From Historic Nantucket, Spring/Summer 2016, Volume 66, No. 1
During a period from the 1960s through the 1970s, when Nantucket evolved from a sleepy summer refuge to a full-scale tourist resort, two men emerged as vital figures in an arts and crafts movement that played a role in the rejuvenation of the Nantucket economy. Bill Euler and Andy Oates exerted a quiet but healthy influence as innovators in business and promoters of a simple yet elegant lifestyle that continues to be echoed today in the clean designs of both modest and upscale homes on the island.
Early Seaside Tourism
Before the significant changes of the late 1960s, Nantucket’s roots as a summer resort were unassuming and low key. During the late nineteenth century, city dwellers sought escape here from the heat and unhealthy summer conditions that fostered polio or tuberculosis, while a few prominent figures in the New York theater scene came to the island for rest and inspiration. Many preferred the unsophisticated life found in rustic cottages and renovated fishing shacks. Some grander dwellings survived from the golden age of the whaling economy, but most were far from lavish.
Although tourists flocked to Cape Cod after World War II, Nantucket’s economy slumbered. For one thing, the di-lapidated wharves were not attractive to summer visitors. An ice plant, tanks, and old storage sheds dominated the view from town. As Walter Beinecke Jr. characterized the times in a 1990 interview, “If you were thinking in modern terms of this being a resort . . . the basic commodity was sunshine and fresh air, the water vistas. [Yet] the town blocked itself off from its own waterfront.”
During the later 1960s, Beinecke’s commercial real estate venture, Sherburne Associates, spearheaded the restoration of the wharves, including a marina, expanded mooring opportunities, and rentable commercial proper-ty. Nantucket’s tourism economy ramped up with seasonal restaurants, art galleries, and a busy nightlife. The pressure for development and change seemed inevitable. “Some, like myself,” recalled Beinecke, “felt that while you could not stop the path of what the country usually calls progress, you could at least influence it.”
Euler and Oates were in the right place at exactly the right time for taking advantage of a change in the local economy. Their appreciation of earlier times on the island transformed a local weaving studio into an influential arts venture.
Birth of an Artisan Institution
In the early 1960s, the Nantucket Historical Trust (established in 1957 by Walter Beinecke Jr., George Jones, and Henry Coleman “for the purchase of preserving, restoring, repairing, or maintaining buildings…of historical significance or of educational, aesthetic, or cultural value on Nantucket.”) purchased and preserved the iconic downtown building at 16 Main Street and the Old Ocean House hotel at 29 Broad Street. While they were reviewing the progress of the restoration of the Ocean House for the trust during the winter of 1961-62, the Beinecke family dined at the Woodbox Inn. They were on friendly terms with inn manager William Euler and his partner and head cook, Andrew Oates, and that night the Beineckes sparked a dialog with the two that led to a lasting relationship. As reported in an Inquirer and Mirror article (3/7/68): “One evening the conversation turned to planned projects that might help build the economy of Nantucket. Mrs. Beinecke mentioned the possibility of a weaving workshop on the island, and hoped to find someone who had a knowledge of weaving and fabric design to manage and teach.” Andy offered his expertise with textile – honed at Black Mountain College under master weaver Anni Albers—while Bill, with past experience as assistant manager at the Plaza Hotel in the Big Apple, segued into a position managing the hotel, due to reopen as the Jared Coffin House.
In 1962, the Historical Trust formed the Cloth Company of Nantucket and an affiliated division, Nantucket Looms, under the management of Andy Oates at 16 Main Street. The company crafted bedspreads, draperies, rugs, and placemats exclusively for the Jared Coffin House project. With restoration work completed by 1964, the Looms worked for private customers and ramped up training classes for potential island weavers. The demand for fine textiles and handmade crafts grew steadily. Business prospered. Under the wording of its charter, the trust was “obligated to relinquish control over projects when they are established to the point of becoming commercial,” so in April of 1968, Bill Euler and Andy Oates gained ownership of the Nantucket Looms inventory and established it as a crafts-oriented enterprise.
Rely on a Pair of Aces
Bill and Andy expanded the small gift shop area within their weaving studio to include iconic products such as their maritime shirts with ivory buttons and woven alpaca throws in pastel hues. By the mid-1970s, they offered a range of accessories for the home as well as locally made crafts including scrimshaw, tapestries, fine woodworking, and pottery, as well as oil paintings.
When Nantucket Looms began to take on more and more textile clients, Andy’s influence spread beyond our shores. Fabrics were designed for the LBJ Library in Austin, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and planes owned by IBM and Mobil Oil. Andy’s linen and ramie fabric was considered one of the top ten textiles of the twentieth century. Famous customers included Mrs. Paul (Bunny) Mellon, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. With moves like those, the pair’s reputation spread quickly.
