History

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A handwritten and hand-drawn excerpt from ‘Descriptions of Whales’ by Capt. Thomas W. Roys. Image from Whaling Museum
Mystery solved: Beware of artifacts on eBay!

The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor discovered that a recently purchased artifact, the first description of the natural history of whales, had been stolen from the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

In spring 2016, Nomi Dayan, the Whaling Museum’s executive director, received a call from the museum’s past curator and scholar, Fred Schmitt. He alerted her that a one-of-a-kind document was up for auction: the handwritten and hand-drawn “Descriptions of Whales” created by Capt. Thomas W. Roys (1816-1877).

A handwritten and hand-drawn excerpt from ‘Descriptions of Whales’ by Capt. Thomas W. Roys. Image from Whaling Museum

Considered to be the most prominent Long Island whaling captain, Roys is the American founder of the modern whaling industry. With humble beginnings as an upstate farm boy, he joined a whaling crew out of Sag Harbor as a green hand and rose to master in only eight years, devoting his life not only to hunting whales but to the scientific study of whales. Roys was an inventor of modern whaling tools — even blowing off his left hand in an experiment with the first rocket-powered harpoon and was the first American to sail through the Bering Strait as well as the first industrial whaler to discover the bowhead whale.

While commanding the Cold Spring Harbor whaleship, the Sheffield, in 1854, Roys received a query from Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury asking about his knowledge of whale species and their habits. Roys enthusiastically responded with a detailed manuscript: a 24-sheet booklet filled with pencil drawings of whale species; his observations about their size, appearance and behavior; their products; and when and where to best hunt each species.

“This is a one-of-a-kind artifact penned by a key figure in our local and national whaling history,” said Dayan. “Not only is ‘Descriptions of Whales’ a clear snapshot of the foremost scientific understanding of whales at the time, but today the manuscript is viewed as the first whale textbook.”

The museum acquired the piece at Skinner Auctioneers for $1,599. However, when Schmitt visited the museum to view the item in person, he was struck by a sense of familiarity. He had seen the piece before — 30 years ago. It fact, there was a picture of it in a biography about Roys he had authored. When Schmitt and Dayan flipped through the book to find the photo, they were puzzled to see the image was credited to the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia. Had the document once belonged to the Mariners’ Museum? Why was the piece at an auction house? And why did the item look like it was ripped out of a larger volume?

Dayan consulted with Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, director of Collections Management at the Mariners. After sleuthing through its archive collection records, Willoz-Egnor confirmed that the piece indeed did belong to the Mariners’ Museum — and it had been internally stolen and sold.

Willoz-Egnor explained how Roy’s manuscript was one of thousands of pieces systematically stolen from the institution over a six-year period by the Mariners’ archivist, Lester Weber, who sold the items on eBay. Unprocessed and uncounted collection items were raided and items were cut from scrapbooks. To cover up his actions, he rearranged the collection’s storage area, instituted a new numbering system and methodically erased donor and acquisition information.

Astoundingly, six years of rampant thievery passed until the Mariners’ Museum received a phone call in 2006 from a collector in Switzerland. He had purchased a number of the items through eBay and had become suspicious about the never-ending source of such high-quality materials. Weber’s eBay account was listed under his wife’s maiden name, Lori Childs, which never yielded any information in internet searches by the collector. However, when Childs happened to include her middle initial on a return address on one occasion, the collector was finally able to link her name online to an obituary about her mother where there was mention of Lester Weber, who worked at none other than the Mariners’ Museum.

An investigation led to Weber’s termination, who continued to sell stockpiled stolen artifacts even after his arrest. Research indicated at least 6,456 items were removed from the collection between 2000 and 2006. In 2008, Weber and Childs both pled guilty to more than two dozen counts, including theft. In 2008, Weber was sentenced to four years in prison, his wife to 15 months, and was ordered to make restitution of the $172,357 he made from the sales, even though the museum valued the stolen items at $500,000. Weber was released from prison in June 2012.

