7 Fair Street
Built 1904, renovated 2001
NHA recording secretary Mary E. Starbuck wrote in her 1897 report: “More than anything, we need a fireproof building.”
The Nantucket Historical Association had recently been organized, in May 1894, and members were actively searching for a “suitable place in which to store and exhibit the donations and loans of antique and historical articles, which already began to come in.” Their June 25 meeting was held in the Friends Meeting House on Fair Street and new president, Dr. J. Sidney Mitchell, recommended buying the building in which the meeting was held, “. . . as an old and valuable landmark which would serve temporarily as the headquarters of the society. . .” And so the Quaker Meeting House, formerly John Boadle’s schoolhouse, became the first building owned by the Nantucket Historical Association, a place for meetings and for storing the donated material that was rapidly accumulating.
Just three years after its inception, the NHA recognized the need for safe storage of the treasures in its care. Recording secretary Mary E. Starbuck wrote in her 1897 report: “More than anything, we need a fireproof building. We have land enough at the rear of the Meeting-house for a brick extension of sufficient size for our purposes, and when we have such an addition many valuable relics will come back to the island.”
In 1897, the association made a pivotal decision. Rather than buying and “fitting up” a whaleship, an idea that was briefly considered but deemed too expensive, it was voted that the fund accumulating for that purpose be converted to a fund for “the most pressing need of the Association — the erection of a fire-proof building.” Instead of brick, concrete was chosen as the building material by architect George W. Watson of Boston. Concrete was not a new material, in fact it was used in ancient Rome. Harvard Stadium was made of concrete in 1903, and the first concrete skyscraper was being built in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1904. News of that achievement came to Nantucket, and persuaded Henry S. Wyer, vice-president of the NHA, to use the aggregate material for the proposed fireproof building. In 1904, one of the country’s early concrete buildings took shape behind the Quaker Meeting House.
The collection of artifacts and documents that had been growing for ten years was moved from the Quaker Meeting House to the new fireproof building in 1905. The fireproof building was for years known as the Fair Street Museum, the primary exhibition space of the association, with collections arranged in a “cabinet of curiosities” style on both floors of the building. The Fair Street Museum was the heart of the NHA, overflowing with everything from arrowheads to whaling logbooks, along with larger items like furniture and fire-hose carts. As the association expanded its properties in the twentieth century, however, creating additional exhibition and storage spaces, the aging fireproof building sat ripe for a new use that honored the aspirations of the founders of the NHA: “. . . that a society should be formed at once for the purpose of collecting books, manuscripts and articles of any sort, to illustrate the history of our Island. . . . “
What better place for a library and research center than a fireproof building — retrofitted, restored, and enlarged in 2001. The primary-source documents that record the history of Nantucket are housed in the NHA Research Library at 7 Fair Street. An archival vault beneath the Quaker Meeting House provides climate-controlled storage for irreplaceable original documents — logbooks, account books, family papers, journals, business records, photographs — that are made easily accessible to researchers when they visit, or through online records. The intimate Whitney Gallery at the entrance to the library offers changing exhibitions of Nantucket art and history and the light-filled reading rooms are a haven for historians, students, journalists, filmmakers, homeowners searching for information about their Nantucket houses, and genealogists filling in the branches of their family trees.
Excerpt from the Nantucket Historical Association Properties Guide, Quaker Meeting House/Research Library by Betsy Tyler, 2015.
Banner image of Research Library, ca. 1900s. (GPN2843)