Re-Awakening of an Art Colony Treasure
The house at 8 Howard Street known as Greater Light, a property of the Nantucket Historical Association, was a summer home and art studio created in the 1930s by Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan, two Quaker sisters from Philadelphia. Greater Light lovingly illustrates the era of Nantucket’s history when an art colony thrived in the sleepy island community in the aftermath of Nantucket’s whaling heyday.
Between the two world wars, Nantucket was a place of quiet beauty and simple living that appealed to a group of artists who made it their place of inspiration during the summer season. The Monaghan sisters were part of this Nantucket art colony, first arriving on the island in 1923, when they rented a small studio near the harbor. The Nantucket they encountered was dilapidated and old-fashioned, supporting a population of only three thousand year-round residents.
Greater Light was originally a livestock barn dating to the late-eighteenth century. It was discovered by Hanna and Gertrude in the summer of 1929, when they followed a herd of cows that was being led up Main Street. The cows turned into Howard Street, and then disappeared into a massive barn. The sisters followed, and their love affair with Greater Light began.
Enthralled with the old structure, the Monaghans purchased it from grocer William Holland, and began planning its transformation into a summer home and art studio unlike anything else on the island. They were collectors of cast-off architectural elements—including twelve-foot-high wrought-iron gates, Italian gilded columns, decorative church windows, and exotic adornments from around the globe. Natural scavengers with means, they took every opportunity to acquire eclectic furnishings for their new temple to the arts.
Once they purchased the property, transformation of the barn progressed swiftly. Greater Light soon became a topic of speculation, and an object of curiosity among the locals. Naysayers in the community—humorously styled “peekers” by the sisters—gawked at their fanciful additions and transformations, peering over the garden fence, whispering in the nearby lanes, and gossiping openly about their plans. In the middle of the Great Depression, two unwed lady artists from Philadelphia were installing gold columns in a two-hundred-year-old livestock barn, donning outlandish clothing, and parading a white greyhound named Angel Gabriel.
Gertrude, the elder sister, forty-two years old in 1929, was an artist who had studied in Philadelphia and abroad. She was a well-established muralist for department stores and private residences in her native city, and an active member of the local art scene. Her sister Hanna, ten years younger, was an equally accomplished actress and author. The Monaghan family was well-to-do, cultured, and progressive for their era in matters of life and art.
Despite the unfriendly climate on Nantucket, the sisters remained true to their inner vision. As Hanna relates in her memoir, Greater Light on Nantucket, “A virus struck under the pseudonym of ART. How it entered this sanctuary and hit two who came from a long line of Quaker martyrs cannot be explained. Thereafter these two victims lived for nothing but art.” Their pursuit of art and collectibles was coupled with a belief in “divine mind”—a providential tendency of the universe to fashion perfectly timed coincidences.
Before ever laying eyes on Greater Light, Hanna had, on a whim, purchased a pair of twelve-foot-high wrought-iron gates. The impressive gates lay dormant in a junkyard near Philadelphia. Then, in harmony with “divine mind,” it turned out that the height from the roof over the patio to the ground was exactly twelve feet! Further coincidences followed: Stunning amber-shaded stained-glass windows that fit perfectly in Hanna’s bedroom were found in an old English-style tavern; wrought-iron balconies and handrails from a demolition site were salvaged; six gold columns were fortuitously acquired at auction; and the perfect accent tile for the garden fountain, depicting a kingfisher, was found at the Nantucket Cottage Hospital Thrift Shop at a cost of $1.00.
The garden was a key feature of Gertrude and Hanna’s vision for Greater Light. Imagined as an extension of their interior living space, the patio and garden were used as a gathering spot for teas, a venue for parties and performances, and the perfect backdrop for summer visits with their family. The story of its creation is typical of the sisters’ spirit.
The old barn that they first encountered, “grey and massive in line with long lean-to roof . . . [sloping] gracefully down,” provided both the inspiration and actual physical framework on which they could build their vision and hang their dreams. No such inspiration was immediately forthcoming from the bleak barnyard which would become their jewel of a garden. In fact, “a more hopeless sight could not be imagined . . . as we surveyed the dump around us,” Hanna noted in her memoir, referring to the early days of the barn conversion, when the “garden” was nothing more than a heap of rubble.
The unformed space was, however, given structure early-on by the massive iron gates which had been placed at the sides of the patio; and by the construction of stone walls, steps, and stepping-stone paths. This garden framework has endured through the years, and is largely responsible for the garden’s survival (in its near original state allowing for inevitable changes in vegetation) through eight decades, and the recent restoration phase.
Other details and garden furnishings added through the years ensured that some of the eclecticism and imaginative spirit of the house spilled out into the garden, without overwhelming it. Indeed, the plantings have always been largely a muted palette of evergreens and old-fashioned flowers that, together with the “green sward” (so-called by Hanna), created the “green grassy room under the sky” that the sisters had envisioned for the barnyard.
Many garden elements, both mineral and vegetable, have survived the decades, allowing not only a continuity of the spirit of the place, but lasting connections with the characters that populate the garden story. Prominent amongst these was an elderly lady from Main Street (referred to by Hanna as “our garden lady”), who befriended the sisters and helped to make the garden a reality. She it was who first saw the potential in the rubble-strewn yard, and advised on the building of the retaining wall to divide the upper and lower garden levels. The wall survives today, but not the blanket of sun-loving flowers that once clothed it. The yuccas, catnip, iris, and snow-in-summer that the ladies loved are now planted in the few remaining sunny spots of the now mature shady garden.
The beautiful Birch and London Plane trees anchoring the garden to north and south provide that shade and the woodland feel of today’s garden. Hanna’s memoir details the planting of the Birch tree one hot summer afternoon. The three ladies directed the operation from chairs placed on the lawn, while their gardener, Manuel, patiently moved the tree back and forth, digging and re-digging the hole until, finally, the spot was deemed perfect, and the tree planted. Years later, this tree, with its “limbs gnarled and white, flung out like great arms majestic and protective,” would always remind Hanna of that sunny afternoon, and trigger “an overpowering nostalgia for my one little Portuguese gardener whom I can hear in memory clip, clip, clipping the hedge by hand.”
Perhaps the most dramatic feature of the space is the transition from house to garden, framed by the huge iron gates, and equally enticing whether viewed from within or without: from the garden toward the warm welcoming brick of the patio (“glowing with flowers in many pots— fuchsias, begonias, and coleus in colorful variety”), or from the patio toward the cool green of the garden.
As in the house, smaller details and nuances abound, enriching the garden space with their stories and associations, meanings and memories: the cross pattern in the brick of the patio, the three small crosses at the bottom of the tiny pool, and the kingfisher tile watching over that pool.
But, ultimately, the garden is and always has been a quiet retreat. Sunken and secure, it is a place for small gatherings, conversations with friends and family, and the opportunities for quiet reflection that the sisters treasured: “As the sun dips behind the roof of the barn, the last gleam often catches on the water as it spurts up from the pewter water lily. The pool is then in shadow. It was one gleam for a moment each night. We have many times watched for its passing.”
Through the generosity of its many supporters and a grant from the Nantucket Community Preservation Committee, the NHA completed the major restoration of Greater Light and its charming garden this spring, working with Twig Perkins, Inc., Chip Webster & Associates, and Sullivan Landscaping. Bequeathed to the NHA in the 1970s, Greater Light was open as a house museum until the 1990s when the need for extensive restoration necessitated its closure.