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Maria Mitchell's lifelong accomplishments
in astronomy and her advocacy of women's
education and women's rights became the basis
for the foundation of an association in her
memory, the Nantucket Maria Mitchell
Maria's early childhood interest in
astronomy marked the beginning of her notoriety.
Trained by her father William, an enthusiastic
amateur, Maria assisted in gazing at the heavens
and setting navigational instruments for the
whalers of her hometown, Nantucket. Her interest
in astronomy grew, and in 1847 at the age of
thirty, she discovered a telescopic comet.
Maria achieved sudden fame. The King of
Denmark presented her a gold medal in
recognition of her discovery, providing her
with international attention. Other honors
soon followed: She was the first woman
elected to the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences; to the American Association for the
Advancement of Science; and to the American
Colleges bestowed her with honorary
degrees. She traveled to Europe to visit
observatories and astronomers. In 1865 Vassar
College appointed Maria the first woman
professor of Astronomy in the United States.
At Vassar for nearly a quarter of a century,
she distinguished herself not only as a
scientist, but also as a great teacher and an
able advocate of women's education and women's
Maria Mitchell (1819-1889) America's
first woman Astronomer.
In 1902, thirteen years after her death,
a group of women from Nantucket and Vassar
College joined to commemorate Maria's
achievements. They called themselves the
Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association, offering
membership to Vassar professors and graduates,
friends of Professor Mitchell and anyone with
an interest in science or Nantucket. 2
Henry Mitchell, Maria's brother, was the
first to respond. Maria had left her
scientific library collection to Henry, who
offered to donate it to the Association. Many
of these books were given to her by other
In 1920 the collection found its first
permanent home on Vestal Street, across from
the Maria Mitchell Birthplace. The collection
grew, and a fireproof wing was added in 1933 to
protect Maria's personal collection of papers
The history of the property can be traced
back to October 6, 1870, when an auction was
held for its sale. Alfred Macy acted as the
Administrator of Goods and Estate for the
deceased David Baker II. The land was sold to
the highest bidder, Mrs. Irene Woodbridge of
Brooklyn for the sum of $100. Deed books
describe the land as "...seven undivided eleventh
parts of a certain tract of land with
buildings thereon standing, known as the
Thomas Coffin Homestead; bounded on the north
by Vestal street, on the east by Milk Street,
on the south by land of Charles G. Gardner,
and on the west by land of Hezekiah Paddack."3
On June 5, 1871, Mrs. Woodbridge obtained
the four remaining parts of the Thomas Coffin
homestead from grantors Mary B. Macy and
Samuel E. Sewall for the sum of $300. Sewall
released all rights in the premises as
The Sanbourn Map of 1887 shows a small
one story building on the northwestern edge of
the site, oriented east/west along its long
axis. A two story dwelling with a small 1 1/2
story ell is located at the southeast corner of
the lot, its entry directly on Milk Street.
Sanbourn Map, 1887.
The next transaction of the property
occurred on August 8, 1919, when Mrs.
Woodbridge, acting as grantor, turned the land
over to the Maria Mitchell Association. The
price of the transaction is not recorded. The
land was described as follows: "Northerly by
Vestal Street 80 feet; easterly by other land
now or formerly of the grantor, 45 feet more
or less; southerly by land now or late of Era
J. Dyer but formerly of Charles G.Gardner, 64
feet; westerly by land now or late of Harry
Brooks Smith but formerly of Hezekiah Paddack,
41 feet, 6 inches more or less." 4
The deed further described this as the
western portion of the original Thomas Coffin
tract of land. A deed restriction was
included that no other building or structure
should be erected, maintained or permitted
within 24 feet of the easterly boundary of the
The 1923 Sanbourn Map shows the library
in its present location with the exception of
the fireproof wing. The building now has its
long axis in a north/south orientation and an
ell has been attached on the western side of
the trucure The building is labeled as "The
Free Scientific Library."
Sanbourn Map, 1923.
A later Sanbourn Map, probably 1933,
shows the library as we know it today, with
its fireproof addition in place.