Today, 5,500 pieces remain unaccounted for, but “Descriptions of Whales” will be returning to its original home. The finding also led to the detection of several other items that had been stolen from the Mariners’ Museum and were sold in the same auction lot, including the 1776 logbook of the whaling ship, the Minerva.

Howard H. Hoege III, the president and CEO of Mariners’, stated, “It is difficult to fully express how grateful we are to The Whaling Museum & Education Center at Cold Spring Harbor for their diligence and compassion regarding the Roys manuscript. All of us at The Mariners’ Museum were incredibly proud and humbled that our fine colleagues in Cold Spring Harbor would go to the lengths that they did in an effort to make us whole.”

“Uncovering the circumstances behind this item’s whereabouts was bittersweet,” said Dayan. “It is unfortunate for our museum to lose this tremendous scholarly importance to our collection, but rewarding to do the right thing and return this object home.”

The Whaling Museum & Education Center, located at 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor, specializes in the culture and history of local maritime heritage as illustrated by the Cold Spring Harbor whaling industry of the 1850s. Learn more at www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.

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The former cottage two buildings over from the ranger’s house on West Meadow Beach has been demolished after snow earlier in the season caused the roof to cave in further than it had been. Photo by Herb Mones

While taking a walk along West Meadow Beach, something he does on a regular basis, Paul Feinberg noticed something different — one of the cottages by the ranger’s house was missing.

The Setauket resident said one day the cottage two buildings over from the ranger’s home was there, and by Feb. 16, it was gone. It’s something he is happy about. 

The only evidence was a work truck in the nearby vicinity with a sign that read: “We make things disappear.”

“That one they removed, that was just an accident waiting to happen,” Feinberg said. “When the roof caved in, that’s one thing for someone to get in there, but then the whole side of it caved in. It was just a mess.”

Town of Brookhaven attorney Annette Eaderesto said the town demolished the cottage. Snow earlier in the season further collapsed the roof, according to Eaderesto.

Feinberg said he believed Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright’s (D-Port Jefferson Station) office was instrumental in having the structure removed.

Two cottages formerly sat near the ranger’s station on West Meadow Beach. The cottage on the right was demolished Feb. 16. File photo

At a June 5 Three Village Civic Association Meeting, Cartright updated the civic association members about the town’s preliminary assessment of the four cottages at West Meadow Beach. The councilwoman said after an internal evaluation it appeared two of the cottages were dilapidated and structurally unsound, and possibly not salvageable. However, there was the potential to save a third structure and use another as an outdoor interpretive kiosk. Only four of the historic cottages that once lined the beach remained after 2004, when the town removed nearly 100 to make way for West Meadow Wetlands Reserve.

Cartright said she was following standard operating procedure and had asked for an independent engineer to assess the cottages, and the town had complied with her request.

“I wanted to make sure if these cottages are coming down that we have a report from someone outside of the town telling us that is necessary,” she said at the June 5 meeting.

At the meeting, Robert Reuter, a member of the town’s historic district advisory committee, asked that the committee be advised about any future plans regarding the cottages on the beach. Reuter said Feb. 20 he was saddened to learn about the demolition of the structure, and the committee was not notified about it.

Reuter said he wouldn’t recommend any remaining cottages be demolished, and he feels the beach structures can be preserved without spending a great deal of money. When the town renovated the ranger’s home, it cost approximately $500,000, according to Cartright. Reuter said the former summer homes were built with no basements or hard foundations, which allows water to easily wash through underneath. The structures were built to easily be closed up each year. To preserve such a home it has to be made as weather-tight as possible, according to Reuter, to keep rainwater from penetrating the structure. He would have suggested the roof be repaired and windows bordered up.

“It wouldn’t be hard if there was the commitment to do it, it wouldn’t be hard to keep them from falling down.” Reuter said. “It’s really demolition by neglect, pure and simple.”

Author Brian Kilmeade will make a stop at the Setauket Neighborhood House as part of a tour to promote his latest book ‘Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans.’

By Heidi Sutton

Fox News’ “FOX & Friends” morning show co-host Brian Kilmeade will visit the Setauket Neighborhood House, 95 Main St., Setauket on Monday, Feb. 26 from 7 to 9 p.m. to promote his latest book, “Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny.” The event is hosted by the Three Village Historical Society and will include a special book signing, lecture and Q&A.

