no matter how beautiful and wonderful and special that place is. Memory, and the belief that memory is a necessary component of a meaningful human existence, really does provide a foundation for historic preservation. And memories are rarely ours alone. When they are shared, they become one factor in building a community, and truly lay the groundwork for historic preservation.

Now, I’m saying all of this stuff about memory and meaning not to give this talk a kind of Hallmark Cards beginning, or to suggest that preservation should be based on emotional, rather than logical and rational, criteria. That, in fact, is just the opposite of what I mean to say. If preservation is only emotional, and only personal, it becomes impossible to make judgments, to create any reasonable basis for deciding what should be saved, and for deciding what perhaps should not be, and to managing and guiding the process of change. The emotional side of preservation makes the process hard because every place, everywhere, has some memories and some meaning for some people, and so memory alone is never enough. Even shared memories are often not enough, though they may count for more. But ultimately you have to make judgments, and these judgments depend on more than memory; obviously they need to take into account architectural quality, too, and I’ll get back to that in a moment. For now, though, let me just repeat that memory, and love of a place, are the enablers, we might say, of preservation; they precede issues of architectural quality, and they are what gives preservation efforts a sense of urgency, what underlies the deep commitment that so many people – including, I suspect, almost everyone in this room – bring to preservation efforts.

Of course as we all know, memory and love and the emotional commitment that people have to a place are only preconditions to preservation; they don’t tell us how to do it, or what criteria to apply. The challenge is in figuring out how to channel the emotional commitment that people have to a place into some kind of reasonable and fair-minded preservation mechanism that makes sense and that allows for intelligently managed growth and change. There should be no mistaking the importance of growth and change, and I will say one more thing here at the beginning of this talk that I want to stand as a kind of general principle, which is that real places are not static. They grow and change. They have to grow and change; if they do not, they are dead. Period. I heard a very simple but wonderfully poetic phrase the other day: “the ever continuing past,” and that says it perfectly, since that phrase, ever continuing, suggests a past that is not only visible, but living, a past that has an ongoing life that in some meaningful way connects with the present. In a place with an ever continuing past, the past is not something sealed off to look at, and then we go back to the rest of our lives. It is a place in which the past helps to define the present, and in that sense continues to live, and continues to evolve. Its meaning changes as each age uses it differently, views it differently, interprets it differently. The ever continuing past is not disconnected from the present, but intimately tied to it.

To be that kind of place, a place with an ever-continuing past, is the goal here, as in all living communities. The point is that while Nantucket may contain museums, it should not itself be a museum. It is not Colonial Williamsburg-by-the-Sea, and it is not Disneyland, either, a make-believe place created to be a fantasy version of something that was, only better and more perfect than the reality could ever have been. Such places, in the end, are oppressive. They can sometimes be fun to visit, but they are not places to live real life in, and by real life I don’t only mean the real life of work and the daily grind, I also mean the real life of regular vacation and recreation and relaxation, since that, too, is a kind of real life, or semi-real life, the life of owning a home and visiting here regularly. I think it is romantic in the extreme to believe that the original, native economies of resort communities – farming, fishing, what have you – are the only things that can be considered “real.” The real economy of the twenty-first century in quite a number of beautiful places in the United States is now, in large part, a leisure economy, a tourist economy, an economy based on culture and affluence and travel and entertainment – and, of course, on the buying and selling of real estate in places in which the leisure economy chooses to focus.

I realize in using those words I’ve fairly accurately described Nantucket, although not in the terms most people here would like to hear it described – as a place whose economy is based on culture and affluence and travel and entertainment and trading in that ultimate commodity of real estate. I, too, would rather think of Nantucket in terms of magnificent moors, beautiful beaches, and an exquisite inventory of nineteenth-century architecture making up one of the most beautiful nineteenth-century townscapes in America. That description, too, would be accurate, but it would not get us very far in solving the problem, which I think we could define as how to preserve that townscape and this landscape in such a way as to be meaningful in our time, how to allow this place to grow and change as places have to do if they are to continue to live, but not to lose the qualities about it we value most. That is the challenge.

We will not meet that challenge by building a make-believe, Disney version of Nantucket, even though that might satisfy some people. And yet, at the same time, if we are going to be realistic, we cannot pretend that the island’s primary economic purpose today is other than as an element in a resort economy, and as a refuge for the well-to-do. It may be a shame that this is today Nantucket’s main reason-for-being, but it is so. That is not to say that the response should be to give in to this and simply let it take over everything – quite the contrary. As Nantucket struggles to find the right formula to sustain an ever-continuing past, it just needs to do so with an air of realism, not fantasy. And it is worth remembering, of course, that difficult as these challenges are, most communities in America would give anything to have them.