The oldest part of the library has its
own unique past. Prior to 1837, the building
was located on Howard Street, one block
northeast of its present site. Here, Maria's
father William Mitchell taught the first free
school in Nantucket, where she probably
attended classes when she was young. The date
of construction and the extent of its use prior
to 1837 is unknown. 5
Sometime prior to 1887, the building was
moved to Vestal Street, but the function of
the fo rmer schoolhouse on its new site is
undistinguished until 1919, when the building
was acquired by the Maria Mitchell
As soc iation., Mrs. Irene Woodbridge had owned
the building for many years, using it as a
Photographs of the barn circa 1919 show
the east and west elevations. The west
elevation is a solid wall, while the east
elevation has a large barn door entrance.
The building had wood shingles and its
former schoolhouse windows were filled in
with wood panels.
When the Association obtained the
building and property, they rotated it 90
degrees and moved it to the west end of
the lot. The old lines of the schoolhouse were
used wherever consistent with an up-to-date
library system. The new library was placed on a
concrete block basement/foundation, raising it
approximately three feet above grade. The
simple rectilinear plan of the schoolhouse-
turned-barn was further expanded with an ell
on the west side. This ell contains two small
rooms for a toilet and washroom, and stairs to
Photographs dated winter 1919/1920 show
the library lifted on its new foundation. A
photograph of the western elevation shows the
newly added ell; the solid panel fencing marks
the western property line. Other photos after
alterations were made show the compact scale
of the simple, straightforward building. A
trellised porch marks the entry while picket
fences deliniate property lines. On July 15,
1920, the Maria Mitchell Science Library was
dedicated, and the book collection had found a
The interior of the new library was
simple and compact like its exterior design.
Hardwood floors, perimeter book shelves and
sparse furnishings were enhanced by natural
light entering through large windows extending
to the ceiling.;
Southwest corner of barn prior to
being moved. Circa 1919.
Northeast corner of future library, rotated and on its new foundation, circa 1919.
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East elevation of future library, rotated and on its new foundation, circa 1919.
Northwest corner of future library with attached ell, circa 1919.
North elevation of new library, circa 1920.
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Interior of library, 1920.
The rapid increase in the library
collection each year led to the 1930 addition
of one layer of shelving around the perimeter
of the room. Continued growth of the
collection, and an attitude that the library
should be constantly expanding to serve a
useful purpose, along with a concern for the
books and charts, caused the Association
members to appeal for money in 1930 to
increase the size of the library.
They envisioned "...a fire-proof addition
separated from the older building by double
fireproof doors."~ 7
Alfred F. Shurrocks was commissioned to
be the architect for the new addition. The
expansion called for a fireproofed wing added
to the east elevation which nearly doubled the
size of the existing library. Stacks are
located in the basement and on the first
floor. The interior of the addition is simple
like the original building.
Photographs taken during construction
show the double shell load bearing tile wall
composition and pre-cast concrete panel roof
A photograph of the library after the
1933 dedication of the new addition and a
recent 1987 photograph show no physical change
in the library.
Construction of fireproof wing addition,
Maria Mitchell Science-Library, 1933.
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1 Interior of fireproof addition, 1933.
In 1975 a small bronze sculpture of a doe
and fawn was placed by the fish pond in the
park at the west end of the library and
dedicated to the memory of Jean Adams Shepard,
a loyal Maria Mitchell Association patron.
Sculpture in park at west side of
Maria Mitchell Science Library, 1987.
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The Maria Mitchell Science Library on 2
Vestal Street is home to many of the original
books used by the famous astronomer in her
The library was assembled in two phases,
the first in 1920 when the old schoolhouse
that William Mitchell, Maria's father, taught
in during the 1840's was moved to its present
site on Vestal Street. The schoolhouse was
originally located on Howard Street.
The second phase occurred with the addition
of an east wing in 1933. Because of the fear
that a fire could destroy the entire Maria
Mitchell collection, a call was made to make
the new addition fireproof. Architect Alfred
Shurrocks did just that at a cost slightly
The original building is a basic wood
framed structure, placed on a concrete block
basement when the building was moved to its
present location. The walls are simple wood
stud construction with plaster on wood lath in
the interior and wood sheathing and wood
shingles on the exterior.
As a result of rapid growth of the
library's collection and patrons, the
structural system had to be reinforced. Eight
more pipe columns and two more support beams
were added, easily handling this and any
future increase. Il
The roof framing is a basic wood truss
with irregularly spaced and sized members.
