The Soul of an Island


Preservationist Mary Bergman ’05 navigates the tides of change on Nantucket

When The New York Times recently ran a story about the age-old dance between development and preservation on Nantucket Island, one of the first people it turned to was Mary Bergman ’05. A writer, historian, and photographer, Bergman serves as Executive Director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect the island’s unique architectural heritage and its sense of place as a capital of the 19th century whaling and fishing industries.

“There is a lot we can learn from the past to help us understand the present moment and plan for the future,” says Bergman, who went on to Smith College from Williston and later earned a master’s in public history at American University. She sees preservation as a dynamic field through which communities can explore contemporary issues, such as affordable housing and sustainability.

Growing up in Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, 90 miles as the tern flies from Nantucket, Mary used to visit her grandparents on the island as a child. She moved there 10 years ago from Washington, D.C., where she worked in the education department of the Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency responsible for maintaining and preserving the buildings and grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the House and Senate Office Buildings. Nantucket’s rich history was a strong draw, as were its 80 miles of coastline, which have inspired a love for wild swimming.

“I figure I live on an island,” she says. “I better get in the water as much as I can.”

Famous for its cobbled lanes, elegant sea captains’ mansions, and sky-high real estate prices—the average home sale topped $4 million last year—Nantucket has long been a popular summer resort. And for just as long, local leaders have sought to safeguard the island’s salty heritage. They established one of the country’s very first local historic districts some 70 years ago, and today all of Nantucket is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ironically, Nantucket’s intact character contributes to the pressure to change, attracting wealthy second-home buyers who tend to want a big serving of contemporary luxury with all that old-fashioned charm.

Case in point: a cozy two-bedroom cottage that not too long ago came up for sale on Old North Wharf. “Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a piece of Nantucket history,” promised the listing, touting a connection to Herman Melville. But after extensive renovation, it was hard to say exactly how much remained of the original shanty, aside of course from its glorious harbor views. A buyer quickly snapped it up for more than $6 million. “Eventually, the old house, with its integrity and authenticity, will be the rarer thing,” Bergman told the Times in context of similar developments. “And maybe the more desirable thing.”