Bringing Life to Greater Light
By Andrew Spencer
Photos courtesy of Beverly Hall and Nantucket Historical Association
It’s hard to have spent much time on Nantucket and have not heard of Beverly Hall. A fixture in the Nantucket portrait photography scene, Hall has been on the island since 1964. And like so many of us, her story has an unusual beginning, but a very predictable ending. “I was going to Martha’s Vineyard with a friend,” she recalled. “I’m a New York girl, and didn’t even realize that either Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket were islands. We got on the ferry in Woods Hole, and ended up in Nantucket.” In other words, Hall got on the wrong ferry, though she disagrees with that assessment. “It was the right ferry,” she says with a smile. “Serendipity led me to Nantucket. You can’t help falling in love with the island once you’re here.”
After disembarking on the island, Hall found herself at a party in Madaket, where she met her soon-to-be husband. They were married a year later—on a fishing boat, just to give the story a little more local color, as if it needed it—and Beverly Hall’s Nantucket story began in earnest.
Hall has a background in art history and had been teaching art to young children in New York City before arriving on the island, and she used that background to launch her career on Nantucket. “The lure of Nantucket’s artist colony was a powerful draw,” she said. She opened The Children’s Gallery on Old South Wharf, where she began photographing the children as they worked on projects. An avid photographer from childhood, Hall captured images that parents were drawn to. She soon became a much sought-after portrait photographer, a career that spanned over forty years.
Today, however, Hall can be found on the patio of Greater Light, the beautifully restored former home of sisters Hanna and Gertrude Monaghan. She offers visitors a glimpse into the history of the sisters and the house itself through her interpretation of Hanna.
The story of Greater Light is one that could—and, for that matter, that does—take up a book-length work. Briefly, the sisters discovered a barn at 8 Howard Street when they followed a herd of cattle up Main Street one day in 1929. They were immediately enthralled with the structure and arranged to purchase it. Together they transformed the barn into an eclectic home, decorated with a wide variety of oftentimes discarded elements. The end result was an eccentric potpourri of furnishings that, together, created a magnificent interior. It was, in a sense, a living example of an Impressionist-school painting: Taken individually, the parts seemed disjointed and out-of-place, but when viewed as a whole it was magnificent.
Greater Light was, for me, a passion that was waiting to happen
The home was donated by the sisters to the Nantucket Historical Association in 1972, and it was open to the public for several years. But the building became structurally unsound, resulting in its closure. At one point slated for demolition, then-Executive Director of the NHA Bill Tramposch, together with a group of individuals that included Beverly Hall, championed a new vision for Greater Light. The NHA worked tirelessly for two years to restore the home, which was reopened to the public in 2011. Today, the home is appointed with the same furniture and decor that was in the home when the sisters left it, serving as a perfect time capsule of Nantucket’s artist colony past.
Hall first encountered Greater Light in the 1970s and, uponentering the house, was instantly drawn to the space, just as the Monaghan sisters had been. “I immediately identified with the owners,” she said. “I felt like I’d come home. I just fell in love with the aesthetic. Walking in gave me a feeling of identity,” she recalled, trying to put into words that unnameable feeling we all know so well when we enter a space that just speaks tous on a personal level. Settling on an appropriate description, she declared, “It was like coming home.” Her eyes light up as she talks about the house, reflecting the love she has for that home. And the more she talks about it, the brighter that light shines.
Sitting in her comfortably appointed living room inside her actual Nantucket home, one can immediately understand the connection that Beverly felt to Greater Light. The garden —which rivals anything Claude Monet might have boasted at Giverny, to continue the Impressionist theme — gives way to a home out of a fairy tale. The interior is full of books, photographs, paintings, and antiques. As we sit talking, one of her cats jumps into my lap and begins to purr contentedly. Beverly and her husband David Billings are the consummate perfect hosts, making you feel as if you are the only person in the world they’d want to talk to at that moment. The whole experience, in other words, is like coming home, just like Beverly felt that first day she walked into Greater Light.
In her role as Hanna, Beverly delights visitors with a whimsical unpacking of the Greater Light’s history through a soliloquy that she delivers on the patio overlooking the garden. “I channel my inner Hanna,” she said with a laugh. “I weave a lot of island history into the performance, and education is a major component.” Examples of that local history include the island’s Quakers, a faith the Monaghan sisters practiced, as well as figures such as Maria Mitchell and Lucretia Mott. Her performance is followed by a question-and-answer session from the audience, and frequently questions lead to modifications of the performance. Recalling one such incident, Hall told me about a Nantucket student who had seen the show but couldn’t help wondering where the requisite dog-related items were on the stage to go with the story of the sisters’ dogs. Realizing that the young man was clearly attentive to details, she added a water bowl to the scenery and a line in the script that referenced the need to check on the dog who is asleep in an interior bedroom.
In the end, the presentation is a sort of gift from Hall to the audience, as she brings Hanna to life. The more you talk to her about it, the more you get a sense for the passion she feels for the home and for the woman that was Hanna Monaghan. “Greater Light was, for me, a passion that was waiting to happen,” she said. “And it’s a passion that has never waned.” That passion is reflected in her performance, too; in a sense, Hall literally becomes Hanna for the time that she is on stage. As Hall said, “I want to bring history alive for them. When you interpret history, you become that history.”
Greater Light is located at 8 Howard Street and is open daily May 25 – September 2 from 9 am – 5 pm and September 3 – November 3 from 11 am – 4 pm.
For more information about Greater Light and Beverly Hall’s performance, please visit www.nha.org or call 508-228-1894.
Article edited. Full version available in ONLY NANTUCKET Fall /Winter 2019.