Originally published in the Historic Nantucket Vol. 45, No. 2, Fall 1996, p. 145-146
The Nantucket Historic District Commission :
By Patricia Butler
Nantucket's leadership in the preservation of historic individual structures and the protection of community character is widely recognized. Nantucket was among the earliest historic districts in the country, along with Charleston, South Carolina, and the Vieux Carre in New Orleans. Since 1955 the Historic District Commission (HDC) has played a central role in the island's preservation.
The purpose of the HDC is clearly stated in the original enabling Act written in 1955, limited then to the Town of Nantucket and the Village of Siasconset. "to promote the general welfare of the Town of Nantucket through the preservation and protection of historic buildings, places and districts of historic interest through the development of an appropriate setting for these buildings, places and districts and through the benefits resulting to the economy of Nantucket in developing and maintaining its vacation-travel industry through the promotion of these historic associations."
Guidelines for the HDC have evolved over the years starting with six amendments initiated by Town Meeting voters, including the 1972 action that expanded the commission's jurisdiction to the entire island, as well as Tuckernuck and Muskeget islands. Other amendments have been written to conform with the commonwealth's historic preservation enabling legislation and to include standards set by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Department of the Interior.
Today, the HDC reviews all exterior structural changes and new construction on Nantucket Island. The commission effectively maintains the charm and essence of Nantucket by setting the standards for building. There are clear goals for construction in the Old Town of Nantucket as well as outside of town. For instance, in town special care is taken to preserve the old structures built before the middle of the nineteenth century and to ensure that the historic character of the town in scale, historic pattern, streetside building, and pedestrian detail is maintained. Out of town the HDC aims to protect the character of existing small settlements on the island, especially Siasconset, but also Wauwinet, Quidnet, Surfside, and Madaket. The commission also tries to foster a common character among all new buildings and to preserve and protect the spacious character of the natural landscape.
The original efforts to preserve Nantucket's unique historic character and sense of place came at an appropriate time. In the 1950s, many traditional communities were impacted by thoughtless suburban sprawl and modern construction, without attention to detail, scale, or craftsmanship.
The fact that Nantucket remains a living, working community distinguishes it from historic reconstructions such as Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village. Nantucketers are proud of what has been called the United States' finest collection of late seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early nineteenth-century structures.
On the national level, local preservation efforts were united in 1949 when the National Trust for Historic Preservation was established as a nonprofit, private organization to provide national standards for the protection of individual historic properties. Legislative strength was acquired in 1966, when the National Historic Preservation Act was passed. The act enabled the Secretary of the Interior, with the National Park Service, to establish the National Register of Historic Places. Through federal grants, state preservation offices and the National Trust were directed to protect the properties and districts listed on the National Register. In Nantucket, any property that is over fifty years old and is considered contributing to the Historic District can qualify for the National Register. There are at least 2,500 properties that are over fifty years old and at least a thousand that are considered individually significant.
Until recently, the collaboration of public and private preservation interests has not been actively pursued on Nantucket. While community members who support the stewardship of individual properties and the broader education and conservation work of the Nantucket Historical Association may be equally supportive of the Historic District Commission's work, the two efforts have been generally separate. As intense land development threatens the island's historic community character and unique quality of life, increased efforts by the Nantucket Historical Association to express concerns and work with community leaders in the public and private realms are welcome and vitally important.