This is Kilmeade’s fifth book and his third history-focused book with co-author Don Yaeger. The first two, “George Washington’s Secret Six” (2013) and “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates” (2015), spent a combined 37 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

“I’ve always found Andrew Jackson interesting, especially the way he led America to victory during the Battle of New Orleans,” said Kilmeade in a recent email when asked why he chose Jackson to be the topic of his new book, adding, “Jackson was a self-taught Militia General who won almost every battle he faced while suffering from bullet wounds and dysentery.”

In summarizing the book, Kilmeade said, “I like to think of the War of 1812 as a rematch of the Revolutionary War — this time without the help of the French. Before Jackson was called on to lead, the British were slaughtering the Americans on the battlefield — and it really looked like we needed a miracle. Notorious for his leadership and tenacity, Jackson led a ragtag team of frontier militiamen, French-speaking Louisianans, Cherokee and Choctaw Indians, freed slaves, and even pirates. On Jan. 8, Jackson’s troops defeated the British in under 45 minutes. In this book, you’ll learn how this oft-forgotten battle shaped America’s destiny.”

The Massapequa resident last visited the area in 2014 to promote his book on George Washington. “It was wall to wall people,” said Steve Healy, president of the Three Village Historical Society in a recent interview. “The history topic was a little closer to home. ‘George Washington’s Secret Six’ was about the Culper Spy Ring in Setauket, which always creates local interest.”

Healy said the historical society recently reached out to Kilmeade again and invited him to speak at its monthly lecture series. “We are very excited,” he said. “We love it when history is the main topic. The Battle of New Orleans was an interesting battle that propelled Andrew Jackson into the national spotlight.”

Kilmeade is looking forward to returning to Setauket. “I love the rich history and character that emanate through the unique little town,” he said.

According to the TVHS president, Kilmeade will briefly talk about his first two history-focused books and then delve into his current book. “There is a lot to discuss in the battle of New Orleans,” said Healy, adding that photos may be taken at the book signing portion of the program.

Preregistration is required by visiting www.tvhs.org as space is limited. No tickets will be sold at the door. Entry fee, which includes a copy of Kilmeade’s book to be signed, is $40 per person, $30 members. Entry to the lecture only is $10 per person, free for TVHS members. For further information, please call 631-751-3730.

FROZEN IN TIME

Margo Arceri of Strong’s Neck snapped this photo of two Betsy Ross flags flying at the grave site  of Patriots Selah and Anna Smith Strong at St. George’s Manor Cemetery in Setauket on a chilly Jan. 30. This version of the United States flag, rumored to have been created by Betsy Ross, was used from 1777 to 1795 and has 13 stripes with 13 stars in a circle all facing outward to represent a new constellation.

Send your Photo of the Week to leisure@tbrnewspapers.com.

Three Village Historical Society Archivist Karen Martin dug up some Valentine’s Day cards from the organization’s collection. To learn more about the history and manufacturer of Valentines in the U.S., the historical society suggests checking out http://www.worcesterhistory.org/blog/whitney/. The Three Village Historical Society is located at 93 North Country Road in Setauket. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Above, the museum’s George Washington portrait. Image from Vanderbilt Museum
Visitors invited to take part in museum ‘treasure hunt’

From Feb. 17 to 25 including Presidents Day, Monday, Feb. 19, visitors to the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport can view a framed oil portrait of George Washington, originally thought to have been created by the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. Stuart was widely considered one of America’s foremost portrait artists, producing portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six presidents of the United States. Stuart painted a number of Washington portraits. The most celebrated is known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796), and one large-scale version of it hangs in the East Room of the White House.

The artist’s best-known work is an unfinished portrait of Washington begun in 1796 and sometimes called “The Athenaeum.” This image of Washington’s head and shoulders is a familiar one to Americans — it has appeared for more than a century on the U.S. one-dollar bill.

