Nancy Koerner: Treasuring The Old Village

by Jennifer Sexton-Riley
Nancy Koerner. Nancy Koerner.

Nancy Koerner of Chatham’s love for the Old Village is no passing affection. In fact, she fell in love with the distinctive look and feel of the uniquely picturesque and historic neighborhood as a teen, working a summer job. It was a love that would stand the test of time.

“When I was a teenager, in the summer of 1954, I had a job as a waitress and chambermaid at the inn at the corner of Main and Water Streets, where I would meet my future husband, Bill,” Koerner said.

Both families had come from New Jersey to spend their two-week vacations in what was then simply known as Chatham, not yet as the Old Village. Both families stayed at the historic Hawes House. As she became an older teen, Nancy stayed on for the whole summer as a waitress and chambermaid. The friendships she made during her summers working in the Old Village were memorable ones.

“Every year a little group of seven of us would say next year we’ll try to get a job at the Mattaquosson Hotel or at the Hawthorne or the Chatham Bars Inn, because we would make so much more money. But then we would think about what a good time we had at the inn. It was a low key job, we were off duty at 6:30 p.m., and it was such a fun job. We didn’t make much money, but we had a fun time.”

After Nancy and Bill married, they built a cottage on School Street. As time went on, Nancy said, people started to realize the unique character and charm of the Old Village. In 1997 a group of neighbors in the Old Village got together and formed an association because they wanted to preserve the neighborhood’s unique historic ambiance. That first meeting led to an application for placement in the National Registry of Historic Places.

“All of that began to focus attention on the architecture and streetscape and the general feel of the Old Village area, which we felt was unique and needed to be preserved,” Koerner said. “I became aware of it after we built our cottage — which in no way qualifies, as it’s a little two-bedroom, one-bath cottage built in the early ‘60s. It was through appreciation of the other, older buildings that I realized how special the area is, from the 400 Main building on Main Street down to the lighthouse, and encompassing that entire area. It had to be defined when we applied for placement in the registry; it had to have distinct boundaries.”

In the early days of what is now the Old Village, the residents of now-historic homes were just working people doing their jobs and living their lives. The lives of those people created the houses and street layout as they are. Today the Old Village has become a wealthy and desirable area, but it was the everyday working people who created this space, and as we walk their streets we can almost still feel them here.

The inspiration to create the Old Village Association didn’t come from any specific changes taking place in the Old Village, Koerner said. It was a more general concern about different changes being made which might alter the character of the historic area such that it could never be returned to its original state.

“It was little bits here and there,” Koerner said. “It’s not always knocking down a house. Sometimes it’s adding something onto a structure that just doesn’t go there and isn’t architecturally appropriate for the area. What we are struggling with is the people who take an old house and say they are renovating it, but actually they are rebuilding it. You end up with a mockup of a lovely architectural design from the past, but it has all the features of the present, which spoils the softness and the appeal that it had as an older building.”

Koerner said the Old Village Association wants property owners to enjoy their homes and certainly isn’t against changes and improvements being made. It’s just a matter of doing so while preserving the unique character of the building, as well as the neighborhood.

“It’s tricky to find a happy medium where people can come in and enjoy living there, find a way to modernize their bathrooms and kitchens, add patios and swimming pools if they’d like, but keep it looking the way it looked in the past,” Koerner said. “This is the challenge: how authentic do you have to be in order to preserve the feeling of a building?”

Koerner has been a member of the Old Village Association’s board of directors since 2002. She served as vice president in 2004, as president from 2005 to 2013, and has served as treasurer from 2014 to the present. She also serves on the membership committee. She is familiar to many families in the Old Village in part because she conceived of and spearheaded the annual Kids For Food drive, which she co-hosted with Lisa Green for over a decade. This favorite among summer neighborhood activities inspired families large and small to trek around the Old Village collecting food and funds for the Chatham Food Pantry. Her husband, Bill, who passed away last year, was a big help and enthusiastic supporter of Nancy’s endeavors.

“Bill and I enjoyed the Old Village a lot,” Nancy said. “He was not active on the board of directors — I was the one who was active in the Association — but he always supported me with the Kids For Food project, right down to checking the expiration dates on the donated food. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”

Koerner said her admiration for the unique architecture, charming outbuildings, narrow streets, and expansive neighborhood of the Old Village has grown throughout the years.

“I serve on the board of directors as I want to help preserve the wonderful features of the Old Village.” Koerner said. “It’s a challenge for all of us and requires the participation and attention of every property owner. I enjoy promoting this commitment with my fellow board members.”