The entrance to the original building has
since been moved approximately two feet to
accommodate the later addition of the east
wing. The present entry consists of a porch
of poured concrete built along with the new
addition. The porch platform consists of
wooden benches for seating, and a book drop
added at a later date. I2 The rear entrance
is located on the west elevation and was not
part of the original building. Photo records
and construction documents show that the back
door did not exist prior to 1933. It is
uncertain when it was added. The rear stoop
is actually a wooden bridge which spans a
small gulley and rests on a stone retaining
wall marking the property line.
The brick chimney, part of the original
building, was used as a stack for a coal fired
boiler. The system has since been replaced by
a fuel oil heater leaving the chimney unused.
The original windows, still in use today,
are 9/9 wooden, double hung windows extending
to the interior ceiling. The basement windows
are a simple three pane wood frame. It is not
known if they are the original 1920 windows.
The roof, a traditional hip, is covered
with cement asbestos shingles. The roof deck
is wood planking. The gutters and cornice
around the building are made exclusively of
wood, the gutters are of cypress and are
mitered at all corners. IS
The basement plan is generally open,
although this feeling is lost due to storage
of objects on the floor. A small ash bin,
used when the coal burner was in operation,
has since been sealed and sits as a three foot
high concrete box against the western wall of
the room. I4 The coal bin, located on the
northern side, now houses the fuel tank and an
office. The furnace was relocated in 1920.
The first floor consists of a large
reading room with stacks around the perimeter.
A small wing on the west side contains
bathrooms and the stairs to the basement.
The attic begins to show that the west
wing was actually an addition built when the
library came to its present location on the
lot. Part of the original wood shingle roof
remains inside the attic of the western
addition. Since the shingles are in near
perfect condition, it can be assumed that the
addition was built shortly after the original
building was re-roofed. The attic is framed
with basic two-by-six inch wood rafters and
ceiling joists tying into a two-by-eight inch
ridge beam. IS Framing of the smaller, west
wing attic was done by placing nailing planks
on the old shingled roof after a number of
shingles were removed and framing rafters
directly on them. There is no insulation.
The finishes in the building consist of
hardwood floors which have since been covered
by nine-by-nine inch linoleum tile. The walls
are plaster on wood lath.
In the main reading room, book shelves
line the walls. Two shelves were added on top
of shorter stacks sometime after the 1920's to
accommodate the growing collection. Decorative
cornices top the stacks. The room itself has
a corner ceiling molding throughout, although
the windows do not have any decorative
elements. The windows rise nearly six feet to
the ceiling, allowing maximum light entry and
giving a granduer to the room's conservative
This scale of the original building was
complemented with the addition of the
fireproof wing in 1933. The two buildings work
well together despite the radical differences
in materials and methods of construction, a
difference that extends from the foundation up
to the roof deck.
The new addition was very solidly
constructed. The foundation walls are poured
concrete about 16 inches thick from below
grade up to the bottom of the first floor.
The first floor walls are of 12x12x12 inch
double shell load bearing tile. The tiles are
scored to allow for easy application of
stucco. The stucco, due to its appearance,
was most likely sprayed in layers amounting to
a 3/4 inch thickness with the final coat being
a neutral tan color.
At the intersection of the addition and
the original wood building, the clay tiles
extend to the gable peak, forming a fireproof
The structural and framing system proves
to be very interesting and, unfortunately, the
source of all the cracking on the stucco and
plaster. The building consists of two
separate structural systems which are
resisting each other's movements. The load
bearing wall system is made of poured concrete
and clay tile. The other system consists of
columns and three inch reinforced concrete
slabs which rest on the concrete walls. In
time the exterior walls began to settle but
the column and slab system did not.
Consequently, cracks developed at the junction
of the slab and the wall and under the
When the new wing was built, the entrance
to the original building had to be moved to
accommodate the width. With this move, a new
entrance porch was constructed with a poured
concrete foundation. The stairs, six risers,
were also of poured concrete. Benches and a
book drop were constructed on the porch at a
later date. The roof over the porch is lead
coated copper. Its gutter system is of wood,
like that of the original wood building.
Lead coated copper gutters, cornices,
friezes and conductors were used exclusively
on the new wing and remain in use today. I6
A roof truss system of steel channels
support a reinforced concrete deck 2-1/4
inches thick. Cement asbestos shingles cover
this, with lead coated copper roof ridges.
