Lost In The Flames: The Long History Of The Veranda House
JohnCarl McGrady •
Before it burned, the Veranda House lived. This is its story.
An enterprising, energetic man despite his advanced age, the 74-year-old Nathan Chapman would go on to be awarded a patent for an odd-looking bread cutter that never quite caught on.
According to the Inquirer & Mirror, he also championed an effort to build an ice-skating rink on the island, a goal he spent $600 on - over $17,000 in today’s money. But in 1881, Chapman was just looking for a house for him and his wife, Hepzibah, and one property on Centre Street had caught his eye.
While some secondary sources allege the home Chapman bought was built on the site of Town founder William Gayer’s 1648 house, sources claim that nearly every building in the vicinity was placed on the foundation of Gayer’s house. Regardless, there is no doubt that Gayer, a mariner who, according to historian and attorney Laurence Bunker, bore a coat of arms, was the first to build on the land near what would one day become the Veranda House, cementing his place in its legacy.
According to research by Frances Kartunnen, Chapman purchased the building, which would soon become the Veranda House, with no intention of turning it into a hotel. But 1881 was an auspicious year to buy a home; nearly as soon as Chapman had purchased the building, 500 Coffins descended on the island for the first Coffin reunion searching for lodging. The island’s few hotels were overrun, and private citizens, including Chapman, took in some Coffins themselves.
Unlike the others, however, the ever-entrepreneurial Chapman saw a business opportunity. Kartunnen’s research shows that soon after the Coffins left, he renovated his home into a hotel, raising the ceilings and adding a third floor. That summer, the Veranda House was born, opening its doors on August 15th, 1882.
The first season must have been a success; not only did Chapman reopen the next year, he bought a neighboring building to expand his business, and the year after that, he “thoroughly refitted” the hotel for the upcoming season. During this period, Step Lane’s iconic steps were grated down to allow for easier access to Chapman’s new business
The hotel’s proprietor died suddenly in 1885, a shock to his family that thrust the hotel into the most uncertain period of its existence. Chapman’s numerous business ventures had not always been successful, and he died with considerable debt, leaving the executors of his will scrambling to pay it off. The details of what happened in 1884 and 1885 are unclear, but records obtained from Nantucket’s probate court and realty office suggest that in an attempt to cover his debts, Nathan Chapman put the Veranda House into a trust and sold it the year before his death. But Adolphus Merriam, the man he sold it to, broke the terms of the agreement, and the hotel ended up back in the trust.
After a long legal process that included at least one attempt to sell the hotel in 1894, the Chapman family finally managed to offload the building at public auction in 1901, selling it to a former fishing captain named John Winslow for a pittance—just $200.
In the intervening years, the Hotel had its first female proprietor, Chapman’s daughter, Mrs. S. G. Davenport. She was listed as the Hotel’s proprietor in several publications and took out numerous advertisements in the local news. One advertisement printed in the Nantucket Journal in 1886 shows that rooms were available to rent for $2 - $2.50 per night, about $62 - $77 in today’s money, and said that the hotel was under the same management as in previous seasons, despite Chapman’s recent death. This suggests that Davenport may have acted as the hotel’s manager even while Chapman lived.
Perhaps Davenport was responsible for the Veranda House’s connection to the local suffragist movement. The hotel routinely made headlines in the local news for hosting tea parties and dinners for the movement. In 1890, the Inquirer & Mirror reported that well-known universal suffrage activist Hamilton Wilcox gave a lecture at the hotel.
By 1901, Nantucket was starting a decades-long transition to a tourist-based economy, and Winslow was just the man to take advantage of it. The Inquirer & Mirror reported that having grown tired of spending all his time on his boat, Mabel, which shared a name with his daughter, the Captain was looking to settle down. Records from the Nantucket Journal show that Winslow spent the next two decades as the hotel’s proprietor, splitting his time between running the business and his numerous civic engagements, including serving as a selectman, postmaster, and Town Auditor.
