The Oldest House on Sunset Hill, also known as the Jethro Coffin House, was built in 1686 and is believed to be the oldest residence on Nantucket still on its original site. The island’s English population at the time totaled several hundred, and the native Wampanoag outnumbered them by at least three to one.
Built as a wedding gift for Jethro Coffin (1663–1727) and Mary Gardner (1670–1767), the house represents the unity of two of the island’s oldest families. Jethro was the grandson of one of the island’s original proprietors, Tristram Coffin, and Mary was the daughter of John Gardner, one of the leaders of the so-called Half-Share Revolt, in which the island’s tradesmen rallied against the wealthier full-share proprietors. Although the relationship between Gardner and Coffin was never amicable, the marriage of Mary and Jethro helped unite the families and soothe old wounds. Built on Gardner land using Coffin lumber, the house is a physical manifestation of this unity.
By the late nineteenth century, the house was abandoned and had fallen into disrepair, but a Coffin family reunion held on the island in 1881 ignited renewed interest in the property. The NHA acquired the house in 1923, and four years later, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA, now Historic New England), commenced an extensive reconstruction in an attempt to return the house to its historic appearance. The Oldest House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968. In 1987, it was struck by lightning, which caused extensive damage necessitating substantial repairs to and partial reconstruction of the roof and chimney. Today, the house stands as a monument to the lives of the island’s earliest English settlers and offers visitors a glimpse of daily life on Nantucket in the seventeenth century.
Efforts have been made to restore the landscape surrounding the Oldest House to an appearance more appropriate to its historic setting. The kitchen garden, located behind the house, is a reconstruction of a circa-1700 herb and vegetable garden and is maintained without the use of modern fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Plants are grown in a raised-bed system typical of the time and include common vegetable staples such as carrots, onions, cabbages, and parsnips, as well as approximately thirty varieties of herbs grown for culinary, medicinal, or household use.