The Evolution of a Style
Oates and Euler literally lived the Nantucket cottage lifestyle at 40 Madequecham Road, and their livelihood relied on providing home furnishings that reflected their tastes. The classic design elements of this lifestyle centered around interiors with pastel or white paint schemes coupled with plain wooden floors, board walls, and open ceilings. Furnishings tended to be rustic or wicker furniture embedded in rooms embellished with fine arts and crafts. Paintings and photographs were sometimes small gems that could be discovered in a nook or corner, often as a source of re-flection. Textiles were handmade in muted earth colors, mixed with fabrics in seaside colors, natural fiber rugs, and woven or quilted bed covers. Small accents included objets d’art like earthenware vessels, antique tins, oil lamps, bird decoys, boat models, and coffee-table art books. Summer-time allowed for local flourishes like fresh and dried flowers, white shells, smooth beach stones, and old apothecary bottles holding found feathers. In the bathroom you might find beach towels rolled up in floor baskets. By the entrance you’d see a rack with an array of hat choices.
Andy and Bill also championed the intangible essentials to cottage living: volumes of fresh air, an ambiance of comfort, and the freedom to kick off your shoes or leave them by the door. Their vision for a life well lived—epitomized by decades of mentoring quality craftspeople as well as fine artists—helped fuel an island lifestyle based on the beauty and simplicity of cottage-style living.
From Businessmen to Collectors
With more and more tourists frequenting the quaint accommodations and picturesque waterfront of a revitalized Nantucket town, a new wave of artists armed with modern-art sensibilities streamed to the island in the later 1960s and 1970s. They shook the foundations of the local art tradition. As private collectors, attuned to this trend for the contemporary, Oates and Euler became influential. They often purchased exceptional works that were exhibited in their store, but they also collected work by rising stars in the local scene.
The original Main Street Gallery opened across the street from the Looms in 1970, and it quickly set the bar high. Proprietor Reggie Levine welcomed the influx of artists with open arms, and Euler and Oates were regular patrons. A sizable portion of their collection came from the Main Street Gallery. A few artists in Levine’s stable also showed their work at the Looms, and a couple of Andy’s weavers migrated into fine arts for Levine.
The two men collected arts and crafts the way an amateur builds a collection – based on their love of the work rather than its investment value or the name recognition of the artist. They surrounded themselves with ornamental beauty. Their collection also included numerous antique objects that fit into the crannies of their little cottage at Madequecham as well as their winter home at 3 Bear Street.
Mentors and Protégés
From the 1960s and into the 1990s, Oates and Euler acted as mentors to many individuals in the burgeoning arts and crafts scene. They established a special rapport with their artist consignees, helping to guide the careers of local artisans and fine artists alike.
Margaretta Nettles extended her national reputation as a weaver by creating tapestries and rugs on commission through the Looms. Sam Kasten evolved from Andy’s apprentice to a recognized weaver with an international clientele. Lia Marks designed and sewed the store’s chief petty officer jacket with Looms textiles, and at the height of her career she would make over three hundred shirts a year. Karin Sheppard, Lia’s daughter, learned from Andy Oates and Sam Kasten while hanging around the upstairs studio at 16 Main Street. She worked as a weaver for the Looms until she opened her own studio, now on Old South Wharf.
The list of the Looms artists includes more than just textile artists. Keith McDaniel wove for Bill and Andy be-fore he kick-started an oil-painting career in the 1980s at the Main Street Gallery that produced three paintings now in the Smithsonian Collection. Pat Gardner was well known as an oil painter on island, but the Looms promoted her instantly recognizable bird carvings.
Karol Lindquist, a weaver turned basket maker, crafted lightship baskets exclusively for Bill and Andy. Her story illustrates their eagerness to encourage local talent. In the late 1970s, she sought a downtown outlet for her work. After trying the local crafts guild without success, she was walking back up Main Street and thought to stop at the Looms. Just inside the door, Bill asked about the sample basket she carried. He bought it on the spot and welcomed her into the Looms family as a regular consignee, for in-deed the two created an extended family from many of their artisan protégés.
Even in winter, Bill and Andy offered a gathering place for many friends and colleagues. The Looms was a warm welcoming slice of Main Street, especially when most everything was locked down and buttoned up. Their upstairs windows looked out over the town.
Nantucket experienced seminal changing during the 1960s and 70s, but none felt as far-reaching as the reconstruction of the downtown and subsequent influx of artist and artisans that rejuvenated an art colony born a half-century earlier. Andrew Oates and Williams Euler worked at the core of this transformation. They played a key role in the restoration of an aging grand hotel. They evolved a weaving studio into an extensive artisan venture. Andy’s and Bill’s impact upon a generation of Nantucket craftspeople and fine artists, and upon the interior decoration of the homes that their artworks graced, continues to be felt.