Who was ‘Sconset’s “sanguine genius”?

Cottages lining a dirt road.
Lily Street in Sconset, showing several of the Underhill cottages, and a couple of cars.

In the late 1800s, New Yorker Edward Underhill foresaw a prosperous future for the village of ‘Sconset. A war correspondent for the New York Times during the Civil War, Underhill first invested in an upstate New York vineyard, but then sold it off to invest $20,000 in real estate development in ‘Sconset.

Between 1879 and 1882 he acquired land on ‘Sconset’s South Bluff, and built 17 summer rental cottages on three streets.  He named Evelyn Street for his wife, Lily Street for his daughter, and Pochick Street for a shoal offshore from ‘Sconset. An eighteenth cottage, the China Closet, he retained for himself, Evelyn, and their immense china collection, which covered all surfaces of the cottage, including the ceiling.

The Underhill cottages were modeled on the truly old fishermen’s cottages on the north side of the village and were furnished with everything renters might need. Because of the diminutive size of the cottages, he even provided a mobile spare bedroom that could be wheeled to a cottage to accommodate overflow visitors. For families, he offered cots and cribs, but advised they would have to provide their own babies.

Underhill was a master advertiser and promoted his cottages as the essence of ‘Sconset quaintness, unlike the many fussy Victorian cottages being built in the village by other developers at the time. He wrote of his cottages that they were built in “the old style. Latch strings on doors. Quaint ornamentation. Old ships’ sidelights set in front doors; ships’ figureheads; carved stern-pieces, quarter boards, and wheels; old oars and anchors; harpoons and lances; whales’ ribs, jawbones and pieces of backbone set up for outside decorations.” He promoted the ocean-fresh air, the health benefits of salt-water bathing, fishing, walking, napping, and doing nothing. His cottages became popular with actors from New York when the theaters took summer breaks.

Underhill was credited with extending Nantucket’s railroad service to ‘Sconset in 1884. In 1888 he purchased thirteen of the Victorian cottages on the North Bluff, increasing his rental holdings to thirty.  For this and all his other accomplishments in promoting ‘Sconset as a summer resort, he was described as a “sanguine genius.”

Evelyn Underhill was twenty years younger than Edward.  Before he died in 1898, he had sold off his cottages on the North Bluff and directed in his will that the original Underhill cottages should not be sold so that the income they generated would support Evelyn and Lily in the years to come.  The women continued to own and operate the cottages. When, after nearly thirty years, Evelyn finally put them up for sale, she did her best to sell them to families who had been renting them for many summers. Today they remain, a lasting tribute to the genius of their founder.

Margaret Moore Booker has written a biography, Edward Fitch Underhill; Renaissance Man of Siasconset, available from the Museum Shop. See also Frances Karttunen’s Nantucket Places and People 3: Out of Town, also available from the Museum Shop.

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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