Nantucket remains incredibly lucky, even though it shares with a handful of other American communities the terrible plague of being attractive to too many people with too much money. I know Nantucketers never like to hear this, but part of being realistic now is admitting that Nantucket today has less in common, say, with its former whaling rival New Bedford than it does with places like Aspen, Vail, East Hampton, Santa Fe, Santa Barbara, or Carmel. In Aspen at least nobody can pretend that mining is what drives the economy, and it is getting harder and harder to believe that than farming and fishing play a significant economic role in East Hampton. They once did, just as whaling once drove the economy of Nantucket, but no more. Now, these are all trophy towns, places that are simultaneously blessed and cursed with affluence, an affluence that has washed like a tsunami over them and, in the name of love and affection for these places, put their survival in jeopardy by shoehorning more and more people in, making everything more and more expensive, more and more crowded, and more and more agitated – in the case of Nantucket, almost surely more agitated than it ever was at the height of the whaling economy.

More and more people, bigger and bigger houses, less and less land – that’s the formula that unites all of these trophy towns and many others besides. I have begun to think, by the way, that today land preservation is the most important part of historic preservation of all. I know that seems a little strange for an architecture critic to say, but with each passing year it seems more and more urgent to me that if we do not preserve the land, whatever efforts we make at preservation of architecture will mean less and less, because the context of that architecture will have been destroyed.

You have done better at that in Nantucket than many places. You were pioneers at putting land in public trust, and in using real estate transfer taxes to assist in the purchase of land for preservation. In East Hampton and neighboring communities we have been playing catch-up on this score for a generation now, but much of the damage has been done: open space once lost is, of course, almost never regained. To me, as someone who lives part of the year in East Hampton, it is especially heartbreaking that the extraordinary vistas of farmland that we once had running right to the edge of the sea are now almost all gone, in many places replaced with houses chock-a-block next to each other. Advocates of limiting growth in East Hampton and Southampton and the other Long Island towns that are collectively known as “the Hamptons” made one terrible mistake back in the 1970’s, when they fought what they thought was the ultimate battle over whether or not a highway was going to be permitted to go through the area and carry traffic almost all the way to the tip of Long Island at Montauk. They defeated the highway, which of course was right – the land that it would have covered, beautiful, rolling hills and ponds and fields, would have been decimated by an expressway.

But what they didn’t understand back then was that it was not enough. People thought that if the expressway were halted a few miles to the west before it reached Southampton, the fact that all traffic heading east to Southampton and East Hampton would have to squeeze onto an old, narrow, two-lane road, would serve as a natural limit on the amount of traffic – just as I am sure people in Nantucket once thought that the ferries, with their limits on vehicles, would also serve as a limiting force for real estate development. But of course it didn’t work that way in the Hamptons at all. People kept coming, and they just put up with the traffic, and they just got used to waiting longer and longer at the point where the four-lane highway narrowed down to the two-lane road. The clog at that bottleneck, not to mention almost everywhere else in these towns, gets a little bit worse every year, with more and more people and more and more cars, but we are like the proverbial frog in the boiling water – since the temperature just goes up a little bit each year, we never realize what is happening and jump out.

What was needed, of course, was much more than stopping the highway. We needed a comprehensive plan, of which stopping the highway was only one part. Since we didn’t do that, all those more and more people in more and more cars were going to more and more houses, because when the highway was stopped, the land was not significantly up-zoned. Zoning changes had to come into play, reducing the number of houses that could be built. If you stop the highway but allow as much, or almost as much, development as you would have had if the highway had been built, what have you really gained? Things are just as crowded, and the land is just as chopped up as if the highway had been built – actually, I realize that there might actually be fewer people if the highway had been built, because all the land in the highway’s right-of-way and for a considerable distance on both sides of it would not have had houses. So, ironically, there are probably several hundred additional houses that wouldn’t have existed if the highway had been built, because the highway would have taken up that land.

