NANTUCKET -- If you want to see how Nantucket's original whalers and their families lived 200 years ago, visit some of the seven historic buildings opened by the Nantucket Historical Association. But if you want to see how some of its current summer residents live, your best bet is the Nantucket Garden Club's annual House Tour on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This is probably one of the few communities that would dare to show off its gardens in August. While most mainland gardens are dry and ragged during this hottest month, Nantucket gardens just sail along with immaculately tended tropicals, annuals, roses, and hydrangeas enjoying the sea breezes.
Each year the garden club chooses a different street or neighborhood to spotlight. Some years they're far flung. But the focus this year is a stretch of Union Street only a short walk from the ferry wharves. It's perfect for pedestrian day-trippers who want to enter the neat fenced-in gardens and shingled facades of this isolated island, which was always a world apart and has managed to stay that way. (Don't try to bring a car over. If you want to get to the beaches, rent a bike.)
The five houses on this year's tour started out old but have gained new owners, and, with them, professionally landscaped gardens, renovations, and expansions. But don't call them face-lifts. They're just the opposite, since preserving historic exteriors is all important here.
Even the world-class Whaling Museum at 13 Broad St. has been upgraded, and is well worth a stop. It reopened June 4 after a $14 million privately funded transformation under the vigorous leadership of Chanel president and COO Arie Koppelman, Dorothy Slover, and Geoffrey Verney. The enlarged museum has almost doubled its exhibition space, as well as restoring and reinterpreting its1847 whale oil candle factory.
But the showstopper is the skeleton of a rare 46-foot sperm whale that beached itself on Nantucket in 1998 and is now suspended in a dynamic arching position echoed by the lines of a new ceiling. Sperm whales were hunted to the brink of extinction to finance Nantucket's original Golden Age, which ended in the middle of the 19th century when coal and petroleum replaced whale oil as fuel. So local filmmaker John Stanton's documentary featuring residents mourning the death of this one whale as part of the display feels a little disorienting, like watching a paean to Native American culture in a museum named after George Armstrong Custer. But it necessarily registers today's radically different sensibilities about whaling, and the magnificence of these intelligent leviathans, even as it celebrates the skills of their Nantucket pursuers.
Union Street's houses were built mainly by the ship carpenters, blacksmiths, and tradesmen who outfitted the whaling fleet in the late 1700s and early 1800s, said Ginger Heard, tour co-chairwoman with Marty Cox and author of the 1990 book ''Nantucket Gardens and Homes." ''Unlike the street above it, Orange Street, which is said to have been home to at least 100 ships' captains, Union Street was home to sailors." So this year's house tour is called ''A Sailor's Walk."
As with so many coastal haunts of the wealthy, Nantucket's distant Golden Age, which funded its beautiful historic architecture, was followed by a long financial depression that protected the old buildings from being replaced by more modern ones. This Brigadoon-like state is called preservation by poverty. With the nation's largest concentration of houses built before 1850, the entire town of Nantucket is now a National Historic Landmark.
Humble gray-shingled houses that you could hardly give away a century ago, or that your parents could have reasonably purchased as a second home, now command millions on the white-hot local real estate market. Not that they've remained untouched. After all, few people of means prefer antique kitchens and bathrooms.
Nantucket residents do prize the island's history, so the new money and the old buildings share an awkward embrace chaperoned by the Historic Nantucket District Commission, which tries to preserve exteriors and the original old sections of homes. The local paint store carries the commission-approved historic shades of blue, green, brick red, and mayonnaise yellow. But houses that look modest from the street tend to extend backward into luxurious additions that would have the original Quaker owners shaking their bonnets.
Terry Bradley, whose hydrangea and impatien-rimmed 1735 house once belonged to Clark Clifford, the late presidential advisor, has done extensive architectural work to expand and stabilize a once-distressed building that is now light-filled and luxurious. But she also treasures an original stairway that's too steep to use. A musket ball found in an upstairs wall and other glass and wooden artifacts unearthed during renovations are displayed in a hallway cabinet. (Her daughter Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a correspondent on National Public Radio.)
