Every year, around the end of October, Salem-ites struggle with what to do with ourselves. Spooky festivities, at this point, have lasted weeks, and we’re anxious for November to begin when we’re rewarded with quiet streets and Salem Restaurant Week.
My plan this year was to skip Halloween weekend, a long continuous stretch of days leading to Monday, the 31st, AirBnB my place and head out to Nantucket for something completely different. The island, a zoo in summer, is positively peaceful toward the end of October. I lived there for exactly two years in the early 2000′s and the subtleties of the seasons still lives within me: high, off, shoulder.
But avoiding Salem these days, even 30 miles out to sea, is getting more difficult. People on island were more interested in hearing about October in the Witch City. Plus, my travel companion and I had a pretty decent tarot card reading at the Nantucket Atheneum. But the real connections between where I now live and work and the island began only minutes after we arrived and wandered down beautiful Broad Street with its Victorians and French Mansards, into the Greek Revival Greydon House.
The brand new hotel has been getting a boatload of press, opening this fall to much fanfare, as evidenced in this gorgeous spread in Architectural Digest.
We found the cozy bar filled with warm Earth tones and a mishmash of cozy Bohemia that looks like it came from a house in Sconset where I spent lots of time in my 20′s. Or as hotel general manager Jeff David says, “We’re recreating the house of the uncle who lived here.”
That is, if the uncle were absolutely into the Bohemian period between the last days of Nantucket’s infamous whaling industry (in the early 20th century) and the heavy tourist period, although that date may be a bit harder to pin down.
We are tequila people and so ordered something called the Secret Spice, as we marveled at all the homemade bitters in jars before us. Then the gaze of our marvel lifted…to the mural above. Dramatically lit and covered ever so slightly with bottles of high-end whiskey, we saw something pretty familiar. A mural that closely resembles a painting in our collection here at PEM. The oil painting, created around 1800 by an unknown artist in Guangzhou, China, depicts Chinese tea production.
New York decorative painter Dean Barger was commissioned by the hotel’s Manhattan-based design team Roman and Williams to create the large mural, based on PEM’s painting about an important luxury item, historically exported from China to Europe and America.
The design team told W Magazine “Nantucket was once an art colony and Greydon House’s owners come from a family of collectors, so we wanted to bring in that culture and let people have an intimate experience of it.”
The mural is located between two closed shades to block the incoming light from the windows so that those at the bar can better see this depiction of all the steps involved in producing tea, running in a zigzag from top to bottom. There, the workers are planting tea bushes, watering, pruning, picking, sorting, roasting and packing into crates. A Chinese merchant and a British merchant are seated at a red lacquer table, negotiating the price of the tea.
Little did we know at that point that the North Shore art world would be discussed all weekend in various galleries and hidden antique shops, as if our day-to-day lives had followed us on the Atlantic and through Nantucket Harbor. Later, during an afternoon of biking to the eastern part of the island, past the Sankaty Head Lighthouse, we would stop into a makeshift gallery of a lady who had painted on the island for many years. My companion, a painter, excitedly exchanged ideas with Loretta about the highest use of a palette knife. As the off-season sun shone brightly into her garage and against our backs, we discovered canvases filled with both Nantucket’s Polpis Harbor and Gloucester’s boat builders.
PEM’s curator of Asian Export Art, Karina Corrigan, was happy to learn that we’d be seeing the Greydon House mural and a bit annoyed that it would be before she gets a chance to make the voyage. She explained more about the work.
“This painting was done by an unidentified Chinese artist possibly made for a Western merchant who made his fortune in the tea trade in China. In the port city of Guangzhou, artists of all kinds (painters, embroiderers, silversmiths, lacquer artists) produced Western-style luxury goods for visiting merchants, sometimes adapting Western materials, techniques and designs. In the 1700s, Chinese artists typically painted in ink on paper or silk. This painting, however, was done in oil on canvas, traditionally a Western technique. While the clouds and the one-point perspective use a Western approach, the mountains more closely resemble those of traditional Chinese scroll paintings.”
