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Preserving Nantucket’s Living History

Interview with Holly Backus

Preservation Planner

Town of Nantucket

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you became interested in historic preservation?

I became interested in historic preservation at a very young age, actually while I was in high school growing up on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. My father is a carpenter, and he learned from my great grandfather who was also a carpenter builder businessman who had one of the largest contracting companies on Nantucket in the 50s and 60s. I was always just admiring the architecture and I consider myself a person that was born with a hammer in my hand. I fell in love with historic interiors and with the appreciation of the historic streetscape of downtown Nantucket, and when I was in high school, I ended up interning with the Nantucket Preservation Trust, which was only a few years old at the time. I knew at the age of 16 that I wanted to go to Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island for historic preservation. I ended up graduating with a bachelor's degree in historic preservation and architectural history. I also spent a summer with the University of Florida's Preservation Institute Nantucket, which is a program on historic preservation that's been ongoing since 1972. My goal was to be able to come back to Nantucket where I was raised with my education and experience. Nantucket is an island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, so I've had my experiences of natural disasters nor'easters, and hurricanes. We haven't had a big one in a while, but one I remember as a child was Hurricane Bob in 1991and then the No Name storm the same year, which happened off the coast of New England. I'm definitely familiar with natural disasters and what they can do to communities.

Are you working on preservation in Nantucket today?

Yes, I've been in this position since 2019, and I'm the first preservation planner for the town. I've been a land use planner since 2006, so I have a preservation background, but wasn’t practicing. I was hired in 2015 I came back to Nantucket after being land use planner outside of Charleston, South Carolina for 10 years. Totally different than preservation—I was approving what I call suburban sprawl, but I learned a lot about planning and was able to use that experience to come back home. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this for Nantucket. It's becoming more common that cities are starting to have preservationists. Nantucket is one of the first historic districts in the country, having received its designation in 1955. We have a strong historic district commission, but preservation itself really wasn't included with planning. It wasn't until some certain events in the town that people really wanted to have more of a preservation focus. When I was hired, the planning director knew my background and knew that I was from here, and I was very happy that they recognized the need for a preservation planner.

How do you think that the field of historic preservation has changed since your internship with Nantucket Preservation Trust?

A foundational concept in preservation is the idea of a museum house, taking a historic structure and turning it into a museum. That's the old school mentality from the 60s when the preservation movement really started to preserve these older, cultural structures. Now it's shifted. The focus is more about adapting structures and historic landscapes to the everchanging community and everchanging climate. It’s really cool to see, especially when you're living in a thriving historic community. Nantucket was established before this country became a country, and we're still living and thriving. It’s interesting to see how the preservation world has changed, both locally and globally, as a result of sea-level rise and climate change.

How has that shift impacted the work that you do as a preservationist?

I was fortunate to go to the first Keeping History Above Water conference in Newport, Rhode Island where I first listened to Lisa Craig. I heard about her experience in Annapolis, Maryland and the Weather It Together initiative. I had to present to the Select Board about what I learned, and the biggest thing I got from that conference was that we needed to make sure our cultural resources are included within our hazard mitigation plan. I ended up becoming the local hazard mitigation plan coordinator, and my goal was to follow the lead of Lisa in Annapolis and follow the guidance for including cultural resources within the hazard mitigation plan. Becoming a preservation planner really merged a world of mitigation and hazards and adaptation with preservation for me.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has really been working on helping their communities be more resilient and adaptive. At the same time that we were updating our hazard mitigation plan, the state launched a new program on community resilience. We held an eight-hour community resilience workshop, out of which came a report. One of the initiatives that came out of that report was the need to preserve our historic resources in addition to our infrastructure, and economic, cultural, and natural resources. We became a certified community through the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Because of the adaptability of Nantucket’s historic coastal community, we were also able to secure an action grant, which became the project, Resilient Nantucket. Similar to what our colleagues are doing at the University of Florida's Preservation Institute Nantucket, this program created a digital toolkit for the public to learn about flood risk, preparedness, and adaptation alternatives, as well as came up with design guidelines for flooding adaptation for our historic district. We had a public conference (all done virtually due to COVID) to showcase the project, along with so many other fabulous folks from all over the world who work on resiliency planning and culture resource protection efforts. If it wasn't for Phil Thomason of Thomason & Associates, and Lisa Craig with her team at The Craig Group, we wouldn't have been able to fulfill such a wonderful project. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts said that Nantucket has set the bar high, which is so awesome to hear. We have documents and guidance that are not going to sit on a shelf—they're actually going to be used, and that's the best thing as a planner.

What is the role of preservation-based firms like The Craig Group in your resilience effort? What do they bring to the table?

It's really up to preservation-based organizations, as well as the local government. They need to make sure that a community’s unique historic identity is preserved and not erroneously changed due to the need to adapt to sea level rise and extreme storm events. The fact that our Resilient Nantucket project was being done at the same time as creation of our coastal resiliency plan demonstrates how preservation and adaptation can work together. The design guidelines from Resilient Nantucket are granular, building by building adaptation measures, whereas a coastal resiliency plan is a plan for a whole area, or in our case an island. Because the entire island is a historic district, we have a lot of benefits available to us. When it comes to having to retreat structures from the coast or the bluff, we need help making sure that that historic identity of that structure is not lost.

The biggest thing we want to avoid is planning for adaptation and having it negatively affect our cultural resources. One of the things that I explained to the preservation firm Arcadis before they started with the coastal resiliency plan was that I personally didn’t want to see a storm gate. It could ruin Nantucket Sound, and Nantucket Sound is not just for Nantucket—it's also for the Cape and the other islands. It's also part of a traditional cultural property under the eyes of the federal government, and we're hoping that Nantucket Sound will receive designation as a national historic landmark, like Nantucket. There are plenty of reasons for that; it has a lot of historic and cultural value for Native Americans, all the way through the whaling era, and beyond.

There are a lot of dynamics to resiliency efforts, and I think preservation-based organizations need to look beyond the house gems and the cultural institutions, and really look at a community as its own microcosm. Nantucket is very unique, and a lot of people have been coming here lately. We have a lot of changes and a lot of construction going on, but we can make sure that we're still a living, breathing historic community by embracing our dynamic culture that that has evolved with history.


Resilient Nantucket Toolkit – created in partnership with The Craig Group

Resilient Nantucket Design Guidelines – created in partnership with Thomason & Associates


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