Still, Union Street is not where you'll find the big mansions. ''The really big new money isn't in town or in Siasconset," said Margaret Ruttenberg of Newton, who also owns the house at 20 Union St. ''It's building huge new houses on the water where there weren't even settlements because they're so exposed. The last thing the original settlers wanted was to be exposed to a Nor'easter."
The island home of Ruttenberg and her husband, internet technologist John Ruttenberg, is the largest and probably the most historically intact house on the tour. They chose it for its original condition and also its large garden, where baritone Bill Schustik will perform songs of the sea during the tour. The garden was the beloved creation of a previous owner who had pulled out of a sale when he learned of plans to subdivide the lot. Instead he sold to the Ruttenbergs, who agreed to preserve the garden, a serene treasure in a downtown neighborhood. A whimsical half-life-size porcelain figure by artist Kathy Ruttenberg, John's sister, sits high above the small garden pond on a tree limb, a tribute to a California woman who lived in a giant redwood to keep it from being logged. The sculpture is titled ''She Won't Come Down." Big-leaved magnolias and other unusual trees surround the patio terrace and island flower beds.
The house itself was built around 1830 by Quaker William Coffin for his daughter Martha and her Congregationalist husband from the mainland, Samuel Haynes Jenks, a clockmaker. Jenks founded the Inquirer and Mirror, still the island's leading newspaper, and used it to press the recalcitrant Quaker majority to create public schools. On a very long buggy ride he also convinced Sir Isaac Coffin, a native son who rose to admiral in the British Navy, that the island would be better served by a Coffin School than the Coffin statue he had in mind to bestow. The newspaper may have originally been printed in the unusually high-ceilinged cellar. Most of the current furnishings came from Rafael Osona Auctions around the corner, a major source of entertainment for summer residents.
''We didn't plan to buy two dog statues," said former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Mary Brown, as she led a tour of her seamlessly designed garden at 30 Union St., which sported both dogs of stone and two much livelier Jack Russell terriers. ''But it was a Saturday night and the only thing to do was go to an auction for entertainment."
Her house was built in 1804 by blacksmith Gershom Drew, who died in 1810, shortly ''before his ship came in" loaded with whale oil. Mary and husband David S. J. Brown, a Washington lawyer, began remodeling the house in 1997. As with so many others, the floor plan is half old and half new. The old section in the front of the house features a parlor and dining-room with original wall paneling. The Browns replaced a 1950s-style rear addition with a new kitchen and family room by local architect Chris Holland. Nantucket landscape architect David Bartsch deftly pulled together an odd configuration of lot lines, reflecting the unusual property transfers over time that are common with old Nantucket homes.
A circular bed of lavender enjoys full sun and the protection of a privet hedge while a new stone terrace outlined by boulders sits atop a former fish pond. A thirsty willow tree nearby absorbs excess moisture in the problematic wet spot. A low hedge of holly substitutes for boxwood in the sunny formal garden, which blooms with Russian sage, caryopteris, potentilla, and Joe Pye weed, while hydrangeas and hostas hug the edges of the shade garden.
Across at 29 Union St. is the open house and hydrangea-decked backyard where real estate broker Michael Kovner and fashion stylist Jean Doyen became the first same-sex couple to wed on the island last year. Carolyn and Tony Halsey's flower-decked house at 19 Union St. includes such interesting spaces as an indoor swimming pool.
Also included in the House Tour is the Lightship Basket Museum at 49 Union St. containing original examples of the woven ''friendship baskets" that have become signature handbags for those who summer on the island.
House Tour tickets are $40, available at any of the open houses on the day of the tour, and help fund the Nantucket Garden Club's charities, which include conservation and scholarships. For more information, call 508-228-4244 . Adult tickets for the Nantucket Historical Association's Whaling Museum are $15; $18 for all its historic properties. Call 508-228-1894 for information or visit nha.org .
Nantucket ferries depart from Hyannis and Harwich Port on Cape Cod and from Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Reservations are advisable. The lowest adult pedestrian fare is $28 round trip through the Steamship Authority (508-477-8600 ; www.steamshipauthority.com ). This is a perfect day trip, but if you want to try to stay overnight contact the Visitor Services & Information Bureau (508-228-0925) at 25 Federal St. for a list of vacancies.