Maria Mitchell’s Attic
From Chemical Peel to New Make-Up: Mitchell House Gets a New Coat of Paint

Well, shingling was completed this spring and the sashes were painted last year.  Now, the trim is getting some sprucing up thanks to the good work of Jim Tyler and his crew.  This work is being completed with the funding of a grant for the Mitchell House’s exterior conservation.  While ideally all the painting would be completed at once, it is not always easy given grant funding and timing.  But, for the trim it was better to wait until Nathan Killeen had completed the shingling because he had to remove some of the corner boards and other trim pieces in order to properly shingle.  So, come this summer season, Mitchell House will sparkle even more!  A special thanks to Jim and his wonderful crew who you can see here hard at work on the southern façade of Mitchell House.


Conservation Work Has Begun at the MMA Library!

On September 16th, the MMA began the work to the exterior of the MMA Science Library – soon to be an ecology lab and classroom space, as well as state-of-the-art storage for our natural science collections.

With Community Preservation Act funding, the roofer arrived to begin the work.  This is a special roof, made mostly of concrete tiles and completed in the 1930s when the stucco Wing was added to serve as a fireproof space for Maria Mitchell’s papers, her library, family papers and libraries, and the MMA’s Special Collections.  Long ago, some poor repairs were completed to the tiles when they broke (but that said, long ago they did not necessarily have the technology and knowledge that we do today for proper conservation of such a roof).  Additionally, the roof had, over the last thirty or so years, grown a very interesting moss and lichen coating which delighted in the northern exposure that faces Vestal Street.

With about a week’s worth of work, Jim Johannes of Asbestos-One in Ohio assessed the roof further, removed and cleaned the moss and other debris growing on the tiles and one day we had a brilliantly white looking roof.  The roof was not originally this color.  Over time, it bleached out and the coating that it had come from the manufactory with had disappeared.  Now, in the second week, Johannes is re-coating the roof so that it is back to what it was when it left the factory in the 1930s.  It is a nice, deep charcoal color – what it was when it was installed in the 1930s.

Next step will be the work of island mason, Wayne Morris, who will work on the stucco, the terracotta tiles, and the oxide jacking that is occurring.  Stay tuned – I will keep you posted as the work progresses and give you more details about what his work entails!

A special thanks to the Community Preservation Committee for its support of this important conservation project.


Stalking The Wild-Eyed Curator

I realized after I took this “selfie” (oh, what will they think of us in 200 years?), that my eyes were a little wild and crazed looking.  Perhaps a bit of stress as I took a look at the 6 remaining shelves of bound and unbound periodicals that date back to the very late 19th century and all the way through the early 21st century!  Astronomy, observatories, natural science, birds, plants. You name it, the MMA has subscribed to it or been gifted these periodicals for over 100 years.  The Education interns very nicely helped me over the course of perhaps 12 hours, emptying all the outside wall shelves.  Now, I have the ones in the middle.  Pull from the shelves, box, label, carry up the stairs and carry into the other basement. 

Why am I doing all of this?  Because the conservation work on the exterior of the Library will begin soon.  It is being funded – about $250,000.00 worth – by the Community Preservation Act, a grant I applied for on behalf of the MMA last fall.  Happily, the Community Preservation Committee (Thank you, CPC!)  funded the entire exterior conservation work and we hope to start with the roof in a few weeks.  Then the mason will come and this will require cutting into the building to make the repairs thus, everything has to come out.  The Special Collections have all been cleaned and moved to a climate controlled space – also funded by a grant.  And now, it’s time for the periodicals or journals as we more commonly refer to them.  Once moved, I will spend the winter going through them to make sure there is nothing stuck in them (ephemera) and that people have not written anything (important notes, etc.)  in the margins.  We will be keeping some, but there are others that will likely find a new home with other institutions.  If there are articles in any of them by or about MMA or Nantucket, they will be kept.  And the few that date to the nineteenth century, we will keep in the Special Collection as I believe these to be family items.