The basement of the addition contains two
inch square steel pipe columns which support
the three inch thick concrete slab above, and
the bookshelves on the first floor. The first
floor stacks do not extend to the ceiling.
They are, however, bolted to each other via
eyelets protruding through the floor slab. 17
The attic is sealed and completely
The plaster finishes are similar to the
ones in the original building with the
exception that metal lath was used in the new
wing. The floor is concrete with a nine-by-
nine inch linoleum tile covering.
The connection of the two wings is marked
by a storefront glass door with a sidelight.
A roll down, coil box fire door was installed
on both sides of the glass door and rolls shut
automatically in the event of a fire. It has
not been tested recently. IS
The windows are of the same proportions
as those on the original building, but their
frames are constructed of steel.
The building as a whole sits with the
north elevation facing Vestal Street. The
land tends to slope down towards the building.
At the west elevation a small fish pond and
statue of a doe and fawn commemorate a library
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The library has aged gracefully with time
and is in relatively good condition. The
original wood structure has best survived the
test of time. Its wood shingles, gutter and
asbestos roof tile in top shape. The
fireproof wing is the portion which has the
mo st notab le need of mainta finance in terms o f
potential water damage via cracks in the
stucco sheathing, as well as problems with the
slope of the grade. Below is a list of issues
that should be addressed for proper
maintainance of the library. Consulting
architects Nick Pappas, Dick Frank, Herschel
Shepard and Mr. Robert Noyes, Chairman of the
Association's Maintainance Committee, have
assisted us in compiling this list of issues
and possible solutions.
M1 Asbestos shingles on the roof are
developing a fungus growth. This is not a
first priority problem, however it does mean
they are retaining moisture. A sprayed
chemical solution to kill the growth should be
used. It is important to avoid walking on the
roof since the tiles are thin, brittle and
M2 The metal lintel over the basement
windows of the fireproof wing are rusting
away. They should be wire brushed and painted
with a Galvitron sealer for the prevention of
further deterioration. A sealant beadL should
be run along the length where the lintel
has pulled away from the clay tile above to
prevent water penetration.
M2. Rusting steel lintels at
wing basement windows.
M3 The sill of the basement window is
crumbling due to water penetration, and a
slight salt build up is occurring on the
interior below the windows. The deteriorated
sill should be pulled off and the first two
courses of hollow clay tile should be grout
filled. A new sill should be constructed.
M4 The front lawn should be regraded to meet
the building three to four inches below the
new sill and exposing the riser of the entry
stairs presently covered. The regrading
should have a positive slope away from the
building. It should be investigated if run-off
water may be diverted to the depression on the
east side of the lot.
M5 The downspout at the front left corner of
the original building slopes uphill to the
road. A positive slope should be made with
care taken to keep water away from the
building after it is expelled from thne
M6 According to construction drawings for
the fireproof wing,3 two dry wells exist in
the front lawn. These should be excavated to
check their silt content. If they are
clogged, two solutions exist: 1) Replace
gravel in dry wells, or 2) Find a new drainage
route for the downspouts of the fireproof
wing. This work should be done in conjunction
with the new landscape plan now being prepared
by Alan McComber, Architect.
M7 Flashing at the valley of the
intersection of the fireproof wing and the
original library appears to be in good
condition, but water is working its way back
along the metal gutter/wood gutter connection
point and paint has worn off the soffit below
the wood gutter. Reflash and seal joints at
gutter connection and repaint soffit.
M8 Metal windows of the fireproof wing do
not operate. The jambs should be stripped of
paint and lubricated to put them in working
condition for use as fire exits.
M9 The wood casement windows in the basement
of the original building leak during heavy
blowing rains. Caulk all joints with sealant.
If leaking persists, replace with new windows.
M7. Valley above entry porch requires
M10 An immediate solution is required at the
vent stack above the toilet room. Water has
penetrated the roof and appears to have
traveled along the horizontal roof planking,
resulting in water marks on the ceiling tile
in the library. Install a new flashing sleeve ,
around the stack.
WEST ELEVATI ON
M11 The flashing at the valley is cut short
where water dumps into the wood gutter. An
extension is needed. Check for possible leaks
at intersection of gutters.
