In the early 1800s, Nantucket, Massachusetts, was one of the richest towns in the world.

The four homes in Nantucket’s Union Lights project include authentic details such as gas lanterns fueled by propane, a tip of the hat to the island’s historic whale oil industry.

At a time when streetlights and homes throughout the country were lit with whale oil, Nantucket was the world’s whaling capital. As money poured into the town, wealthy whaling merchants and sea captains built grand homes on the town’s Main Street.

Nantucket gradually transitioned into a tourist town by the 1900s, but the village’s rich architectural history has been largely preserved. Today, it has the largest concentration of pre–Civil War houses in the country.

So when developers Brad Guidi and Terry Sanford, partners in Boston-based Blue Flag Development, had the rare opportunity to purchase and develop a piece of property in Nantucket’s core historic district, they were eager to contribute to that architectural heritage. The four-home project they constructed will fit seamlessly with its historic surroundings while also offering the modern-day amenities homebuyers want in a luxury vacation home.

Preserving History

Located a block from the beach and four blocks from Main Street, the property Guidi and Sanford acquired included an 1865 Victorian home and several outbuildings that had been in use as a funeral home for the past 100 years. The developers worked in tandem with the local preservation trust organization to research the property and found a photograph of the original building from the late 1800s.

Along with high-efficiency propane heating, the homes include propane fireplaces to take the chill off in the cold Northeastern winters. The gas units are easier to use than wood fireplaces, particularly for vacationing weekenders.

“We used all that information to put back in place, at least exterior aesthetically, what was once there,” Sanford says. “And then we supplemented that by replacing the barn buildings with traditional Nantucket houses to infill the space.”

The restored home and the one next to it maintain the original Victorian architecture, with painted wood siding, while the other two homes are more traditional Nantucket cedar shake shingled structures. To maintain a historically authentic aesthetic, the designers went so far as to include copper gas lanterns fueled by propane outside the front doors.

“The name of this project is actually Union Lights,” Guidi says. “It’s a tip of the hat to the whaling industry of Nantucket and the fact that all the gas lights in New York and Philadelphia were driven by the whale oil.”

Marketable Amenities

Although the homes may appear rustic from the outside, the interiors had to be luxury-grade to appeal to the resort town’s vacation home buyers from New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Using propane not just for the lanterns but also for many of the interior amenities was a must from a marketability standpoint. “The idea of using propane-driven appliances and features conveys to the market what we’re trying to get, which is a higher-quality, higher-finished spec,” Sanford says.

Two of the homes use traditional forced hot air heating systems with propane furnaces, and the others use hydronic heating with propane boilers. While the gas heating systems provide superior comfort, compared with electric, in the cold Northeastern winters, the boilers also offer design advantages. Because the homes are located in a federal flood plain area, they don’t have a basement where heating equipment can be located.

“You’ll walk by this a year from now when the shingles are all weathered and you won’t know which is the new house and which is the old house and that this wasn’t here for 200 years.”

“Not only did we need an efficient system, but we needed one that fit in a small space,” Guidi says. “And the size of the boiler was small enough that it would work.” The two homes with boilers also utilize the hot water for domestic usage, and one of the other homes has an efficient propane tankless water heater. Indeed, energy efficiency was a priority in Nantucket’s very cold climate, so the builders paired the high-efficiency heating and water heating with high-density spray-foam insulation to maximize efficiency in the building envelope.

Indoor-Outdoor Luxury

Propane was also integral to the homes’ premium lifestyle amenities. All of the homes have luxury gas cooking appliances and propane fireplaces. “For a vacation house, the propane-driven fireplaces are easy, clean,” Sanford says. “You don’t have to have wood stacks in the backyard, and you’re only there for a weekend. They fit what we’re trying to deliver, which is a beautiful but simple, easy-to-use space and something that is old but new.

While the exteriors offer rugged authenticity, the interiors offer luxury-grade amenities typical of a vacation home, such as high-end propane ranges.

“Things like the gas lanterns on the front of the house, you flick them on and you don’t worry about it, but it’s got that sort of old feel to it. The propane fits right into that.”

Lending to that ambience are outdoor living spaces that combine mahogany decks with bluestone patios. Two of the homes feature propane fire pits, and one has a garage where the flagstone carries through from the outdoor space through a barn-style door and into the indoor-outdoor garage. “The garage has a big chandelier, and when you’re not using it [the space] as a garage, you use it as outdoor dining,” Guidi says.

Guidi and Sanford are proud of the project’s nuanced details that allow the new homes to fit seamlessly in their historic surroundings. “You’ll walk by this a year from now when the shingles are all weathered,” Sanford says, “and you won’t know which is the new house and which is the old house and that this wasn’t here for 200 years.”

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Jeffrey Lee