Anyway, you are lucky in Nantucket that you have no expressways. Be grateful for small things. While we now have no expressway either, as I said, we have most of the people who the expressway would have brought. I guess we are still better off than if the highway had been built, but not, I’m afraid, by much.
Another thing that we in East Hampton have in common with Nantucket is that it is harder and harder for people there other than those who happen to have a lot of money to feel they can survive. As in Nantucket, there is a terrible shortage of affordable housing, and generally people with modest incomes who work there turn out either have been there for a long time and have held onto their houses – houses that they could never afford today – or they commute from a long distance. It is hard for outsiders to believe this, but the worst traffic jams heading into the Hamptons are not on Friday evenings, when the city people drive out for the weekend. They are every morning, on Monday through Friday, at 7 and 8 and 9 a.m., as all of the workers who can’t afford to live there drive from their homes elsewhere on Long Island, and create a traffic jam that backs up for miles as the expressway narrows down to two lanes, those two lanes that have been preserved so that we can all enjoy the quaint country feeling of a two-lane road.

You may detect a certain cynical tone in what I am saying, and a certain tendency to be coldly realistic. Well, yes, it’s true, and what makes the situation even worse is something that I have not yet mentioned, but which all of you surely know: that the solution to one problem, overdevelopment, accentuates the other problem, which is the lack of affordable housing. The more land we preserve and the less we build, the more expensive things get and the more the place becomes an enclave of the rich. This problem, too, Nantucket shares with other trophy towns, many of which are building subsidized housing to mitigate it. There is no easy answer to this paradox, but the one thing I am certain of is that if we do not preserve land and open space and the architectural heritage of this place, then nothing else will matter, because there will be no longer be an island worth coming to, and the very basis of Nantucket’s new economy will disappear.

For all of this, don’t think for a minute that I am saying that we should throw in the towel and admit that these places – whether they are Nantucket or East Hampton or Aspen or Santa Fe – are already so far gone that we might as well just stop pretending, and let them keep going wherever they are going. Quite the contrary. I think all four of these places – and they stand for many others – all four of these places are nothing short of miraculous. For all we lament what has happened, I think just as often of how much worse things could be. East Hampton is a hundred miles from the center of New York City, a source not only of money but of extraordinary development pressure. Seaside places everywhere have always been crowded, and the amazing thing is that the most attractive of them haven’t become the most crowded. I grew up spending my summers on the Jersey shore, and it wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized there could be such a thing as a seaside place that actually had trees. Given the natural beauty of the beaches and the fact that they are adjacent to exquisite natural landscapes of forests and fields and ponds and bays and hills and cliffs, and their closeness to New York City, it is amazing that the whole place hasn’t turned into high-rise condominiums.
And so, too, with Aspen and Santa Fe, two very different places, and also, of course, with Nantucket: each of them has held its own rather better than its residents and its natives often give it credit for doing. If you had never been to any of these four places, and visited any one of them today with no memory of how they were ten or twenty or thirty years ago, I suspect you would understand immediately what makes them so special. Your first reaction would not be how ruined they are, but how wonderful they are.

Now, this could easily be a prescription for complacency, and that is the last thing I would want to see. I would urge you to keep my suggestion that things are not so bad right here in this room; it will do none of us any good if it gets out that I am saying everything is okay. And anyway, that’s not what I’m saying, not by a long shot. I am trying, instead, to make a very different argument – to be realistic about what the island’s heritage is, and about what our time is, and about what role this place plays in people’s lives today, and to proceed from that understanding. Our challenge right now has to be to try to figure out a way to keep Nantucket as much as possible how we remember it and want it and love it, while at the same time also acknowledging that they cannot and should not be preserved in aspic, that it has to be real – but real in the context of our own time.

These days, there is a lot of talk – in undercurrents if not right out there – about who owns Nantucket. Is it the financiers who build big houses and zip in on their Gulfstreams and zip out again? Is it the old-timers who have been summering here for fifty years? Is it the descendants of the local families who have been here for two centuries? Is it the property owners, or the business owners, or the politicians, or the civic activists who struggle to keep the place as it is?