M1 2 The potential for water penetration
exists along the base of the wall at grade.
The earth slopes from a higher point at the
southwest corner to a "pondX" area beneath the
bridge and outside of the basement window.
Care should be taken to ensure proper and
complete drainage to the north around the
Ml. Fungus growth on asbestos shingles.
MIO. Vent stack requires new flashing.
M11. Potential water problem at valley
flashing and gutter system.
M14 The metal downspouts on the fireproof
wing have buckled and pulled away from the
building due to settling of the wall. Before
tying them back, the clamping brackets should
be repaired or replaced. These two downspouts
presently drain into the dry well system and
need to be considered when the system is
M15 The potential for water penetration
exists through small hairline cracks forming
at the mortar joints of the clay tile.
Penetr at ion ha s occur red at the s tai rs down to
the basement. The interior wall will not hold
paint in a one by two feet location. Two
solutions exist: 1) Paint the stucco with a
sealant and color mixture to close the cracks,
or 2) Paint the stucco with a resilient paint
to "'bridge"' the cracks and gaps. This second
solution has more elasticity and may work
better with the building's movement. Two
companies who sell this product are Sonneborn
and V.I.P. Care should be taken in painting
to maintain the original texture of the
M1 6 Broken glass panes in the left window of
the basement should be replaced, and the
M17 The grade at the northern end of the
building should be lowered to three or four
inches below the basement window sill.
M13 Bees have found a home in the corner of
the attic through an entrance at the
cornice/fireplace intersection. They should
be eliminated and3 the hole patched to prevent
wate r int rus ion .
M1 8 The southeast corner of the fireproof
wing has cracks indicating it is breaking away
from the building. This corner should be
monitored for further cracks and slippage.
The problem may relate to soil composition
beneath the footing/foundation.
M1 9 A major crack is occurring on the exterior
where a change of materials occurs in the wall
system. The wall appears to be dropping while
the floor slab system is stable. Caulking has
been used in the past but future maintenance
should follow step M15.
MI9. Crack in stucco due to change in
materials in wall system.
M20 The attic space of the original building
has no insulation. Insulating six to eight
inches of fiberglass will reduce heat loss and
improve fuel economy.
M21 A regular schedule of maintainance should
include a test of the fire shutter door for
its operating ability and effectiveness.
M18. Hairline cracks in stucco wall with
potential for water penetration.
1. Thomas E. -Drake; The First
HafCentur of the. Nantucket Maria
Mitchell Ass~ociation; -(Nantucket, Mass.,
th.~e lN.rM.M.~~A., 11968.)
2. Grace Gardner Brown, Eistory
of the Library." Scrapbook #30 M.M.A.,,
(Nantucket, Mass., Foulger Museum.)
3. Nantucket County Rec~ords,
Registered Deed Boo'ks, Book 61, p. ~94.
3A. Ibid., Book 61, p. 291.
4. Ibid., Book 98, p. 75.
5. M.M.A. Annual Report,1921;
6. Grace Gardner Brown;
"William Mitchell's Former Schoolhouse
to be used as Library." Scrapbook
#30 M.M.A., (Nantucket, Mass., Foulger
7. M.M.A. Annual Report, 1930, p.7.
8. Construction Documents of
Fireproof Addition to LibraryI N.M.M.A.,
Alfred F. Shurrocks, Architect, p. 6.
Drake, Thomas E., :The `First Half
SCentury of the Nantucket Maria
Mitchell' Association. Nantucket,
Mass.; The N.M.M.A., 1968.
Brown, Grace Gardner, Scrapbook #30 -
M.M.A., Foulger Museum.
Nantucket County Records, Registered
Deed Books, Books 61 and 98.
N.M.M.A. Annual Reports of 1918-1921,
Maria Mitchell Science Library
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WOOD WINDOW DETAIL
ORINAlL 1920'5 BUILDING
CENTIMETERS I : 16
1933 FIREPROOF ADDITION
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2 VESTAL STREET NANTUCKET COUNTY NANTUCKET, MA, SHEm 10 or IIsrrs
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0 100 200 3D
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MARIA MITCHELL SCIENCE LIBRARY M/7 uImGSRE
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MARIA MITCHELL SCIENCE LIBRARY
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