Greater Light History

8 Howard Street

Built ca. 1790, remodeled 1930, restored 2011

The house now known as Greater Light dates to the late eighteenth century, when it was built as a livestock barn for Zaccheus Macy (1713–97) or his son, Richard (1742–1814).

Two artistic Quaker sisters from Philadelphia, Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan, discovered it in the sum­mer of 1929, when they followed a herd of cows up Main Street and out of curiosity continued their pursuit down what was then called Bull Lane, but is now a part of Howard Street. The cows disappeared into a massive barn, the sisters followed, and their moment of inspiration occurred: they had found the perfect project. Situated just a block away from the formal houses that lined Main and Gardner streets, but ancient and rural in character, the barn would be transformed into a summer home and art studio unlike anything else on the island.

Collectors of cast-off architectural elements — including iron gates, gilded columns, odd windows, and bits and pieces of trim and embellishment — the Monaghan sisters were scavengers with pocketbooks, partially funded by their indulgent parents, James and Anna Monaghan, who were joint owners of the barn property with their daughters. Gertrude, the elder sister, forty-two years old in 1929, was an artist who had studied in Philadelphia and abroad. She was well estab­lished as a muralist in Philadelphia where she had applied her talents to the walls of several large department stores and private homes. Her artistic sister Hanna, two years younger, was an amateur actress and author as well. The family was well-to-do, talented, well educated, and somewhat nontraditional for its time and place. Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan chose to devote their lives to art, as an expression of their faith. They were Quakers, but of a decidedly different mold from the earlier Quaker population of Nantucket. Rather than rejecting art, they embraced it. Gertrude attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and won several awards, including a European Travel Fellowship. At home, she and Hanna created a studio that was their first building project: they first made a drawing of a room above their kitchen, then created a scale model, hired a carpenter, and supervised the project. The result was a cross between a workshop and a chapel, and set the stage for their Nantucket barn project.

True to their inner vision and trusting in their plan, the sisters per­severed. Every element of every room in the house was designed by them, with carefully selected handcrafted pieces — from door latch­es to windows and iron balconies — fitted in. It was a labor of love, furnished and decorated with the same astute aesthetic. What the sisters created was an intensely personal environment made up of widely disparate parts that came together with harmony in the three-dimensional collage that was their home.

Hanna Monaghan, the surviving sister, bequeathed Greater Light and its contents to the NHA in 1972. The hidden gem of a property was open to the public for a number of years, but when the aging building became structurally unsound, the doors were closed. In 2009, a new vision for the house as a center for small gatherings and lifelong learn­ing in the arts spurred a complete restoration of house and garden. Reopened in 2011, Greater Light embodies the creativity and spirit of the summer art colony that thrived on Nantucket in the 1920s.

Excerpt from the Nantucket Historical Association Properties Guide, Greater Light by Betsy Tyler, 2015.

Read the full history (PDF)

View the Historic American Buildings Survey Drawings

Banner image of barn that became Greater Light, ca. 1890. (F2509)

The mission of the Nantucket Historical Association is to tell the inspiring stories of Nantucket through its collections, programs, and properties.

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