I don’t think any of these groups truly owns Nantucket. Who owns Nantucket – maybe who controls Nantucket is a better phrase than who owns it – who controls Nantucket isn’t any of these groups of people, really, or any group of people at all. It’s not a who but a what: it is time. Time controls Nantucket, whether we like it or not. The larger forces of time conferred riches on Nantucket in the early nineteenth century, and condemned it to the status of a backwater when the whaling industry faded; time preserved Nantucket in the bleak and difficult years that followed, since as all of you know, whatever else can be said about poverty, it is a great friend to preservation. Nantucket had plenty of poverty, and plenty of preservation. Had the island been richer in the first half of the twentieth century, I wonder if any of us would want to be here now: prosperity could well have swept away a huge number of the things here that we all love and cherish. Now, time has redefined this place again, and a weak economy is the last thing this island worries about; instead, we face what I might say are the more pernicious challenges of prosperity. If poverty is an unexpected friend to preservation, prosperity can be its equally unlikely enemy.
You know as well as anyone how that can be, the way people can approach historic structures with the arrogance of believing their affluence gives them the right to do whatever they please with the older buildings, whether it is to demolish them, to gut them and exploit them by turning their facades into false fronts for entirely different kinds of buildings, or to imitate them in a way that disingenuously pretends to be paying homage, but is really doing the opposite, since it cheapens rather than honors your architectural heritage. It does not have to be that way, and now, the challenge is to figure out how, amid such great affluence, we can evolve a place that recognizes that the twenty-first century is different from the nineteenth and twentieth, and doesn’t pretend to be either of those times – but is willing to learn from those times, and wants neither to reject all of what has come before, nor to imitate it in a way that is glib and shallow.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery in architecture as well as in life, but as you don’t build deep relationships on flattery, you don’t build lasting communities on it, either. For all my love of this island and for all my deep admiration for the extraordinary conservation work that has been done here, I have never been totally convinced that Nantucket’s strict architectural regulations were the right way to go. They mean well, definitely. I’m not sure we can blame the creators of the island’s review system for believing that keeping things to a single style was the safest and best way to safeguard the island’s heritage. After all, in the nineteen sixties and seventies, as the preservation movement was building, modern architecture did not always seem like a particularly sympathetic option. Indeed, sympathy for older architecture, and belief in the power of architectural context, was something many modernists disdained. Modernism took the arrogant view that this time demanded something utterly new, utterly different, and utterly indifferent to anything around it. No wonder people ran as fast as they could into what they thought was the safe embrace of old, nineteenth-century shingled architecture. Mandating that every building have shingles and look more or less like nineteenth-century Nantucket architecture seemed like the only way to prevent all of this awful modern stuff from polluting the island. Here, as in so many places, people tended to make their architectural decisions less out of love of the old as out of fear of the new. That has always been the dark underside of preservation, the secret reason we have done a lot of the historic preservation that we have done everywhere, and it is the least admirable and least honorable reason to preserve, and the wrong way to regulate the new.

And it is the reason Nantucket sometimes threatens to look like a shingled theme park, in the same way that Santa Fe looks like an adobe theme park, and Santa Barbara a Spanish Mediterranean theme park. There seems to be a kind of safety in embracing an older style, and never mind the fact that as we produce more and more of it and get farther and farther away from the conditions that produced it originally, the whole thing begins to take on more than a bit of an air of kitsch. Like all kitsch, it is well-meaning, but there is something just a little too soft about it, too indulgent, too sentimental. I am as ardent a historic preservationist as you will ever meet, but I don’t think you build a community solely on the sentimental. The eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings of Nantucket that we all so love were rigorous, tough things, built to please and to last, yes, but also built to practical purpose. They were a product of the technology, often the very latest technology, of their time. They had emotion in them and the ability to inspire emotion and deep feeling in those who used them, but those things are very different from sentimentality and nostalgia. I hope, by the way, that when I talked earlier about memory being a critical underpinning of preservation, you did not get the idea that I was pushing sentimentality. It is a subtle difference, but an essential one – there is a kind of shallowness to sentimentality that is very different from the deep and resonant feelings of memory. And so much of the new architecture that gets made today seems motivated more by the glib impulses of sentimentality, which I suspect might have offended the nineteenth-century builders who we are imitating. They would probably have had no patience with such soft and self-indulgent feelings. They had much more practical things on their minds.

But if things are different today, as I said, and the reality of our time is that the island is now an affluent tourist economy, not an older agricultural or seafaring economy, then what is wrong with a little bit of sentimentality? Doesn’t it fit right in to the new identity? After all, isn’t it all about leisure and entertainment now? Are we not here for softer, more indulgent reasons than the founders of Nantucket, and if the proper role of the island now is to provide a climate for relaxation, rather than a climate for whaling or farming, then why not design in a way that is sentimental and easy?