The Vanderbilt’s Washington portrait, found in the basement of the Suffolk County Welfare Department in Yaphank, was restored and presented to the Vanderbilt Museum in 1951. While the artist did not sign the work, a specialist reported that year that the painting was an authentic Gilbert Stuart. In 1981, however, two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art studied the portrait and advised the board of trustees that the work was not created by Stuart. As a result, the portrait, oil on panel and measuring 21.25 by 33.5 inches, is described in the archival records as “After Gilbert Stuart.”

Guests can also view a facsimile of a letter President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City. President Lincoln wrote the letter to Wood on May 4, 1861 — two months to the day following his inauguration as president and less than one month after the start of the Civil War.

Wood (1812–1881), who built a successful shipping enterprise in New York City, served several terms in Congress and was mayor of New York for two terms, 1854–58 and 1860–62. He reached out to Lincoln shortly after the Fort Sumter attack, offering him whatever military services he, as mayor, could provide. Lincoln’s reply to Wood was in gratitude for his offer of assistance.

Excerpt:

“In the midst of my various and numerous other duties I shall consider in what way I can make your services at once available to the country, and agreeable to you —

Your Obt. [Obedient] Servant   

A. Lincoln”

Now a part of William K. Vanderbilt II’s extensive archives, the letter will be on display in the Memorial Wing, outside the Sudan Trophy Room.

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “We do not know how this letter came to be in Mr. Vanderbilt’s possession. Perhaps it was originally the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Mayor Wood, and it was passed down through the Vanderbilt family.”

Visitors can also take part in a museum “treasure hunt.” The Vanderbilt curatorial department has created an intriguing list of treasures and clues to “the presidential, the regal and the royal” on display at the museum. Guests of all ages are invited to explore the galleries and discover them. Laminated copies of the treasure list will be available for guest use.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Directions and updated details on programs and events are available at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. For further information, call 631-854-5579.

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1777 map of Setauket. “A” is the Setauket Presbyterian Church and the fort constructed around it in 1777. Image from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Following the Battle of Setauket, Loyalist Lt. Col. Richard Hewlett, who successfully defended the fort at the Presbyterian Church against 150 Continental Army soldiers under the command of Patriot Gen. Samuel Parsons, wrote a letter to New York Royal Gov. Gen. William Tryon. It was received by Tryon in Manhattan Sept. 3, 1777, detailing some of his observations concerning the battle and some of the men of Setauket whom he considered to be “villains … and traitors.”

“Sir, I take the Liberty to give You an Account of the Behaviour of some of the Inhabitants of this County when lately visited by the Rebels, that Your Excellency may have an Idea what kind of Subjects many of them are.

“Our Hospital was at some Distance from the Works — as there was not a convenient House near —When we were attack’d by the Rebels — A Party of them was sent to it — those Sick who were able, attempting to make their Escape — were fir’d at.”

Hewlett specifically named Jonathan Thompson, who was president of the Brookhaven Town Trustees (1769-76), and his son Samuel Thompson, a town commissioner (1773-74), and detailed their actions. The Thompsons lived on North Country Road in Setauket and were both officers in Patriot militias in 1775, before the British took control of Long Island. Their home is today one of most historic homes on Long Island, the Thompson House, located at 91 North Country Road, Setauket, and is now owned by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization.

Hewlett writes, “Jonathan Thompson who lives next to the Hospital, seeing which Way they ran, Call’d out to the Rebels ‘here here they run’ pointing with his Hand the Way they went. Samuel Thompson Son of the above at the same Time endeavour’d to intimidate the Inhabitants — By telling them — Our Fort had surrendered — that the Rebels intended staying two or three Days — and had a twenty Gun Ship and Number of Privateers in the Sound — Stories well calculated to prevent our having Assistance.”

The letter then describes the continuing “rebel” attitudes of many in Setauket, ending with a short report he had neglected to include in his last letter to Tryon.

