The Self-Taught Gardener: The Philadelphia Story, reset in Nantucket

For our Self-Taught Gardener, a quick trip to Nantucket was filled with unexpected inspiration, courtesy of two Quaker sisters from Philadelphia.

A quick trip to Nantucket, perhaps my only vacation of the season given the year that is, was filled with unexpected inspiration, courtesy of two Quaker sisters from Philadelphia, who left this planet long before the coronavirus changed how we all live.

Thanks to two dear friends who invite me out each summer, heading out to Nantucket has been a lovely tradition in my life and one that I thought might not be possible this season. But as Brian and I boarded the ferry in Hyannis, masked and prepared to sit out on deck in an effort to remain socially distanced from our shipmates, I felt the delight of leaving the mainland behind in a particularly trying year. Isolation seems to be at the center of Nantucket life, so sequestering away on the island was not likely to be quite the burden that living in New York or waiting in line to buy groceries at Guido’s in Great Barrington was beginning to be.

Greater Light on Nantucket
Greater Light, on Nantucket Island, harkens back to when the island was a summer colony for artists in the 1920s.

Brian had not been to the island since his childhood, and I was excited to take in the rose-covered cottages in Sconset and to traverse the streets with him, masked and appropriately distanced from passersby. We spent the following days relaxing on the beach and walking about looking at colorful window boxes filled with annuals that, for the island’s many summer inhabitants, needed to last only the season.

It felt so nice to be partaking in a seasonal ritual in a year when so many rituals had to be left behind. And it was with this in mind that we set off to see one of my favorite places on Nantucket, Greater Light, the house of Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan, which was left by the sisters in 1972 to the Nantucket Historical Society. Almost a century ago, the two sisters started to convert an eighteenth-century livestock barn into their home and studio. Many of the island’s residents were taken aback by their desire to live in a barn, and their renovations were very much the talk of the town.

Many of the windows of the house were repurposed from old Philadelphia or Nantucket buildings.

The interior of the house is filled with wonderful handmade hardware and architectural artifacts that the sisters collected over the years and wove into their home. Like the London home of architect John Soane and the New York studio of Ettie Stettheimer, the setting created by these two sisters was a palimpsest of the world that came before them. Combining their own ingenuity and design sensibility with everyday objects and old windows, they created a uniquely welcoming home. I could not wait for Brian, whose own sensibility mirrors that of the Quaker sisters, to see their home.

The Gate beckons visitors into the garden.

As we walked up to the house with its bullseye windows and shingled front, I was sad to see that we could not enter the house; it is closed for the duration of the pandemic. However, we did manage to peer into the house through its mullioned windows and take in the frescoed interiors that the two sisters had so lovingly created over the years. I was sorry that Brian could not experience the house to its fullest. Like so many things this year, we were once again looking at the world from a distance. However, as we walked about the house, we realized we were allowed to enjoy the garden, which, as in so many other situations in the “Age of Covid,” was the only part of a place where people could congregate.

The plantings of the garden are simple and in keeping with the Quaker values of simplicity and modesty, which the sisters eschewed to some extent in their colorful decoration of the interior of the house.


The Monaghan sisters found this ironwork in Philadephia and used it to create a pergola over their outdoor dining area at the house they created out of an old livestock barn.


The pergola.

We stepped into the garden, set behind a wooden fence and demarcated by a stone wall built from the rocks that were part of the original renovation of the barn. It was planted simply, in a manner that seemed fitting for two Quakers, with an old tree shading some hydrangeas just coming into bloom. It felt like a haven from the world, and it was complemented by a back terrace framed by a pergola. This pergola is set on two old pieces of ironwork that the sisters had found in Philadelphia and ingeniously placed at the edges of the old entrance to the barn. They created the terrace as a place for dining and congregating. It was magical and wonderful to sit in this space and realize that, almost a century ago, two Quaker women had recognized the timeless value of outdoor seating. Donning our masks as we left the garden behind, we realized our vacation was giving us just what we all need, a breath of fresh air and a few ideas for how to live our lives when we get back home.

The branches of a tree frame a view of the garden at Greater Light.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

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