Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 50, no. 3 (Summer 2001), p. 5-6
by Amy Jenness
IN 1899, IF THE SIASCONSET SUMMER CROWD wanted to hold a dance or stage a musical they had to use the railroad station just over the bluff on Low Beach. Organizers decorated the station with Japanese lanterns; Walter Folger, the expressman, hauled a piano down the embankment for the ladies; and the stationmaster played the violin.
By the turn of the century the sleepy fishing village had grown into a summer resort with 2,000 residents and had a reputation as an art colony with many actors, painters, writers, and musicians attracted by its simple charm.
Tired of squeezing into the small railroad station, a group of 'Sconseters formed the Siasconset Casino Association that year and raised $3,000 to build a "Hall of Amusement" on New Street. Despite its grand name, the building, designed by architect John Coffins, was to be of a simple design that provided a large main room with a stage and several small antechambers for set-building, dressing rooms, and smoking. Two clay tennis courts were planned for the backyard.
Casinos (which comes from the Italian word cascina or "little house") were popular on country estates in the eighteenth century and were built for recreational and sporting activities. Later, casinos were formed as private clubs. When the Siasconset Casino opened in July of 1900 it instandy became 'Sconset's social center, and j remains one today. The Casino, along with the Sankaty Golf Club, also established in 1900, solidified 'Sconset as a summer vacation destination by providing athletic and cultural activities for the summer leisure class.
It became a place where people could go for a card game or to attend a dance. A place where people from all over the island once traveled to see top Broadway actors of the day share the stage with local residents and commercial fishermen. And later where they came to see movies. The Pacific Bank even tried opening a branch in the casino in 1912, a venture that lasted only one season.
And always it has been a place to play tennis, a sport so popular at the turn of the century that the association added four more courts in its first nine years. Over time, the Casino purchased abutting pieces of property and added even more. Today it maintains eleven tennis courts.
Like so many of 'Sconset's cottages, the Casino's design has evolved a porch and a wart at a time. Originally, it was a simple building with none of the epic Victorian rococo so popular in late-nineteenth-century architecture. It looked like a large barn, including two cupolas along the roof peak, and had a covered front porch.
Today the building retains its simplicity, but has acquired an established patina of elegance with its shingled buttresses, enclosed front and side porches, several | additions, and dense landscaping.
The most dramatic renovation occurred in 1923 when Mr. and Mrs. David Gray paid $32,000 to have the interior remodeled. Gray hired architect Frederick Hill, of the firm McKim, Mead & White, the New York architects credited with designing many of the grand shingle-style mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, including the Newport Casino. There seems little doubt among historians and preservationists that Hill patterned the interior of the Siasconset Casino after the eponymous Newport tennis club. His intricate and elaborate design of latticework, which covers the walls and ceiling and whose edges are stained green, strongly resembles features of the Newport Casino, built in 1880. Hill, who married a Nantucket Starbuck and summered in 'Sconset, is credited with respecting the local desire for keeping the Casino simple as well as for vastly improving the acoustics in the big room.
The interior of the Casino remained intact, but unfortunately the bowling alley didn't survive. In 1909 the association constructed a second building to house a two-lane bowling alley and hired local boys to set the pins. Teams competed with members of the Nantucket Athletic Club and soon the association added billiards and pool tables. In 1918 the bowling alley was opened to the public, but even that couldn't reverse its financial decline. The building was sold in 1920 to the Coffin family and moved across the street where it was used for storage.
Although still a private club and managed now as a members-only institution, the Casino remains one of the island's most popular spots for gatherings. Its founders wearying of the train station has provided a spacious and charming venue for a century's worth of fund-raisers, weddings, dances, festivals, and meetings of all kinds.
Amy Jenness was the Nantucket Historical Association's information and systems coordinator and a free-lance writer for island publications.