P.S. Please note that while I am wearing a Vassar t-shirt (in honor of Maria and the MMA-Vassar connections of past and present), I am a proud Mt. Holyoke graduate!  I would never be forgiven if I did not note that!


Historic Preservation in Action: 3D Laser Scanning

Since the end of July, the Preservation Institute Nantucket (PIN – they have removed the colon in their abbreviation!), has been conducting 3D laser scanning of the MMA’s historic properties. 

This laser scanning technology allows for the quick and accurate recording of a historic building’s physical design and condition.  Such a process also allows for the creation of black and white line drawings; photo-realistic plans, sections, and elevations; video walkthroughs of the building and site; and virtual databases for organizing and displaying archival, existing conditions, and other information.  This is an incredible resource and opportunity to document our island’s historic structures and built environment.  The PIN project has been funded in part by the Nantucket Community Preservation Act. 

It has been fun to observe the ongoing work and we held a demonstration for the public on July 31st on Vestal Street co-hosted with PIN and Nantucket Preservation Trust which was well received.  PIN demonstrated how the scanning is completed and the product and end results which are quite remarkable.  PIN has been using the Mitchell House as a classroom for its students for many years and has also included other of our historic properties at the MMA.  They just wrapped up their work here on Vestal Street and they have already completed working on the Washington Street sites, the future home of the MMA’s new science center. 

PIN has also completed this work on the Boston-Higginbotham House and will be working to scan street views in Town and Sconset over the next few years.  They will return this winter to work on Main Street so keep an eye out for them. 

We thank PIN, including its co-directors Marty Hylton and Linda Stevenson, as well as the graduate students working on the scanning project for their time and hard work.  This is yet another wonderful collaboration with PIN and a boon for Mitchell House as we receive this extensive scanning and all of its data cost-free.  Thank you!!



Found Between Sheathing and Lathe!

A few weeks ago I wrote about the re-shingling work at Mitchell House and what the removal of the shingles revealed – carpenter’s marks, sawyer’s marks, and coils upon coils of wood shavings circa 1790.

Well, here is a sample of what was uncovered and what I saved to become part of the Mitchell House collection.  The shavings had not seen the light of day since 1790 when the House was built.  These fell down between the sheathing boards and the interior walls.  As the carpenters worked – Hezekiah Swain and others – the shavings fell down between and were not removed – it is just wood shavings after all.  Many were in pristine condition, some a little dirty from dirt slowly working its way under the baseboards and down through the space between the outside and inside walls.  That white curl is plaster that squished through the lathe and the rusted iron piece is part of a very long nail used in the main timbers of the House.  The sheathing board which hid these treasures had not been removed since the House was built and since we had to cut out two small areas of rotten sheathing, these treasures were revealed.


Mitchell House Gets A Facelift …

Or maybe we should call it a chemical peel since nothing was sagging.

With the tremendous support of grants, the Mitchell House’s southern façade is currently being re-shingled.  The shingles we are all used to seeing – the dark almost black shingles of many decades – are no longer sufficient to protect the Mitchell House from weather.  They have shrunk, curled, and left significant gaps between one another courtesy of sun, rain, and age.  This can allow water to penetrate to the sheathing and thus cause rot and those dreaded leaks.

Nathan Killeen of Nathan Killen Old House Restoration is up to the task.  Nathan has worked on the Mitchell House for many years with Sanford Kendall who is now retiring and passing the torch.  Nathan is very “in-tune” with historic properties and only works on historic structures.  He is incredibly knowledgeable.  With carpenter Matt Anderson, they have been getting the job done carefully and respectfully – both of the historic house and the carpenters who came before them – mainly in 1790 when the House was built!