I don’t have any simple answer to that, especially since I would have to agree that the opposite of strict architectural regulation – letting everyone do whatever they pleased – would be a disaster, and would in the name of freedom seriously damage the spirit of the place we are all committed to preserving. But maybe what I am really trying to say is that we are damaging that spirit anyway by imitating the older architecture, over and over, since by doing that we are diluting the strength of the original to the point where it may no longer have the value and the meaning it once did. I do think we have already diluted Nantucket’s eighteenth-century architecture by blurring the distinction between the authentic and the imitations, and there has to be a point at which the dilution becomes so strong that the original is robbed of its strength and its impact.

Architectural regulations are a safety net. They prevent certain kinds of disasters. They assure that no one will put a huge pyramid of gold-colored mirrored glass with a rotating neon sign on top on Hulbert Avenue, and we should be grateful for that. But at the same time they are saving us from such horrors, they are squeezing out the fresh air, and making it hard for creative architects to produce new designs that try to interpret the spirit of Nantucket in a way that is genuinely reflective of the island’s new identity. The safety net is also a ceiling, and that is damaging to the ongoing life of any place, because it forces it toward the false, toward the make-believe, toward the disingenuousness of the theme park. We need to find a way to be open to more creative new architecture. I am not sure, in the end, that we do not pay a very high price for the safety net that architectural regulations give us. Indeed, they are a kind of planning and design version of the “nanny state” – a well-intentioned attempt to safeguard us, but intrusive to the point of making you wonder where the line should be drawn.

There are two critical lessons Nantucket buildings have always offered, at least to me. The first is a lesson in urbanism as much as in architecture: I do not think there is a town center anywhere in America more beautiful than Nantucket, and more powerful as a statement of the idea of community, the idea of buildings working together to make a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, the idea that the street is a public place where community life takes place. The townscape here shows us that a place can be densely built up and be as beautiful as any natural landscape. And it shows us, also, that the interface between city and country is itself a precious and beautiful thing. Other than some English country villages, I can’t recall a place in which town gives way to country that is more graceful and more beautiful than the route up Main Street and over toward the old pastures. In an age when suburban sprawl seems to be our stock-in-trade – and there is plenty of that here, too, of course – this exquisite transition is a wonderful thing to behold.

The other essential lesson of Nantucket buildings, for me, is one of modesty. Say what you will about the Three Bricks, but they are understated compared to a lot of the houses we are building today, and of course almost everything else from their time is smaller still. Where, I wonder, did we get the notion that a family can’t possibly survive over the summer in anything less than fifteen thousand square feet? This is not a problem limited to Nantucket, of course, and it is a direct result of too much money, but it is especially troubling here, when we have this extraordinary inventory of nineteenth-century buildings that show us a different way. I wonder why, given how much people claim to value the island’s older buildings, they seem never to look at the lessons they offer. Their meaning is not only in shingles and white trim and shutters. It is also in modesty, and common sense, and grace.

Oddly enough, in East Hampton many of us have recently become even more sympathetic to modernism because the modern houses built there in the nineteen fifties and sixties are also demonstrations of modesty – they are small and understated, weekend pavilions by the sea, and now many of them are being destroyed by people who buy them only for their land, and tear them down and erect huge McMansions on them, buildings that imitate the great shingled houses of the late nineteenth century in the same unknowing and uncaring way that people here imitate the shingled houses of the early nineteenth century.

So where does this bring us? Are things as bad as we think, or is there hope? Yes, they are as bad as we think, and yes, there is hope. I think the hope comes from a couple of sources. One source of hope, for me, is simply in the increasing willingness on the part of people here to acknowledge that the island in the twenty-first century is not the island that was, that it has to be different because the time is different, and that the challenge is not to push back the forces of time – for that will inevitably fail – but to direct and shape those forces into something more civilized, more pleasing, and more gentle and graceful than it might otherwise be. Learning from the past, thinking of it not as over but as ever continuing, to use that phrase again, assuring that the past is a living thing, and not merely a museum. Preserving and protecting the island’s architectural resources is a critical part of that.

The other reason I have some hope is because of Nantucket itself. This is one of the most beautiful landscapes in America, and one of the most beautiful townscapes anywhere, and if the island is delicate in some ways, it is tough and resilient in others, more resilient than we might think. That doesn’t mean it can take whatever we do to it – obviously it can’t – but it does mean that we can trust it to embrace a little more architectural breadth and scope than we have asked it to, and that it can sustain being more than a museum. The builders who made the nineteenth century Nantucket that we want to love and protect were people who, above all else, knew that the realities of their time shaped the place that they were building. We are lucky enough to profit from the beauty of what they left us – I hope we can also learn from their practicality, their common sense, their commitment to community, and their wisdom.

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