How Victorian-style houses appeared in Nantucket

February 16, 2022

When you think about Nantucket, you probably visualize the iconic gray weathered shingle-style houses and cottages, so typical of the east coast beach fronts of Cape Cod, Long Island, Rhode Island, Newport, and Maine.

And you won’t be wrong. These particular New England coastal-style houses began appearing after the 1876 Centennial celebrations. During those years, the residents, architects, and builders preferred these simpler homes than the detailed Victorian-style ones.

The shingle-style houses on the island of Nantucket are designed to blend into the beautiful landscapes and ocean views. The color of the unpainted cedar shingles is a naturally weathered gray resulting from the oceanic climate. Their designs were simple, without too many ornaments, big porches, and asymmetrical outlines.

But still, when you are traveling around the island of Nantucket, you can still find some very typical examples of Victorian-style houses. They stand out from the rest of the buildings with their bright colors, the elaborate windows and doors, as well as the angled roof dormers and corner brackets.

How these buildings ended up being built in the overall Puritan town of Nantucket is still not explained with sufficient evidence or documentation.

Some examples of these untypically houses include the Surfside hostel or the houses on 19 and 21 Broad Street and on 72 Main Street in Nantucket.

While the buildings which started appearing during the 18th and early 19th century were pretty well documented, and their history is known, the background of the Victorian-style houses and buildings remain somewhat of a mystery even to the town’s Preservation Trust. According to the authorities, these buildings barely survived, as there was almost no understanding of preserving the Victorian-style architecture during those years.

In fact, from the 1930s on, the locals were even encouraged to avoid or remove the intricate Victorian-style elements from the buildings. The reason is that they were considered fussy and even unsightly, according to the experts from the Preservation Fund.

This resulted in many of the old Victorian homes in Nantucket being stripped off of their typical Victorian-style details, such as the bracketed corners and the porches. This was done to make them resemble the other houses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Other homes in Victorian style were demolished altogether.

Although there is no exact data on how many Victorian houses existed in Nantucket, most were originally built from 1837 to 1910. But two milestone events likely caused this tendency to change. The first was the Great Fire in 1846 on the island, which destroyed about a third of the entire town. The next event was the discovery of petroleum, which happened about ten years later, which led to the deterioration of the whaling industry, which was the leading business of the people of Nantucket. The ending of the whaling industry caused many people to flee the island in search of other means of making a living. This turned the island of Nantucket into almost a ghost town for half a century. After that, it started regaining its popularity, but as a summer resort instead of “the whaling capital of the world.”

These two devastating events left the architecture and infrastructure on Nantucket in their original appearance without being heavily affected by the ongoing Industrial revolution during those years.

Thus the Victorian-style architecture, which became so popular on the mainland, bypassed the isolated island. Very few of the houses in the Victorian style in Nantucket are considered true Victorian since they were designed and built with elements borrowed from the more popular farmhouse and Federal buildings on the island.

Typically, Victorian houses are called “painted ladies” due to their colors, detailed ornaments, and fancifully cut gingerbread trims.

This architectural style became predominant from 1830 to 1910, while Queen Victoria was the reigning monarch in the United Kingdom. The style was based on the idea that the design of the homes, as well as of the clothing, should be intricate and beautiful rather than simply to be practical.

This caused the architects of those times to borrow the fancy elements from various cultures, including Italian, French, Egyptian, and Tudor, when designing and building the houses. This is why very few Victorian buildings actually look alike.

The more typical Victorian-style homes in Nantucket had ground floors with stained glass windows on the stairways and many pieces of furniture, accessories, and fabrics.

But even without the Big Fire and by the ending of the whaling industry, the Victorian-style would still not be predominant there. This was because the population was primarily made up of Quakers who preferred simplicity over excess in all aspects of life.

Today, thanks to the preservation funds, the restoration efforts, as well as the HDC regulations in Nantucket, many of these Victorian-style houses have been restored to their former looks. To see some of these fine examples when visiting Nantucket, you can take a stroll down Broad Street, where there are some prime examples.

While not everybody is a fan of the ornamented Victorian style, these buildings on the island of Nantucket are an important part of its architecture and history.

If you are planning a trip to Nantucket, you may even be lucky enough to rent one of the available Victorian-style short-term residential rental houses on the island, especially if you want to experience the Victorian style firsthand during your stay there.


Carlos Diaz
I believe in making the impossible possible because there’s no fun in giving up. Travel, design, fashion and current trends in the field of industrial construction are topics that I enjoy writing about.

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