House & History: A North Fork Version

Written By: Catherine B.  Harper

An old joke that restorers tell goes like this: How do you make a small fortune? Start with a large fortune and buy a Victorian house.

Not that my husband Robert and I ever started with a large fortune, but our check book is certainly a ledger accounting for the debits that are the financial reality of restoration expenses. Our first home was an 1880’s oysterman’s cottage in Blue Point which was in affordably good enough condition, and where we served our apprenticeship as DIY preservationists. After a breakneck four years, we had researched, repaired, restored to the Period, and resold it for a respectable profit which we immediately reinvested in a derelict Queen Anne on the North Fork.

As every HGTV viewer knows, there are always negatives with a prewar house. Each structure presents itself at least a century distant from its original prime, with the knobs on its particular Time Machine often fixed at any number of style conflicted points: 1870’s façade, 1890’s extension, 1950’s bathroom, 1970’s kitchen. We are the Don Quixote preservationists who dream the impossible dream that it won’t take long or cost that much to restore this old house.

Just as objects in a rearview mirror are closer than they appear, in the nostalgic rearview mirror of hindsight that day seems most recent when we turned the key twenty-six years ago and stepped across the cracked threshold. The BIG question that we’re asked often is: Was it worth it?

Worth the expense? We hope so.

Worth putting in decades of the preferential treatment of home over personal interests? That is not as simply answered.

I’ve always thought that being involved in a noble pursuit is largely its own reward, and that preservation is an undertaking of ultimately national significance. Every home restored to its “birth” time is a brick in the grand façade that is our collective heritage of American architecture and even society itself. When one of these metaphoric bricks is chiseled out and cast away (as when a vintage home is razed), the greater structure is weakened. When too many bricks are lost, the façade’s very integrity is threatened, and we lose our sense of unique history and become a people without a past, old dwellings being one of the physical turnkeys to knowing who we once were as a people.

My streetscape is a narrative of local history, beginning about a mile down the road where Native Americans settled some three millennia ago. There they fished, hunted, commerced with tribes up and down the Atlantic coast, and minted the gold standard of Algonquian currency: Corchaug wampum. The remains of their walled fortification are now surrounded by fifty-one National Landmark protected acres. In the stillness of suspended Time, the tribe’s abandoned arrowheads languish with quahogs along the creek, vainly awaiting their return.

Across the street from our house on the northeast corner stands a pre-Revolutionary home. Like most extant houses of that time, the tiny farmhouse is a single story tall and was heated by a pair of fireplaces. With George Washington’s 1776 defeat in the Battle of Long Island, the subsequent seven years’ British occupation and the ensuing period of reconstruction, it wasn’t until the 1820’s that family fortunes improved sufficiently to add on a two story “Federal half-house.” As I walk closer to our house and pass this old-and-older union of antique structures, I am reminded that memory lane becomes an historic highway when marked by these signposts from the past. That very front door was once bolted against enemy Redcoats. Those small paned windows witnessed the Corchaug exodus.

The LIRR completed its Greenport station in 1844 and provided the North Fork with a commercial bonanza by connecting local produce with NYC consumers, as well as inviting the inevitable mixed blessing: the East End Day Tripper. But there were among them The Smitten. They came, they saw, they settled. They also brought along the architectural style of the prosperous new day: the Italianate, a bracketed mansionette whose stove made the fireplace obsolete. There stands a fashionable Italianate on either side of our home. Both have original six over six windows and the classic colonnaded front porch.

The first owner of the Italianate to our west was the Town’s last survivor of the Civil War. We have a circa 1900 photograph of him posing with his cornet band, seventeen mustachioed men in uniform, he, the bandmaster, the eldest, his trim white beard ending just below his gold braided collar. I can imagine him once holding a bayonet instead of the baton in the photo, I can read on his darkened brow the emotional legacy of the War Between the States, I can tell by his bearing that he was a neighbor to be proud of.

I’d also like to think he extended a fatherly hand to the young plumber and his wife, both twenty-five, who built their house — our house — next to his. Their photo portraits hang in our dining room. Annie’s high collar is edged with lace, her hair in a tight chignon with a crest of curls above her eyebrows. Her husband’s long face is clean shaven, his shirt collar a stiff looking band above his suit and high buttoned vest.

When they lived in this house, the stained glass windows on the east side colorized the morning light. Faceted glass knobs ensured a good grip when opening a door. The eight-sided tower rising from the front parlor through the upstairs bedroom and into the attic offered clear views of the kettle lake across the street. The stained glass windows still delight passersby when illuminated at night. The escutcheons on the glass knobs have pleasingly patinated over the years. The attic tower burned away in a 1948 fire, and there is little view anymore with all the tall trees thickly ensconcing the lake. We had to skim coat the parlor and dining room walls and ceilings after a previous owner dealt with the cracked plaster by applying a spiky layer of stucco; Period appropriate reproduction wallpapers embellish the walls and ceilings now. The pocket doors were removed to the barn without their suspension mechanism, probably by the same unenlightened owner who stuccoed the walls; voided velvet Victorian portieres now drape in their place. There is still enough here so that if Annie and her husband ever returned, they would easily recognize our home as theirs.

How relevant is the dimension of Time when you can step into pretty much the same scene vacated by others just a minute ago or a century ago? Sometimes when I descend the front stairway, I think of a marriage that took place in another “now” but this very same “where.” One Saturday in the summer of 1926, Annie’s daughter Charlotte (born in an upstairs bedroom) descended these stairs, the balusters entwined with ribbons and pink roses, the air redolent with their fragrance. Gowned in traditional white satin with tulle and carrying a bouquet of white roses and lilies-of-the-valley, she stepped in time to the wedding march played by a family friend and paused at the walnut newel post where her father waited. Arm in arm, they entered the front parlor. Her older brother Ffarrington was the best man, looking sharp in his dark suit against all the pink and white decorations. After Rev. Mr. Rees pronounced the couple man and wife, well-wishers entered the dining room where the stained glass window splashed joyous colors across the bridal table. If I squint, I can envision the gathered guests in their Roaring Twenties best. Some say that when you spend too much time looking back you lose the present. But I say that when you spend time looking back, you find the present enriched by nuances of events that resonate across the scores of years.

Winston Churchill once reflected, “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” Our house and we, its stewards, are all in fine shape now. To finally answer that earlier question of worth, in our efforts to repoint this small metaphoric brick in the aforementioned grand façade that is our collective heritage of American architecture and even society itself, we have securely mortared our home’s significance in the historic corridor of our neighborhood. The preservation process has much to do with life’s journey and we have accumulated many cherished souvenirs along the way — stories, experiences, new friends, like-minded contacts, a home worthy of its local landmark designation.

An optometrist would assert that our eyes see only what is directly before us and no farther than the periphery. But with a preservationist’s lenses, we perceive beyond the present, discerning a more complete inner vision of the ties of Time that tether our heritage to our historic homes. And the worth of such a bond is inestimable.