NantucketFor almost nine months a year, the tiny island of Nantucket, Mass., slumbers 30 miles off the East Coast, shrouded in fog. Known both as “the gray lady of the sea” and, in the language of the original American Indian inhabitants, “the faraway land,” in the offseason only 10,000 permanent residents call this place home. But as spring arrives, the ferry makes more frequent trips and the airport gets a bit busier, and by June, the island is hopping with the arrival of 30,000 “summer people.” Many Baltimoreans have made this seasonal pilgrimage for generations starting in the late 19th century, when tourism took over as the primary source of income on an island once famous for its whaling industry. It only takes one trip to understand the big attraction of this little island.

“It was so charming and had so much character and so much history,” says Melanie Sabelhaus, a Baltimore resident who has been vacationing on Nantucket with her husband, Bob, and their two children for more than two decades. The Sabelhauses own other vacation homes, but they say Nantucket captures the heart in a special way.  “There is an essence to Nantucket that I have never found anywhere I’ve ever gone,” says Melanie Sabelhaus.

From the moment you step from the ferry, Nantucket greets with its charm. The old town with its gray, shingled historic homes, cobblestone streets and rows of shops invites unhurried strolling. Bikes are more popular than cars and there are no streetlights, neon signs or boardwalks.

“Once you cross the canal to the Cape, you forget about the telephone, you forget about your worries,” says Eleanor Weller Reade, whose family has been coming to Nantucket since her grandfather bought a house in the late 19th century. “It’s hard to get here. If there’s fog, the planes don’t fly. If there’s wind, the boats don’t go. For a long time that kept the ‘types’ away from the island that would have made it too frenetic and too busy.”

Reade doesn’t know for sure what inspired her grandfather, William Pepper Constable, to buy a home in Nantucket. “It wasn’t as expensive as Maine and I think it was quieter,” she speculates. “It was beautiful and undiscovered and had great waters for sailing.”

Those same things that attracted her grandfather are what appeal today to Reade, her children and her grandchildren, the sixth generation to summer in Nantucket. No matter how far-flung the family becomes, everyone gathers on the island to play tennis, fish and race sailboats. The family still owns the original piece of waterfront property bought by her grandfather.

“There are pictures of us from age 3 on sitting on that bulkhead,” she recalls. “Now, there are probably 80-plus descendants of my grandfather who come to Nantucket. We all still come and we all sit on that bulkhead and all the children are photographed on that bulkhead and learn to swim on that beach. … We consider it our birthright.”

Richard Gatchell, his sister, Mimi Rodgers, and his aunt, Francis Parsons, still maintain their family’s home in Siasconset (‘Sconset to locals), which Parsons’ mother and stepfather, Fanny Whitman Hill and Billy Hill, purchased in the 1960s. Over the years the family has established a comfortable summer routine, playing tennis and watching movies at the ‘Sconset Casino, packing a picnic and taking the family for all-day romps on the beach and enjoying impromptu evening cocktails with “Nantucket friends,” people they’ve met on the island and whom they gather with each summer.

“There’s a sense of consistency to summer approaching, getting the boat tickets, finding the time to go, picking the projects to do on the house,” says Gatchell. “Everything changes in your life, but Nantucket always stays the same.”

Parsons remembers the house so packed with family, they practically had to pitch a tent in the front yard. There were Nor’easter storms when the kids would all sit in the cottage adjoining the house and play games for hours, or beautiful days taking the beat-up Jeep onto the beach to surf fish.

Some of Parsons’ favorite memories are of solitary walks on the moors with only her dogs for company. “It is such a beautiful, tranquil walk and you’d come back with this feeling of peace, especially if you were up on the hills by Gibbs pond and saw a bit of the sunset,” she says. “I think one of the biggest pluses of the island are the conservation groups.”

Although Nantucket is petit, only 3 1/2 miles wide and 14 miles long, almost 40 percent of its land is protected and open for hiking, birding and nature walks. One-third of America’s moors are on the island, as is one of the world’s largest cranberry bogs. With more than 800 houses still standing that pre-date the Civil War, Nantucket has a historic presence that adds to its peaceful, quaint quality.

“We like antiques and old things and it’s like a little Williamsburg,” says Randle Goetze, who bought a home in town with his wife, Nancy, 12 years ago. “Everything has been so well preserved.”

One of the Goetzes’ favorite activities is to wander through town in the evening when all the homes are lit from within. “It’s like a Christmas card,” says Randle. “It’s such a piece of Americana,” adds Nancy. “When you watch the ferry unload with the dogs and the bikes and the trunks and people from all over— it’s so fun.”

