An ambitious renovation and expansion plan for the historic Woodbox inn and restaurant property on Fair Street is facing pushback from neighbors and has raised concerns among island preservationists.
The Woodbox is one of the oldest and most historic structures on Nantucket, dating back to 1709 – making it just slightly younger than the Oldest House. But the building had fallen into disrepair in recent years, and in 2019 it was condemned by the Health Department as unfit for human habitation.
In April, Blue Flag Partners purchased the Woodbox property at 27-29 Fair Street as part of a $13.3 million deal to acquire the Summer House’s downtown lodging properties. Brad Guidi, a co-owner of Blue Flag Partners, said the plan is to restore the ailing structures that make up the property, while paying heed to the historical significance of the Woodbox.
“The vision for the property is to bring it back to the luster it should be,” Guidi said. “It’s been neglected for so long, and we want to make it one of the best little inns on the island based on its location and the historic structure. It’s part of the fabric of Nantucket.”
According to Blue Flag’s plans filed with the Historic District Commission and the Planning Board, the front facade of 29 Fair Street and the side of the building along the narrow Hillers Lane would remain essentially the same, while a large addition off the rear of the building is being proposed. Back portions of the restaurant and guest house at 29 Fair Street would be demolished and rebuilt, while the interior courtyard would be enclosed, and a patio would be added to the west side of the building for outdoor dining. A bar area would be added to the interior dining space, but the restaurant would remain at the currently permitted 45-seats.
“The buildings are a complete mess,” Guidi said. “If nothing’s done, they will crumble and there will be nothing to preserve.”
But a group of neighbors have mobilized to oppose the current iteration of the plans for the building, hiring attorney Arthur Reade to represent them and making their concerns known at recent Historic District Commission hearings over the past month.
“When I look at this plan and what the Woodbox looks like today, it’s as if somehow an iceberg floated onto the island and hit the back of the Woodbox,” Reade told the HDC last month, referencing a series of large windows proposed for the rear expansion. “It seems completely incongruous.”
“The overall expansion, the mass, the size of what is being put on the back is completely out of character with anything in the neighborhood,” Moss said. “This is not just a historic building. This is a revered building on the island and in the neighborhood.”
Preservation advocates are also closely watching the proposed expansion. Holly Backus, the town’s preservation planner, shared the Historic Structures Advisory Board’s concerns with the HDC, and emphasized the historical significance of the Woodbox.
“This is a treasure within our historic district,” Backus said, noting how the building evolved and adapted over the years from a single family dwelling to a multi-family dwelling, and later into an inn and restaurant. Its peculiar massing reflects those changes and history, she said. “The existing windows should be restored, not replaced. The existing trim should be repaired, not replaced. New trim would destroy the historic character. If you take out a funky window, you’re taking out that historic fabric.”
Nantucket Preservation Trust executive director Mary Bergman penned a letter this week urging consideration for the building’s history as the island regulatory boards review the proposal.
“While this building has been added to many times over the years, little had been subtracted,” Bergman wrote. “Particularly, parts of its historic interior remain, which should be preserved. The charm of a place like the Woodbox lies in its more than 300-year history. It is rare that the public can step this far back in time while enjoying a meal.”
Other proposed changes to the properties would include picking up the rear building at 29 Fair Street and adding a new foundation, then renovating that structure. The 27 Fair Street guest house would be renovated and expanded, while a single family dwelling on the property would be demolished and replaced by three smaller structures for guest rooms.
All told, the inn would go from having one six-bedroom dwelling and 16 units totaling 24 bedrooms, to 18 total units with 19 bedrooms.
“In terms of lodging, what we have proposed is a plan that will create real hotel rooms – suites – and bringing them up to a standard in which you could actually use them in today’s world,” Guidi said.
The architectural plans have been presented to the HDC by Andrew Kotchen, the founding principal of the firm Workshop/APD.
The HDC on Thursday asked for additional revisions to the plan, while the Planning Board will get its first look during its meeting on Nov. 15.