Nathan’s work has uncovered some things we knew about and some new things such as sheathing rot.  He carefully cut out just the rotted areas and placed in old wood, trying to re-use what he could of the original sheathing – no plywood or pressure treated anything here and not full replacement!  Removal of these two small sheathing areas also revealed what we knew already existed, sill rot.  So, he carefully dug out the rot – LEAVING the existing sill – and sistered in a “new” piece of wood – nothing new or pressure treated – he used an old piece of lumber.  This way the original sill stays and we have strengthened it with this piece that is now attached.  That is the right way to do it.  Nathan, Matt, and I also signed and dated the back of the new sister piece.  Hopefully, it will last another 200 years or so.

We think based on nail holes, that this is only the third time the façade of Mitchell House has ever been re-shingled.  The last time was in the 1950s or 1960s and they covered the sheathing with tar paper – something that did not exist in 1790.  Tar paper may stop leaks but it also stops moisture from leaving the structure – it acts as a vapor barrier and the Mitchell House cannot breathe.  Leaks get trapped and the tar paper and sheathing get wet and then you get – rot and a house full of moisture that cannot escape.  So, tar paper is being removed and none is being put back in – just the sheathing and then shingles.  What IS being replaced are the splines around the windows, front door, and corner boards.  These pieces of cedar – one long piece – stop water from getting behind the framing of the windows and doors and getting to the sheathing.  These were once on the House but for some reason when it was re-shingled, they thought tar paper was a better option and did not take into account the age of the House.  It NEEDS its splines.

We have also found carpenters’ marks – roman numerals where pieces are to meet    up – sawyer’s marks from when the wood was cut, and even better – shavings from the carpenters when they built the house in 1790!  These were stuck between the sheathing and the interior wall in the space or pocket that exists.  I recently just found these at another house of about the same vintage that is being worked on in the neighborhood – very, very exciting!

And we owe a BIG thank you to Nathan – and Matt!

Take a look at a few photographs documenting the journey of the “chemical-peel.”


In Memoriam

Over the holidays, the Mitchell House and its curator lost a dear friend, supporter, and mentor.  Clarissa P. Porter was a champion of the Mitchell House and historic preservation and an enthusiastic fan of Maria Mitchell.  I do not remember just when I first met Clarissa, but I must have been a teenager.  Since that time, she has always been there with support, friendship, and advice.  She was tireless in her support of the Mitchell House’s conservation and one of the founding members of the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award Committee.  Numerous non-profits here on Nantucket (and elsewhere) have benefitted from her enthusiasm and enduring support and some would not exist if not for her unflagging energy and volunteerism.  She continued to keep in touch and wanted to know everything that was going on, even when her illness made it more difficult.  She cared and she continued to care even to the end.  But there really is no end, for her spirit lives on in all those she touched.  I know that there is a piece of her that makes me who I am. 

The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands.  − Maria Mitchell



A few weeks ago as I was vacuuming the Birth Room in preparations for closing the Mitchell House for the winter (always a depressing thing to do!), I turned and looked back into the 1825 Kitchen to see the sun streaming through the windows and casting its light and shadows across the floor.  Simple.  Beautiful.  I thought about how this pattern of sun and shadow across the floor is something that has played out since the kitchen was built by William in 1825.  Lydia, William, Maria and all of her siblings saw that same light and the shadows of the sashes and mullions that I was looking at for the thousandth time as well.  That has not changed – for over 187 years.  Wow! 

I also thought about how lucky Lydia and the Mitchell’s were to have a kitchen so filled with lovely afternoon sun.  In the summer that made it a bit too warm especially with the fire going for cooking, but in the winter and during cool fall and spring days, that afternoon sun was a help for lighting and warmth.

Now not much has changed in the Mitchell House since it was built in 1790 and we also have many of the family pieces owned by the William and Peleg (William’s youngest brother who later owned 1 Vestal Street) Mitchell families, as well as Maria.  But something so simple as the sun – and it remains the same.  I think it is important to remember that we are just the caretakers of a home or building – even if it is our personal home.  Owners of a home will come and go but the building will remain for generations and it is our privilege to live or take care of that building or home and our responsibility to preserve and protect it for the future so that someday, say in a hundred years, someone else will look upon a moulding, a fireplace surround, a riser, or even the sun coming through the window and know that someone else admired that one hundred, two hundred, three hundred or more years ago and that it has not changed.  It connects you even more to the past and the people who inhabit the past.