Another Baltimore couple that started going to Nantucket because it was a great destination for them to fly their plane, describe their experience on the island as being “like camp.” Visitors are encouraged to bike, take long walks or go on sailing excursions. The wife, a triathlete, runs for undisturbed hours on the moors. “It is so healthy and wholesome,” she explains. “It’s like this mythical place that turns out to be true.”         

For the people who go there, the desire to protect the island is strong. Homeowners, even those who are only there in the summer, are frequently on the boards of historic and conservation groups. It is also a way to meet new friends, preserve the charm of the place for the next generation, and become a part of that essence of Nantucket that is so hard to put into words but is best described as community.

“We have our wonderful Baltimore friends, but some of our best friends in the world are our Nantucket friends,” says Melanie Sabelhaus, who was the chairman for the Nantucket Historical Association’s annual antique show. “They can be from St. Louis or Connecticut or Dallas or Miami, but we’ve all found each other in Nantucket.”

With so many friends converging on such a small island, life can become an endless party. Although there are numerous gourmet restaurants on the island, most long-timers prefer to entertain at home. The Goetzes head straight to Bartlett Farm to fill the house with fresh flowers, then pick up lobsters from Nantucket Seafood to beat the crowds at the restaurants. Richard Gatchell recalls a trip when he was still unpacking the car when he heard some friends mixing up rum drinks next door and the fun got under way. Melanie Sabelhaus’ favorite activity is a casual family beach party.

“You bring your own dinner, we have big grills and it’s at a wonderful place like Great Point where there will be a great sunset,” she says. “It’s a rally call— you could end up with 15 people or 60 . … We bring in friends and we want to show them Nantucket and the way we show them is with a beach picnic.”

Everyone seems to have their own Nantucket tradition, whether it is the Gatchells, who head straight to the walking bridge by their ‘Sconset house to wave hello to the island as soon as they arrive, or the Goetzes, who head down to Brant Point Light when their children leave the island to wave goodbye to the ferry as it pulls out of the harbor and heads back to the fast-paced world of modern civilization.
“I’m one of seven children and we have children and they have children,” says Eleanor Weller Reade. “It means a lot to hand on to our children and for them to hand on to their children the same fun of going on beach picnics with the whole family, fishing together and sailing and racing. It was an incredibly wonderful upbringing to have and one we want to pass on.”


Rooms with a view

This house in Shimmo (American Indian for “spring”) had had only had three owners (all Marylanders) when it was purchased by its current Baltimore-based owners. The only problem was that the house wasn’t much to look at. “My husband always said it was one of the worst houses with the most perfect site,” says the homeowner. The house was built in the 1930s more for practicality than curb appeal. Despite the beautiful view, there were hardly any windows in the house. But from the third floor the owner was able to see the harbor and knew the house had potential.

Despite the advice of friends, he didn’t tear down the house when he bought it in 1985. Instead he built a new house around the old house, preserving the kitchen, the library and several other original rooms. “He feels, and I do too, that older houses have more character,” says the homeowner. “There was no need to take away some heritage and build something from scratch.”

NantucketThe owner used a local architect and a Dutch builder (both now deceased) to create a seamless construction between the old and new. But the homeowner credits interior designer Alexander Baer with really bringing the home to life with soft fabrics and unpretentious style. “It’s a very warm house, very comfortable,” says the homeowner. “Dogs on the sofa are way OK.”

The couple uses the house nine months out of the year so they wanted it to be a happy retreat, even after the summer crowds petered away. Where there were once dark spaces, there are now windows that allow the view of the harbor to unfold as visitors move through the house. The house is so well known for its positioning, it has hosted weddings for several friends. “If you close your eyes and imagine what Nantucket looks like, then you open your eyes, that’s the view from the front lawn,” says the owner. “In your fantasy world, it is exactly what you think Nantucket looks like.”

Nantucket The Gatchell family home

‘Sconset classic

The Gatchell family home is a bit of old Nantucket charm on an island that is increasingly characterized by high-end kitchen renovations and New York-styled interiors. Situated on the end of ‘Sconset (short for “Siasconset”) park and overlooking the popular village marketplace, the home has a private, uninterrupted view of the water.

The original house was built sometime in the 1880s, but is attached to an older cottage that was brought over from Quidnet, a different part of the island, possibly in the 1740s. With nine bedrooms between the two houses, this home has ample room for family and visitors, who have filled it since it was first purchased by Fanny Whitman Hill and Billy Hill in 1959.

