16 Sunset Hill
Built ca. 1686
In 1695, when twenty-five-year-old Mary Gardner Coffin looked out the window of her house on Sunset Hill at the eastern edge of the English territory called Sherburne, her vista was wide open.
Mary lived on Sunset Hill for about twenty years. Although the date of construction of the house is not known exactly, tradition says that it was built as a wedding present for the couple in 1686, when sixteen-year-old Mary married twenty-three-year-old Jethro Coffin.
Like the view from the house, the dwelling itself had a different appearance in the seventeenth century, although we can’t be certain exactly what it was. It was an impressive house for its time, two stories in height on the south-facing front facade, with a long, sloping north roof sometimes called a “catslide,” which may be an original feature. Massive fireplaces were the dominant features of the rooms on each floor: the parlor on the west side, the hall, or great room, on the east, and the lean-to kitchen in the rear, under the low-hanging roof. Two chambers, or bedrooms, were on the second floor, with an attic above. Physical evidence indicates that the center-chimney dwelling originally featured twin front gables that allowed light into the second-floor rooms, and from that height on the hill the Coffins and their children could see for miles.
Mary and Jethro sold their Nantucket dwelling to Nathaniel Paddack in 1708 and moved to Mendon, Massachusetts, when Jethro inherited property there.
Although the Oldest House is closely associated with Mary and Jethro Coffin, four generations of the Paddack family lived there. Many of them were mariners, reflecting Nantucket’s change from an agricultural to a maritime community in the eighteenth century. In 1839, George Paddack sold the house out of the family to a cooper named George Turner for $300, ending a hundred and thirty-one years of Paddack ownership.
By 1867, George and Mary Turner found another place to live, and the ancient nuptial dwelling of Jethro and Mary Coffin was used as a hay barn.
In 1881, two off-island members of the Coffin family purchased the Jethro Coffin house from the Turner family for $300. Repairs were made and the house was opened up in 1886 for its 200th anniversary, then settled down for a long sleep until 1897, when it was opened in the summers as a house museum. The house attracted a constant stream of curious visitors eager to peer into a relic of the early history of the island.
The Nantucket Historical Association purchased Jethro and Mary’s dwelling from Tristram Coffin in 1923. Winthrop Coffin of Boston — another off-island descendant of the original Tristram — stepped up to fund restoration of the house and his architect of choice, Alfred F. Shurrocks, began the work in 1927. Although Shurrocks determined that the house had originally had twin front gables, a decision was made to restore the structure to its more familiar appearance and to replace eighteenth-century double-hung sash windows with diamond-paned casements, which they felt more suited a seventeenth-century dwelling.
The Jethro Coffin house was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior in 1968. On October 1, 1987, lightning struck the house, toppling the chimney, destroying half of the roof, and melting the electrical wiring, causing damage that required two years (and about a million dollars) to painstakingly mend. The stalwart old structure was so solidly built that since restoration it has continued to hold firm on Sunset Hill where it tells the story of the early English settlement of Nantucket in the seventeenth century.
Excerpt from the Nantucket Historical Association Properties Guide, Oldest House by Betsy Tyler, 2015.
Banner image of Oldest House, ca. 1860, with members of the Turner family posing for the camera. (PH18-13)