Nantucket Mansion Linked to History of Moby Dick
By Kristen Mager
Thirty miles south of Cape Cod sits a charming seashell-shaped island named Nantucket where the Starbuck family thrived as whalers in the richest and most productive port for whale oil in the world. Joseph Starbuck was a successful whaling captain who built three identical homes on Main Street for his three sons in the 1830s.
Homeowners Rick and Marie Wackenhut bought East Brick—the closest of the three to town—in 2005 and embarked on a magnificent restoration of the mansion to its whaling roots.
“We thought it would be exciting to be stewards of such an iconic and historic home,” said Marie.
It was actually the Starbuck name that inspired Herman Melville to name one of his Moby Dick characters after the family that built East Brick.
Today, cobblestone streets line the four-block Nantucket historic district where federal mansions like East Brick carry on the whaling legacy. And this December, the dark and dangerous life of a Nantucket whaler will liven up the big screen in Ron Howard’s movie “In the Heart of the Sea”—based on the true story that inspired Moby Dick.
Restoring its roots
Walking through the four-story East Brick offers a spectacular tour through Nantucket’s history.
“We chose furniture that would be appropriate and tell the story of Nantucket for anyone who entered the front door … whether it be the 17th or 20th century … and how this building has stood and represented the whaling industry all this time.”
The front right parlor is where the Starbuck family would have received all guests and is adorned in the whaling, or most significant, period.
“When this home was built, Nantucket whalers and their catch and merchandising of whale oil lit up the lights of the world,” said Rick.
A second parlor represents the China trade room, draped in silks and poised with porcelain. After the discovery of gold in California in 1849, followed by kerosene and petroleum, many merchants who owned ships in search of whale oil turned to the China Trade and started importing cheese, porcelain, fabrics and coffee (leading some to speculate whether it was the inspiration for the current day coffee brand name Starbucks.)
The bathroom has a surround scene—painted by a local artist—of the whaling ship’s journey as it goes out of the harbor, captures the whale, collects the oil, and returns with the “coming home flag.” The dining room has a circular view of the Nantucket harbor in 1842, which was the height of the industry.
“Done in sepia, it really gives reason why this house stands,” said Marie.
The sleeping quarters are on the second floor, and the top floor of East Brick represents the Nantucket arts and crafts era, which took place in the 1930s and 1950s. After whale oil became obsolete practically overnight, Nantucket went into the Big Sleep. It remained a ghost town until about the turn of the century when word of the resort climate got out. Then, hotels started popping up, followed by artist colonies.
A spiral staircase in the arts and crafts lounge leads up to the cupola, where Captain Starbuck would have been able to watch his fleet in the harbor.
Walls that talk
During the renovation, the Wackenhuts stumbled upon an exciting find—the original cooking fireplace — that truly brought back the whaling beginnings of East Brick. It was hidden in the basement behind sheetrock, which is uncharacteristic for the whaling-era.
“We’d been doing some electrical work and through one of the open boxes I saw brick,” says Marie. “A historical mason told us the bricks were from 1900 and not 1835—so we took that wall down and lo and behold we uncovered the original cooking fireplace. We’ve turned it into a wine room now; but you still get a great feeling of the history of that room.”
Glorious Green Gardens
The splendor of East Brick extends to the lush gardens. During the period the home was built, blueprints were used to create formal and symmetrical English, rose, and cutting gardens.
“Spectacular gardens were attached to these homes and it was our intention to bring back that aspect of the yard so it would feel like you were walking through the grounds of an English manor,” said Marie.
Approximately 75 varieties of plants grace the garden. Fluffy white basketball-sized Annabelle hydrangeas encircle a brick patio and terrace down the back of the property. Pink Mandevilla vines, installed on a vertical frame, climb an elegant frame for the walkway. You’ll find a section primarily in shade occupied with ferns and low-to-ground lichen. Blossoming in the sun are a huge variety of flowers. And when the sun goes down, magic happens when a fog comes in at night and provides a cool mist to the flowers.
An elegant white covered porch leading out from the bedrooms is not historic to East Brick but was designed to represent the mid-1800s.
“It blends nicely with the house and makes it much more livable and grand,” said Marie.
Coming to the Big Screen: “In the Heart of the Sea”
You can experience the turbulent, terrifying, and unpredictable journey aboard a Nantucket whaling ship in a new action film coming to theaters on December 11. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, and Cillian Murphy, and directed by Ron Howard, the film is based on the story by Nathaniel Philbrick. When a whale of mammoth size and strength attacks the Nantucket Essex in 1819, the crew must drift for more than ninety days in tiny whaleboats. Storms, starvation, panic, and despair lead them to unthinkable actions just to survive. Go back in time to Nantucket’s whaling days and to the Essex, which inspired the story of Moby Dick.