Nantucket“The house changed a lot when Mom bought it,” says Francis Parsons, who owns the home with her nephew and niece, Richard Gatchell and Mimi Rodgers. “Everything was brown— the lampshades, the paint, virtually everything. And like a Victorian house it had lots of little rooms. [Whitman Hill] opened it up, especially the master bedroom. They knocked out a wall and made a big, beautiful bedroom.”
Since those renovations, little has changed. The family happily lives with the house’s quirks, like hot and cold taps that are backward and old-fashioned ice trays that need to be filled for cocktails. Everything on the ocean side of the home is blue, as if to blend with the ocean. The bedrooms are all different colors— yellow, pink, green— and that’s how they are known and assigned to visitors.

“I walked in that house when I was 5 years old, I walked in last year and it’s the same place, and there’s a real comfort in that,” says Richard Gatchell. “It’s desirable because it is the old Nantucket— a classic fishing village house.”

Melanie Sabelhaus

House by the sea

As dedicated boaters, it’s no wonder Bob and Melanie Sabelhaus bought a home in the Cliffs area overlooking Jetties Beach, where they could have a fabulous view of the water. Originally part of a family compound owned by a Baltimore family, the Sabelhauses bought the property the day the compound was put on the market as individual homes.

Nantucket“It was a series of smaller rooms that really didn’t open up and take advantage of the water and looking at the harbor and the boat traffic,” says Melanie. “To reflect our family lifestyle, which is all being together, the kitchen and family room are all one big room.” In addition to opening up the floor plan and adding French doors to open the living room onto a patio overlooking the harbor, the Sabelhauses added as many windows as the historic district would allow.

Sabelhaus laughs that with an entire family nearly or above 6 feet tall, “people tease us that we’re the ‘giant family,’ so we had to open it up and make it as big and spacious as we could so we could live the way we like to live.” The Sabelhaus way is to have “a head on every bed;” they frequently fill the house with family and friends. The family owns several other homes and Melanie wants them to each have their own personality. The Nantucket house uses lots of blue and white to reflect the water and gauzy drapes to let in fresh ocean breezes. “This house is whimsical,” she explains. “It’s a house by the sea.”

Randle and Nancy Goetze

Perfect fit

When Randle and Nancy Goetze decided to buy in Nantucket 12 years ago, they wanted a house in town, within walking distance of activities, restaurants and shopping. They selected a home that was built around 1830 by the Macy family. In fact, they purchased it from a Macy, though they don’t believe the house had been in that family continuously. Although the house wasn’t what they were originally looking for— it had no garage and only three bedrooms—  they snapped it up. “I walked through and said right away, ‘This is it,’” says Randle. “I saw what I could do with it.”

Randle and Nancy GoetzeThe small, Quaker house required little renovation, and with contractors hard to come by and expensive on the island, the ability to move in right away appealed to the Goetzes. “It was small and didn’t need a lot of work, but it feels very open on the first floor,” says Nancy. They converted the third-floor attic into a lareg bedroom and painted the rooms; otherwise the house remains true to its original character. There is a small private backyard garden and a large covered porch where guests can sit and enjoy the outdoors regardless of the weather.

“We like things comfortable, warm and inviting,” says Nancy. “We didn’t want anything ostentatious or that required a lot of upkeep.” “We love antiques,” adds Randle, “so the house is filled with antique furniture.” The family also loves the cozy effect of having a fireplace in every room— six in all.


All in the family

Eleanor Weller Reade’s family has been coming to Nantucket since the late 19th century. Her daughter lives there full time and it is where Eleanor met her current husband, Arthur. She visits the island as many as 10 times a year, so her house is a year-round home that reflects this interior designer’s definitive sense of style.

“All my life I’d been on house and garden tours or been to my grandparents’ and parents’ friends’ houses as a child and the old houses were always done with hooked rugs, folk art, marine art, maple furniture and pine paneling that was not painted,” she says. “That’s a look I loved and the look I’m used to being in Nantucket houses. I wanted it like the old Quaker houses I grew up with, with small cozy rooms.”

NantucketShe did add a new master suite, as well as a kitchen and a wine cellar to accommodate her husband’s love of cooking and the many family occasions the house plays host to. In the home’s 15-year history under Reade’s ownership, she has had as many as 35 people for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners.

Taking her inspiration from English design, the rooms are painted in brilliant colors so the house is cheerful even on a foggy Nantucket afternoon. Reade is an avid gardener and garden historian, so she transformed her tiny backyard into a walled retreat that is often featured on island garden tours.

The house is old— at least circa 1790, although part of it may be older. “I really wanted a historic house with fireplaces and paneling, which this has,” she says. She also loves that the house, which sleeps about 10, is in town. “I live in the boondocks in Maryland, so I love having this part of my life in the city where I can bike everywhere,” she says.

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