Preservation Institute: Nantucket

Group portrait of the Preservation Institute Nantucket Class of 1981. PH165 – Photographic Print Collection

In the summer of 1972, the Preservation Institute: Nantucket began its first classes to teach architects the many faces of historic preservation. Bringing fourteen students from colleges around the United States, this program began to supply towns and state governments with experts to address the growing desires to keep old ways intact during a period of intense modernization. While some people today value Nantucket as an architectural time-capsule, that was not always the case — and it took the teamwork of a professor from the University of Florida and a New York businessman to set this preservation mindset in motion.

Historic preservation was not important to the architecture community before the 1930s. Looking for ways to employ destitute architects and artists during the Great Depression, New Deal legislation established the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), which called for an inventory and diagnosis for any building local Americans deemed worth the effort to preserve. In this project, architecture and history scholars took the lead in bringing students to places in need, whether they were missions in California, forts in Virginia, or the old industry town of Nantucket.

Frank Blair Reeves, a professor at the University of Florida, began to work with HABS in 1958, and brought the specific needs of historic preservation in the university curriculum for architecture. These included studies beyond engineering and design, into historical topics and analysis of community needs. He advocated for historical preservation as an asset to local communities, allowing them to revitalize their economies and reorient their style towards a more prestigious ideal. Not content with keeping these ideas in the classroom, he organized a series of workshops for professionals in the field, catering to the needs of a public who were quickly realizing the importance, and fragility, of their historical landscape.

One member of the Nantucket community was ahead of the curve in this mindset: Walter Beinecke Jr., a wealthy businessman who had spent his years between Nantucket and New York since the 1930s. Beinecke, never one to sit idly under the sun, saw the historical structures of the island as its main commodity: Cape Cod had the same sunshine, beaches, and fresh air, “three hours sooner and sixty dollars cheaper.” But Nantucket had streets steeped in history, and the material means to still prove it. Following World War II, when the economic and technological booms began to reorient how Americans traveled and vacationed, the desirability of Nantucket placed it at a crossroads: should it modernize with “McDonalds and Holiday Inns” to accommodate and encourage the growing crowds; or should it invest in its “historical brand” and encourage what Beinecke believed would be a more select, “attractive, and prosperous clientele” to patron the island. Rather than with neon tap-rooms and party-filled youth hostels, Beinecke envisioned an island with a prim nostalgia, which “served steaks instead of hotdogs” and “sold paintings instead of postcards.” This economic orientation towards “trading-up” and the islander’s “self-interest” focused efforts on historical preservation of structures, streetscapes, and town zones. At whatever great costs, the investment would pay off for the community.

At first this was quite an expensive ordeal. Beinecke formed various organizations, trusts, and companies to buy properties he deemed at risk. He formed the Nantucket Historical Trust to work alongside established island institutions and stakeholders, such as the Nantucket Historical Association, to save historic buildings that had either fallen into disarray or mismanagement. One of the Trusts first moves was to acquire the Jared Coffin House, whose hotel (mis)management had been attracting rowdy and destructive clientele. To renovate the building, Beinecke and the Trust encouraged local craftsmen and island artisans to take up their tools and begin teaching apprentices their arts and styles. His then-wife, Mary Ann Beinecke, set up a needlery and weaving school for interior decoration, while he helped cabinet- and furniture-makers set up new shops near town. This revitalization of craftwork came in hand when Beinecke bought the entirety of Straight Wharf, through a company he had set up called Sherburne Associates, with the intention of removing all of the industrial build-up that had blocked public access to the waterfront since the late 1800s.

When Blair Reeves and his HABS team were randomly assigned to Nantucket town in 1970, Beinecke found a new resource for this town project. He viewed their relationship as mutually beneficial — Nantucket would provide an exemplary education to the student preservationists, being a “laboratory setting” and “sandbox” with unique architecture, well-articulated community needs, and specific geographical determinants. At the same time, the constant influx of scholars and artists in the program would allow Nantucket to further define and control the expression of their architectural heritage. After two more seasons working together, Beinecke and Blair Reeves applied for and won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that granted funding for a school for historical preservation, run by the University of Florida and working for the betterment of Nantucket. In 1972, the Preservation Institute: Nantucket (PI:N) opened with the mission to educate pre-professional architects and historians in the practical and political arts of historic preservation.

The opening of PI:N did not just reflect the needs of the Nantucket community, but also the needs of the national community for experts in the varied and contextual arts of preservation. The national bicentennial was approaching in 1974, for which cities across the United States were preparing by celebrating and renovating their historic landmarks — but they did not know how to do this in an efficient and beneficial way. Identifying this as a “crisis,” Blair Reeves invited undergraduates, graduate students, and even practicing architects to apply to this summer program, whose fast and comprehensive curriculum could quickly supply a cohort of qualified professionals. Reflecting on past graduates in 1990, Beinecke noted that they went on to be employed in over 37 state agencies, and advised countless local associations.

PI:N also continued with Blair Reeves’ educational philosophy of interdisciplinary preservation, which brought the University of Florida to the forefront of the profession. Accepted students included architects, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, interior designers, landscape architects, lawyers, economists, and urban planners. The curriculum included courses in visual arts of measurement and description, histories of architecture and construction, engineering and physics classes, and introductions to archaeological practice, with bonus classes on preservation law, economics, and city planning. With such well-rounded offerings, the program aimed to produce graduates adept in handling historic preservation in communities with different administrative structures, economic demands, and aesthetic styles.

Even locally, over its forty-eight-year history, PI:N has made remarkable contributions to Nantucket’s historical knowledge, allowing Main Street, the waterfront, and even ‘Sconset to look as if they had been pulled out of the past. Through a succession of directors and a rotating staff of lecturers and educators, the program has come to define and preserve many Nantucket styles beyond the shingled Edwardian cottage. In the 1980s, Susan Tate began a study of the Greek Revival movement, established in many of the grand houses of upper main street. And in the early 2000s, students analyzed the architecture of 1960s Madaket, off of which many of the newer out-of-town estates were modeled, with the aim to document their unique plumbing, frameworks, and interior designs.

The products of PI:N, while articulated in lofty academic reports, were firstly for the people of Nantucket. Blair Reeves and Beinecke recognized this from the first season in 1972 and set out a period of lectures at the end of every summer, to which the whole public was invited to learn about the community’s architectural heritage and direction. As this program set its foundation in the early years, they also began reaching out to educators and teachers on Nantucket, who now had ample supply of field-trip materials for their students. And even for off-island schools interested in the island’s infrastructure, the program utilized the most advanced documentation technologies, going so far in recent years as to produce three-dimensional models of historic Nantucket buildings and streetscapes for remote study.

These reports are all available digitally through the University of Florida Libraries, so as to make historical preservation as accessible and ubiquitous as possible. But for a discipline so concerned with physical structures, the physical copies of these reports stand as symbols of accomplishment for both scholarship and community development. It is only appropriate that, besides the nationally renowned Library of Congress, the only two libraries that hold these documents are the University of Florida Libraries and the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library — solidifying these disparate locales as partners in historical preservation.


Quotes are from the “Walter Beinecke, Jr. Oral History,” and the “1972 National Endowment for the Humanities Grant,” in the F. Blair Reeves Papers (Ms Coll. 57), Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

For more on the history of PI:N, see Patty Jo Rice, ‘Preservation Institute: Nantucket — A model preservation program.” in Historic Nantucket, Vol. 45 no. 2 (Fall 1996).

Other historic information comes from the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, accessed through the Nantucket Athaneum’s Historic Newspapers Database.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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