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Captured Essence

The White Elephant Nantucket unveils a deeply considered refresh inspired by the island’s singular splendor.

Buttery yellow tones and crisp white paint infuse the “Daffodil” cottage with light and vibrance. / Photo by Connie Zhou

Thirty miles out to sea, there are few more enchanting places to visit in New England than Nantucket. The island’s cobbled streets; mesmerizing, blue-watered wharves; and dune-backed beaches evoke a sense of serenity, a feeling that one has escaped the frenetic pace, the distractions, the noise of daily life.

On Nantucket, even with its delightful modern boutiques and first-rate restaurants serving contemporary fare, there’s an unmistakable sense of timelessness that can spark the notion that one is in another era entirely. Largely, this can be attributed to the fact that at more than 30,000 acres, the entire island is a National Historic Landmark District, a distinction earned for its more than 800 pre–Civil War era structures. This cherished architecture includes gracious Federal and Greek Revival manses built between the mid-1700s and the late 1830s when Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. The survival of these stately specimens is a miracle that serendipitously rose from neglect, for when the island’s prosperity ended, Nantucket was largely forgotten. The island’s fine architecture sat unused until the turn of the 20th century when it began to emerge as a tourist destination.

As she opened a series of rustic cottages in 1923, local socialite Elizabeth T. Ludwig had big dreams. She envisioned a grand destination that would lure guests from all over. Lore has it that Ludwig’s project became the talk of the town and was affectionately coined “Mrs. Ludwig’s white elephant.” Indeed, the White Elephant evolved quickly; new buildings were added for the dining room, the lounge, and more guest quarters. It’s been an island icon ever since, reshaped and expanded over the decades, ever the pinnacle of a luxury vacation resort.

Light bounces around a cottage with cathedral ceilings that’s infused with neutral hues and an array of textures. / Photo by Connie Zhou

The new reception desk has a bold blue base and a white counter. The art, by Orit Fuchs, features vivid hues and nods to the hotel founder. / Photo by Connie Zhou

A modern overhaul was planned to coincide with the White Elephant’s 100th anniversary this year, with Elkus Manfredi Architects tapped to design the renovation of the guest rooms, lobby, and cottages. The revival was helmed by the Boston firm’s interior design principal, Elizabeth Lowrey. The new scheme, which debuted in May, centers on a vibe of relaxed elegance and honors the essence of the island with colors and textures that evoke the authentic landscape and its artistic legacy: from the basket-weave carpet design to grasscloth wallcoverings that evoke the dune grasses to ceilings painted to match the color of a Nantucket summer sky. Rest assured, design enthusiasts, there are no simplistic nods to “coastal chic” in the décor. The idea, says Lowrey, “was not to create a beachy theme that could be anywhere. Every element selected is very specific to Nantucket.”

Each of the 54 guest rooms has a slightly different feel. “There are no standard rooms,” Lowrey says. “Nothing is cookie cutter.” Paint colors were inspired by historical Nantucket hues, and furnishings nod to pieces that have been found on the island since the whaling era, including spindle chairs with modern twists. Schumacher and other designer fabrics feature ticking stripes and other classic motifs, while whimsical flourishes—brass elephant door knockers and drawer pulls—abound.

A whimsical white elephant perched in the grass is visible from the harbor.

The resort’s 11 white-trimmed, shingle-clad cottages were designed to feel as comfortable and distinct as private homes, each with its own signature vibe inspired by native plants of Nantucket, including bayberry, hydrangea, beach plum, honeysuckle, holly, marigold, rose, and snapdragon. Lowrey developed a unique color palette for each cottage—buttery yellow for Honeysuckle, lavender for Beach Plum, and pale pink for Rose—and introduced artwork inspired by the plants each cottage is named for. The cottages surround a lush grass courtyard with Arhaus furniture that beckons guests to lounge, gather, and retreat while relishing the setting and absorbing the island’s signature sounds and scents.

There are no words to describe the White Elephant’s aesthetic, says Lowrey. “It’s eccentric, eclectic, and romantic. We wanted to evoke a freshness that inspires guests to feel like being here is a release.” The idea, she continues, “is that when you walk into the lobby or your room, you’ll exhale and say ‘ahhh.’”

The renovation kicked off the resort’s new artist-in-residence program, an initiative that invites artists from all over the world to visit and absorb inspiration to create works that depict their impressions of Nantucket. In the redesigned lobby, the wall behind the reception desk features a new mural of a woman in a rowboat by Orit Fuchs. It’s been said that the woman is emblematic of Ludwig. Certainly, the hotel’s intuitive founder would be gratified to know that her legacy endures.

First published in the print edition of Boston Home’s Fall 2023 issue.