During Winslow’s tenure, the Veranda House was known for its home-like atmosphere and Winslow’s close relationships with many guests. According to the Inquirer & Mirror, in 1912, one guest presented him with an enormous, sixteen-foot-long flag reading “THE VERANDA” in large blue letters on a white background with red trim.
Among the many incidents at the Veranda House during those years, one stands out. In 1920, a singer named Lois Fox visited the island and stayed at the hotel. While visiting, Fox’s pet fox escaped, and the Inquirer & Mirror reported that it was “thought to be having a real happy time” somewhere on the island. If the fox was ever found, there is no record.
Realty records indicate that two years later, Winslow sold the hotel to Mary Duggan, a housekeeper at the Ship’s Inn. Winslow lived a long, healthy life, dying at 92 years old as the oldest man on Nantucket.
Duggan’s time as proprietor was placid and relatively uneventful, and less documentation exists of her than any of the hotel’s other owners, in part because she was a woman. There is universally less information on the hotel’s female proprietors than their male counterparts. In 1946, Duggan sold the building to Thomas Devine.
Of all the storied owners of the Veranda House, Devine may be the most well-known. A decorated veteran who received the Bronze Star, Devine was known for his strong but generous personality and was one of the most influential figures on the island in his day. The Inquirer & Mirror reported that Devine, the namesake of the Thomas Devine scholarship, was a cousin of President John F. Kennedy and often referred to as the “Mayor of Nantucket.”
Devine changed the name of the Veranda House to the Hotel Overlook, and that was what it stayed as for almost 60 years. Devine always worked with his wife Jo, and their names are listed jointly on many records.
Unafraid to make changes, the Devines, who bought the hotel after Thomas returned from World War II, opened the Indian Room, a restaurant in the hotel so named because each of the Overlook’s rooms was named after a different Wampanoag word. The Indian Room quickly became famous for its blueberry pancakes cut into the shape of whales.
Aside from their bold changes, the Devines’ time as proprietors of the Overlook was dominated by one theme: fire. As early as 1959, the Inquirer & Mirror reported that firefighters discussed how they would handle a fire at the hotel, and records show that in 1966, the Devines were cited by the Select Board for unsafe lighting that could have been a fire hazard.
In 1982, Thomas Devine’s house, which neighbored the hotel, caught on fire, and only a quick response by the fire department prevented it from spreading. In 1986, the Inquirer & Mirror said that the fire chief testified the Overlook was of “great concern” to the fire department and that they were worried plans to expand housing nearby would create a fire hazard.
In 2001, the fire chief’s worst fears were almost realized: the neighboring home of Shaun Devine, Thomas’s son, burned to the ground, causing $500,000 in damages—over $825,000 today. Shaun and his fiancee Kimberley DeCosta escaped alive - as did their kitten - and the fire department contained the fire, but it was a near miss. For the better part of fifty years, the Overlook survived close call after close call.
Thomas Devine, who became the Town’s Santa Claus, died in 2003, and the hotel passed to his grandson, Ethan, and Ethan’s fiancee Alexis. They changed the name back to the Veranda House but sold it in 2006 to Susan and Dale Hamilton, long-time proprietors of the Sherburne Inn. The Hamiltons paid $3.8 million for the hotel, a far cry from when John Winslow bought it for just $200. The Hamiltons would ultimately charge three times more for a single night at a room in the Veranda House than Winslow paid to purchase the entire building in 1901.
Over the years, the Veranda House underwent numerous changes, passing from family to family and generation to generation. It was expanded and renamed, sold and gifted, and remodeled over and over. But beneath all of that, the house remained the same. The bones that burned in 2022 were there all those generations ago in 1881, welcoming 500 Coffins to the island as Nathan Chapman smelled a business venture on the air. The Veranda House outlived its era, slowly transitioning from state-of-the-art to historic, passing from inventors to suffragettes to housekeepers to politicians and dodging death more than once in its long life. When the fire consumed the Veranda House, it consumed more than a building—it consumed a monument, a living, breathing piece of history.