In the summer of 1929, artsy sisters Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan followed a herd of cows up Main Street Nantucket on a whim. The cows turned at Howard Street and disappeared into a 140-year-old barn. The sisters fell in love with the barn and turned it into an art studio and summer home that is both jarringly out of place on Nantucket and perfectly at home with the island’s emotional ethos.
Nantucket in the 1920s was not the glamorous resort destination it is today. Fisherman shacks dotted the shoreline, and most residents relied on traditional New England patterns of subsistence. There were some summer visitors, but they were not the wealthy and beautiful people presently associated with “summering” on Nantucket.
Enter two Quaker sisters from Philadelphia: Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan. Gertrude was a muralist who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Hanna was an actress and author. They were both eclectic individuals with indulgent parents. They were drawn to Nantucket thanks to the burgeoning art colony on the island. East coast artists were drawn to the ramshackle fisherman cottages that had lost their primary function as the whaling industry declined and Nantucket harbor silted over in the late nineteenth century.
The Monaghan sisters were soaking in the art scene when they happened upon the herd of cows in 1929. They persuaded the owner of the livestock barn—town grocer William Holland—into selling it to them. They named it Greater Light—after Genesis 1:16, “God made the two great lights: the greater light to have dominion over the day and the lesser light to have dominion over the night”—and they set to work immediately, renovating the barn into an airy home perfect for contemplative creating and dramatic entertaining. That winter, they drew up plans and created a three-dimensional model of the renovations they had in mind.
What makes the house all the more remarkable is the amazing salvaged architectural elements they shipped to Nantucket to complete their dream project. Hanna had salvaged twelve-foot high wrought-iron gates in a Pennsylvania junkyard the previous spring, and they fit perfectly on the new patio they envisioned for Greater Light. The sisters fitted four church windows together, painted red, to create one giant window perfect for letting in natural light in the great room. They also salvaged yellow glass bottle windows from a Philadelphia pub and installed them in Hanna’s bedroom.
These architectural elements, as well as a gorgeous garden and unique pieces of furniture, tell the story of two strong-willed and talented women. The home is also a testament to the broader story of Nantucket in the early 20th century, when whaling was a thing of the past but resort-era Nantucket was in no way a foregone conclusion.
Today, Greater Light is one of the many historic sites operated by the Nantucket Historical Association. In recent years, the historical association mounts seasonal gallery-style exhibitions in the main room. Additionally, two of the first floor rooms are curated to represent their appearance while the Monaghan sisters lived in the home.
Know Before You Go
Greater Light is located on 8 Howard Street and is open to the public from May through October. Greater Light is accessible by car, bus, walking, and bicycle and is just 10 minutes walking from the historic downtown district of Nantucket. The restored property often plays host to an array of events, including book signings, lectures, and performances. Check the Nantucket Historical Association website for an updated schedule.