The mural artist did an amazing job and told New York Magazine of his painting process, “Rather than mimetically quoting the past, I want to think about it, and reinterpret it into something fresh, appropriate, and tasteful.”
Roman and Williams are all about this idea of reinterpretation, having filled the boutique hotel with art and textiles, African tribal chairs and Polynesian flair. The married design duo Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch create a story by the things they collect and one of their favorite things is to see all of these elements co-exist. Some of the pieces were purchased on island and all evoke the far flung global, multi-layered past that Nantucket and Salem share.
Greydon means “son of the man with the white hair.” If the island of rose-covered cottages is known as the Grey Lady, this is her brother who often gets overlooked, the one who likes quirk, shabby chic, a warm fireplace glancing across deep brown leather. And all of this has its own scent, of course. Greydon House sells this blend of earthy warm tones, evoking a rainy night that keeps time with the fog horn. A scent that holds hints of a non-threatening masculinity, blended with a digital free, leather-bound world that is nestled beneath a quilt, under a dark painting of a ship at sea, dog resting in a corner, sherry poured by a trusted confidante.
Robin Standefer told W, “We were also moved by Nantucket’s history, how strong the visual narrative is there. It was this very small island with a huge global reach and such a complex history, so it was a good scale for us. And the sweetness of the site itself was hard to resist after working on big urban projects. There’s something about the isolation, and privacy, of being an island, too.”
The couple have said that their imaginations were most captured by the relationship between Nantucket’s wild natural world and the civilization found in town.
“I love to get into the soul of a place,” Jeff David told me, sitting together at the bar. He has also been at the helm of opening the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, a much larger, more urban kind of sanctuary, as well as hotels around the world. “Nantucket often suffers from the quintessential,” he said, “the cliche. This is unexpected.”
I’ve been in constant search of this fading Nantucket, already elusive when I reached the island in the spring of 2000. Boho Nantucket, for me, was having a shared intimate geography and island experience that created an almost forced closeness among year-rounders. I moved there after grad school to write for the island newspaper, covering the waterfront and the arts scene, but also drove a cab, waited tables, collected sound for the local NPR station. The island meant tending my fireplace in an old drafty house with found wood from the yards of summer people. Decorating a Christmas tree with scallop shells. Endless potlucks and spontaneous coffee afternoons that faded into starry nights.
Like then, I now ride my bicycle everywhere, making every bit of the gray, scrubby landscape, my own. In recent off -season visits, I’ve been lucky enough to catch lunar eclipses at the Maria Mitchell Association — named after the precocious 19th century girl astronomer — to bike to new local farms, to do yoga in someone’s backyard and to glimpse downtown the kind of shabby yet spiritual lawn decorations that undermine the preppy reputation and suggest there’s something more to the island — called faraway land by the Native Americans — and now associated with so much name-dropping. On the ferry ride back to the mainland, I ran into an actor friend who equated the island to that boyfriend who grabs your heart while you’re young and then simply won’t let go.
While the downstairs of Greydon House is weathered, all dark wood and moody seascapes beside the appropriate library of whale tales and the plodding paws of Como, the chef’s muscular part Chow, part German Shepard, keeping guard at the reception desk, upstairs is a white haven, the opposite of blackout, a haze of nothingness, dedicated to peaceful slumber. Each individually decorated room features a heavy iron bed, one of a kind original antiques, weighty art books, cantilevered lamps and showers decked out in hand-painted Portuguese tile that bring the voyage to the bathing experience, and marry port cities far and near, transporting the grandness of the globe back home.
Go see the mural for yourself. Greydon House is offering a rate of $190 per night from now until December 29th, 2016, to PEM members and readers of Connected. The rate is based on availability and excludes blackout periods (Christmas Stroll and Thanksgiving).
The code is activated so that when you go to the Greydon House website to book, you can enter PEM2016 in the Access Code field on the dates page of the engine and it will allow you to book at $190 a night plus taxes through the 29th of December.