"They Don't Make Them Like They Used To"

"They Don't Make Them Like They Used To"

Guest Blog for Nantucket Preservation Trust, June 20, 2020

“You know you really don’t have to come.  It’s just a formality of signing checks and documents.  Just mail them in; the attorneys will take care of the rest.”

My realtor was trying to tell me that it wasn’t necessary to fly from London where I worked, to attend the settlement of my first Nantucket house.

But, I was determined … Even if it was “off season”, rainy and cold.

“You know how long I’ve pined for a place here, Robert!  I’m coming!”

I’d long ago fell in love with this small strip of well-preserved sand called Nantucket; spending summers during college in a room rented on Centre Street from a nice elderly lady; and later during my years in NYC – avoiding the LIE/Hamptons crawl for long weekends in one or the other of precious few town rentals that would permit a well-mannered dog.

Now finally, there would be a set of keys belonging to me!  Keys that fit the door of a house built in 1837 … A door that swung open for 19 former custodians before I knew it existed.

36 Pine Street was not my first choice.  I had fallen hard for a Victorian on North Liberty with a big front porch and a serious flooding issue.

“Are you insane!” snorted my architect friend when he saw the two sump pumps in the basement.  ‘You will drop another million just raising the foundation and dealing with the mold!  As your friend, I forbid it!”

The little house on Pine St. had no such issues.  Although the bathrooms were a challenge and the yard was a mass of crab grass and mismatched bricks, it’s public rooms were well laid out; it had a proper and gracious entry, and it sat high on the street and safely out of the flood zone.  From its vantage between Twin & Lyon Streets, there were no obstructions to block breezes and sunlight which in the summers would leave every room cooled and glowing.   Even the house inspector’s verdict was favorable as he commented, “This place was built with a nice attention to detail.”

And then – there was that strange yet warmly welcoming feeling I experienced walking through its door for the first time.

“It was – like a hug.” I admitted to Mother as we discussed the houses toured with Robert that day.   “I know what you mean”, she confessed. “I felt it too!  Good vibes.”

So, here I was … on an overcast autumn day; having signed countless documents & checks in an underwhelming ceremony with two attorneys and the seller’s realtor … opening the door to a new relationship with a bank and a 172 year old house.
“Now you’ve done it.”, I whispered to myself.  “Gosh, HOW did I miss that rotted plank?” as I climbed the steep front stairs in a rush of buyer’s remorse.

But then, I opened the door …

I had known that the former owners were leaving some furniture behind.  However, I had not expected rooms neatly kitted out as if for a new rental client.  Everything organized, clean, expectant.  Spotless bathrooms with clean towels; beds made with crisp sheets; kitchen appliances & table wear at the ready; and, two new bikes under wraps in the shed.

“Geeze, no need for my reservation at the Jared Coffin!” I thought & then wondered if the hotel would refund my deposit.  (Fortunately they were understanding.)

The large mahogany island in the kitchen held two generous baskets of flowers, prepared foods and a bottle of bubbly.  Attached were welcome notes from my realtor and from the sellers – who wrote lovingly of their time with the house; of their son learning to climb its stairs; of their wishes for me to make my own happy memories here.

The following morning I woke well rested and listening to the quiet of rooms full of possibilities … Rooms standing silent as if politely waiting for me to start.  This would be the fun part … The dialogue between four walls imbued with experience and a new life within them.

Some things were obvious from the beginning …Clearly those bathrooms needed an introduction to the twenty-first century!  The back bedroom whined for a higher ceiling – which the amble attic offered to cure.   And, even before making an offer on the house, I knew that Gulden’s mustard dining room would be striped chocolate & white with my beloved Saarinen table & chairs installed and offering balance to the old room with their clean, classic modernity.

Other things would reveal themselves with time; like a couple coming to terms with each other’s needs.  A new roof for the house one year; new window treatments for me another… And, on it would go for however long we remain together.

And, some things were perfect as is … Those gorgeous wide floorboards throughout the house, made from trees that grew tall and broad in virgin forests long before the white men came.  The simple yet decorative mill work on the stairs and window frames which spoke of the two Swain sisters for whom the house was built.   They were teachers in the “penny school” run during the whaling era on the ground floor.  (Later I would find a letter at the NHA library written fondly about them from a former pupil.)

The dining room and kitchen were both large and paired nicely for entertaining.  The Wolf stove worked brilliantly; a good choice from the 18th custodian, a restaurateur.

The wonky slanted door frames seemed less a construction problem and more like campaign badges earned from decades of settling in and fighting the elements … “Strength of character should be celebrated,” I blurted out to no one in particular.

And then, as if to reinforce that point, I opened the front door and was taken aback by the carnage of tree branches, dangling wires and wet leaves covering the road.

“Some nor-easter last night, huh!” yelled a passer-by.

“Gosh, I didn’t hear a thing!” I replied.

The man stopped; looked up to where I stood on the landing of my old home’s front steps, (the ones with the rotted board) and offered admiringly, “Well, they certainly don’t make them like they used to.”

I couldn’t agree more.


Mary-Adair Macaire is the owner of Weatherly Design, an interior design studio & retail space at 1 Federal Street in Nantucket.   She is also an assignment writer in the experiential luxury market for such publications as Barron’s and various promotional publications for fashion houses.

For those who own or contemplate owning - or just love - Nantucket's 800+ historic homes, do visit the welcoming people at Nantucket Preservation Trust.  Their mission is to Preserve, Protect & Promote the "island's unique architectural heritage & Timeless Sense of Place".  Practically speaking, the NPT is a wonderful resource for understanding how these homes can evolve with relevancy and historical sensitivity.   

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