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Historic inn marries a love of art and the printed word

The Century House's focus on decor shows up in the Black Orchid room, with its crystal chandelier.
The Century House's focus on decor shows up in the Black Orchid room, with its crystal chandelier. (Paul E. Kandarian for The Boston Globe)
By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / July 20, 2008
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NANTUCKET - Will paint for room and board.

Well, almost: Each summer, six to 10 invited master artists who make their living solely through art have been guests - free of charge - at Century House on Nantucket. The inn this season celebrates its 175th anniversary, making it the island's oldest continually operating guesthouse, according to innkeepers Gerry Connick and his wife, Jean Ellen Heron, who this year mark their 25th anniversary of ownership.

The artist-in-residence program has been in effect almost all of those years, with artists paying only in scenes they capture around the island. They can stay for a few days or a week or more in the flexible program.

"When we bought the place, it was in disrepair, had holes all over, so we used art to cover them," said Connick, a self-described corporate dropout who bought the place with Heron in 1984. "For awhile we didn't have enough art to cover them all."

They do now - even though the holes have long been fixed. Art is at the core of the couple's cultural lives; Heron is a docent at the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, Fla., where they winter, and she sells real estate, and they are putting together a book called "The Nantucket School: Plein Air Paintings on the Island of Nantucket." There are hundreds of works of art of various sizes all over the exquisitely restored, three-story, 16-room inn. While the program benefits artists, guests enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Bill Duffy of Northbridge is an artist who's come here for 12 years. One of his pieces, a beautiful rendering of a beach house, hangs above the inn's vintage piano in the living room.

"I don't know of any other place on the Cape or the islands that does anything like this," Duffy said. "They give up valuable space in season for artists. It's amazing."

The inn undergoes regular renovation, Connick said, averaging a room and a half per year, at a cost of roughly $100,000 per room. This year, that included the Black Orchid where we stayed, a corner room with a small, private veranda overlooking the restored 18th-century Kite Hill Estate.

The room has a high trey ceiling with layered molding, a Swarovski crystal chandelier, original antique cast-iron fireplace, Victorian marble-top bureau, and wide pine floors. Decorated with pistachio and dark chocolate paint and wallpaper, highlighted with deep purple accents, the room also has Swarovski wall sconces. All rooms are unique, their names reflecting their character and design scheme, included the sanguine-toned Red Dahlia, with its unabashedly bright red antique dresser.

The inn, which Forbes.com once put in its top-five list of American summer inns, is a short walk from downtown and sits on a wedge of land at the corner of Cliff Road and Center Street, boasting a beautiful wraparound porch, with hydrangeas, pansies, and geraniums enfolding the entire place in a veritable floral rainbow. It is classic island architecture, with white picket fence and a delightful sitting garden populated with Adirondack chairs. The breakfast buffet is a bountiful affair of berries, fruit, granola, and other things healthy, bought fresh daily at local markets.

If the building looks familiar to visitors they probably watched the TV show "Wings," which was set in Nantucket. Century House made sporadic cameos in stock exterior shots, and Connick and Heron themselves did a walk-through in one episode. Connick is an avid reader and fierce protector of the printed word, never reading a newspaper, magazine, or book online. That stems from his youth growing up in Lynn, where he ran a "street con," buying 11 newspapers, giving one to the guard at the old Boston Garden to get in free, selling the rest inside, and catching a Bruins or Celtics game. That love of words favors inn guests: Every room is jammed with "beach trash" books, as Connick calls them, mysteries, thrillers, love stories, and the like, many of them from Mitchell's Book Corner. (Wendy Schmidt, a summer resident whose husband, Eric, is CEO of Google, bought the popular little bookstore in January.)

"If you like a book, take it home and send it back . . . or not, I don't care," Connick said. "I usually get back more than I lose."

He and Heron make quite the couple, he with a no-nonsense demeanor bordering on the acerbic, she blessed with an abundance of personality, warmth, and charm.

"Jean Ellen's enthusiasm just scoops you in," Duffy said. "Gerry's a character, and a great guy."

The combination works. They run a historic inn with an elegant eye for design and a love for the arts that bodes well for all who stay there.

"What Jean Ellen and Gerry do is huge," said Kevin Shea, a Newburyport artist who loves having a good breakfast and going out to absorb Nantucket scenery for interpreting on canvas. "It's a cultural gift to artists and people who love art."

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at PKandarian@aol.com.

If You Go

Century House

10 Cliff Road, Nantucket

508-228-0530

centuryhouse.com

What we liked most: The berry breakfast starring blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries, in addition to melons, mangoes, and other fruits, and assorted pastries, breads, and bagels.

What we liked least: The rumble of the occasional truck early in the morning on the road outside our window.

What surprised us: The sheer volume of great "beach trash" books, as Connick calls them, in each room, totaling more than 1,000 inn-wide. If you like one, you can take it home.

You know you're at the Century House when ... 3 p.m. rolls around and you succumb to the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

Rates: In season mid-May to mid-October, 15 rooms and one suite, $155-$595.

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