The Mitchell House in Autumn

Vestal Street is quieter.  There are fewer tourists, summer residents have returned to their year-round homes especially if they have children in school, and the air is cooling and becoming more crisp.  For Mitchell House, we are still open for tours although on a shorter schedule (this year on Saturdays from 10-1PM), but there are still many things to accomplish before it gets cold and I have to seek a winter office – one that has some heat!

As I noted last year, I always find closing up the House depressing.  But at this time, it is still open with everything in its place and I am able to focus on some more detailed cleaning and the conservation of small artifacts, working more in-depth with the collections, and working on other House related projects.  I will also be out in the garden even more as I cut back this year’s perennials and annuals, making things neat and tidy for next spring when I wake the garden up and add annuals, a few new perennials, and a bounty of wonderful heirloom seeds such as the morning glories you see in this image that I planted at the south fence along Vestal Street.  I am hoping that next year, the fig plant will have some figs – William Mitchell had a fig plant in the garden when he lived at 1 Vestal Street and I have been trying to introduce plants he had in his garden.

We still have some historic preservation workshops coming up.  We just had a “Behind-the-Scenes at the Mitchell House” with NPT – an architectural and conservation focused workshop that had a nice group of people on such a beautiful day.  And, we have two more to come. 

On the 22nd of September, I will join with the Executive Director of Nantucket Preservation Trust (NPT) and Education Staff from the Nantucket Historical Association to present our “Four Centuries of Domestic Life” walking tour.  It starts at 10am at the Oldest House, ending on Main Street.  It’s an interesting way to learn more about the changes in the built and natural environments and how changes in domestic life changed these landscapes.  And, it is free!

And on October 6th Mitchell House and NPT will co-host island conservation plasterer and mason Pen Austin as she discusses the preservation and conservation of historic masonry using the Mitchell House chimney and the chimneys and fireplaces of several houses nearby.  Come and learn how to slake mortar!  It is $5 for members of MMA or NPT and $10 for Non-Members.  AND, reservations are necessary due to very limited space, so please call me at the Mitchell House to reserve a spot at 228.2896.

We hope you will join us, for a tour on Saturday mornings in September or for one of the remaining workshops!


The Answer to “Where Is This?”

The image I posted last week and here again is the newel post at the bottom of the front hall staircase in Hinchman House, the MMA’s Natural Science Museum.  The small white piece you see on top is what is often referred to as a “mortgage button.”  And here is where we have some issues.

Let’s start with the newel post.  As time went on, the posts became more elaborate as they became a part of increasingly elaborate staircases in some homes.  In some, the newel post became large enough to support a light and the post would be made hollow in order to hide the gas lines or wiring.  When these lights were removed by future owners, a large hollow place was left behind and stories began to abound that people once hid their mortgages or deeds in the hollowed out newel post.  Thus, that hollow place did hide something but it was really for hiding the magic behind the lighting.  The Hinchman House post, ballustrade, and railing are simple.  I believe some of the elements are original, reflecting the Quaker ethics of its original owner, Thomas Coffin.  But some parts, the balusters, for example, may be later replacements although they themselves are fairly old and the newel is just simply a small piece of rounded wood mounted to a simple baluster. 

And then, there in the photograph you see a bit of whalebone (if indeed that is what it is).  These “mortgage buttons” as they are often referred to might only have been a way of hiding the joinery beneath them.  However, the legend is that they began on Nantucket in the nineteenth century.  In the period and earlier, mortgages were less common, spanned a shorter time period, and usually had a large lump sum payment at the end.  So the mortgage button could have come to be a display of status to show what you had accomplished.  But, there is no known connection between the button and the mortgage so this is really just conjecture although a very nice story.  But I like the story, so I will continue to tell both distinguishing between the two because stories are important too, even if there is only a tiny bit of truth there.