All Due Respect

Classic fabrics and fine antiques give this nineteenth-century in-town Nantucket house an interior that harmonizes perfectly with its historic architecture. 

Text by Stacy KunstelPhotography by Michael Partenio Produced by Stacy Kunstel

The houses along Nantucket’s Orange Street are packed as tightly as leather-bound books. Sharing side walls, the three-story homes sit close to each other and loom over the sidewalk. It’s not about ocean views in these historic homes, but the comforts that await inside. “You can feel claustrophobic in those houses,” admits Boston-based interior designer and longtime Nantucket resident Nancy Serafini. “There are no side windows in any of them.”

But this particular house, one in a row of spec houses built back in 1831, has a secret. While many in-town houses of that era have postage-stamp–size backyards, this one holds a hidden courtyard garden, walled on two sides, softened with espaliered pear trees, roses and a giant iron pergola endowed with a thick tangle of wisteria vines.

It’s a light-filled blessing for the L-shaped house. The broad front side that faces the street gathers afternoon light in the living room, entryway and upstairs guestroom. But in the morning and during most of the day, light swells through the narrow back of the house, infusing the family room, dining room, kitchen and master suite with a warm glow. “There’s so much beautiful light coming into this house,” says Serafini.

No stranger to antique houses, owner Barbara Jones had already lived in two old homes on the island. She bought this one just three years ago and brought in Serafini, architect Mick Rowland and builder Les Fey of Les Fey Millwork for a gentle renovation.“I’ve always been in town,” says the California resident who has been coming to Nantucket for almost thirty years. “It’s the sense of history, of architecture. I particularly like it around Thanksgiving when the leaves are off the trees and you can see all the structures.”

That admiration includes respect for what came before. Some work had been done on the house over the years beginning with a renovation a century ago. Updates occurred along the way, and now Jones has made a few improvements of her own. Still, the wide pine floors, an interior stair’s carved newel post and the double pocket doors separating the parlors—now the living room and family room—are all original to the design.

The team repaired crown molding and trim and gave the bathrooms an elegant update. In the master bath, a small tub was expertly shoehorned into the tight space. The cozy dining room got a grander sense of space with the removal of a vaulted ceiling and the addition of French doors that open to the garden courtyard. Windows along the family room and dining room face the courtyard, which has become a welcoming space to gather friends. “I can seat more people outside than I can in my dining room,” says Jones.

As wonderful as the garden is, everything comes down to what’s inside, and here Serafini brought her years of decorating and antiquing to create spaces rooted in elegance and tradition.

From the hand-painted paper in the entryway to the gilt mirrors and antique furnishings that came from Boston, Savannah, Nantucket and beyond, the rooms resonate with history but are never mired in the past. “The house has a feeling of a Nantucket antique, but we’ve mixed in some new with it as well,” says Serafini. “To me, the way to mix antique and new was to find several key antique pieces and marry them with fresh, beautifully designed fabrics.”

The living and family rooms open to one another and provided a particular challenge in that the former called for a formality Jones didn’t want in the latter. “We started with the rugs,” says Serafini. “It’s so much harder to find the perfect rug than it is to find the perfect fabric, plus it was critical that the two rugs should communicate with one another and that one not overpower the other. We also wanted rugs that were highly individual and personal to the house.”

Once she found the rugs, the designer gathered complementary fabrics that would translate well from one end of the house to the other. “When you look at the fabulous Taffard silk woven print in the living room curtains with the incredible Lee Jofa trims and you then look at the family room with its printed linen in a blue and off-white pattern, you recognize the balance that we were after,” explains Serafini.

Rich blue walls and dramatic draperies in shades of blue, rust and cream that echo the colors of the rug bring a luxe feel to the living room. A more contemporary waterscape in a gilded frame and an Asian coffee table live beautifully with an embroidered fire screen that looks as if it were part of the original house. “Barbara and I both have a love affair with blue,” says Serafini.

While the living room is for formal entertaining and garden club meetings, the family room is where you’ll find the television and a hidden wet bar. Blues again, but this time softer and paired with pale striped upholstery and Ralph Lauren herringbone fabric on the walls.

From here, the house narrows to just ten feet wide. The dining room leads to the kitchen, where Serafini added beadboard and a pear tree mosaic behind the range, but kept the green marble counters and glass-front cabinets from an earlier renovation. Just beyond is a tiny mudroom so well designed you’d wish it a more prominent position in the scheme of things. Large-checked wallpaper covers walls and ceilings, while carved birds flit about a whimsical mirror above an antique wicker set.

One other major change occurred in the large second-floor master bedroom. The headboard originally rested between two closets that had been added in the past. Serafini built out the wall behind the bed, making room for a hidden walk-in closet and giving the room a cozier feel.

Throughout the process, historical integrity was crucial to Jones. “I wanted the inside to speak to the historic structure outside the house,” she says.

That was a challenge Serafini had no trouble meeting.  “Barbara and I have exactly the same taste,” she says.  “It wasn’t even work.” •
Interior design: Nancy Serafini
Architecture: Mick Rowland, Milton  Rowland and Associates
Landscape architect: Martin E. McGowan, ’Sconset Gardener
Builder: Les Fey, Les Fey Millwork

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