Lt. Col. Richard Hewlett’s sword belt plate, circa 1778. Image from Beverly C. Tyler

“Men of this ungenerous Stamp endeavor further by the sly underhand Methods to defraud Government. Their Young Men go over to Connecticut and enter the Rebel Service while their Fathers and Friends take Mortgages on their Estates — and secure in the Oath of Fidelity — hug themselves when they think they have sav’d their Property. There is a constant Correspondence between Connecticut & this County carried on to a most daring Degree I am well convinc’d. The late Party that came over rob’d only me and my Officers Doctr. PUNDERSON & Mr. HUBBARD of our Horses — they must have been particularly pointed out to them as they made great Inquiry after a fine Horse of Captn. ALLISONs on which one of our Men made his Escape that Morning. I neglected mentioning in my late Letter what Equipment the Rebels came over in — it consisted of six Sloops, 26 Whale Boats with other small Craft.”

Hewlett reported what he had discovered about another Setauket resident. This rebel, the husband of Anna Smith Strong and a town trustee from 1767 to 1777 had just recently been replaced on the Brookhaven Town board, along with other Patriot-leaning trustees, by residents loyal to King George III.

“I have this Instant while writing the following authentic Information lodg’d against a Justice Selah Strong by a Gentleman from Connecticut — that he wrote to Genl. Parsons there were a Number of Vessels collecting Forage at Southold — Guarded by a fourteen Gun Schooner and fifty Men on Shore under the Command of Captn. Raymond — who might easily be surpris’d.

“That he secreted a Deserter three Weeks who went by the Name of BOYD — that he has repeatedly sent Intelligence to the Rebels in Connecticut of the Situation of the Troops in this Place by John and Cornelius Clark. This very Mr. Strong has pretended to be our Friend — and several Times given Information of the last nam’d Persons being over — but not untill they were gone. What Security can Government receive — while there are such Villains ready to stab her in secret.

“That Success may attend your Excellency’s Arms and all Traitors be discover’d is the sincere Wish of — Your most oblig’d humble Servt. Richard HEWLETT L.C.”

Hewlett’s letter, in the University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library, Sir Henry Clinton Papers, helps confirm Selah Strong’s activity as a spy for Gen. Washington a full year before the Culper Spy Ring began operations under Abraham Woodhull. It also ties in directly to the efforts of Benjamin Tallmadge, at the time second in command to intelligence chief Gen. Charles Scott, and to Caleb Brewster, who by this time was already carrying spy messages from Washington spy John Clark across Long Island Sound to Fairfield, Connecticut, and through Tallmadge to Washington’s headquarters. The Hewlett letter also became one of the factors that led to Strong’s arrest and imprisonment in New York City as reported by the Jan. 3, 1778, issue of Rivington’s Royalist Gazette.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

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The mural at Setauket Elementary School shows the American cannon set by Patriot’s rock to fire on the fortifications around the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Early in 1777, Queens County Loyalist troops, under the command of Loyalist Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett, took possession of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. They turned the church into a barrack and fortified the area around the building with an earthwork topped with sharpened wooden poles. They placed bundles of branches along the top of the fortification as protection from musket fire and more sharpened poles facing outward along the earthwork to repel a frontal attack. They also set swivel guns in the window openings to fire down on attackers. The resultant fort in the middle of the small settlement of Setauket was then ready to provide protection and safety for the small force of Tory troops.

The stationing of troops in Setauket was part of a British plan to provide a series of observation points on Long Island, which would keep an eye peeled for any movement of rebel troops from Connecticut that might threaten British positions on Long Island and in New York City.

On Aug. 16, 1777, Brigadier General Samuel Parsons was ordered by General Israel Putnam, to gather Continental Army troops in Connecticut, procure boats, “and such small armed or other vessels as you find necessary and proper … You are to make a descent on Long Island and deplete and destroy such parties of the enemy as are found at Huntington and Setauket.”

Parsons, born in Lyme Connecticut in 1737 and educated at Harvard, was by 1777 a veteran of two major battles. As an effective strategist under General George Washington, Parsons was familiar with the conditions on Long Island and with the plight of both the refugees who fled to Connecticut and the Americans who remained on Long Island under the rule of the British military governor.

On Aug. 21, the day before his troops were to attack the Loyalists at Setauket, Parsons issued the following order. “On the present expedition … ‘tis not to distress the helpless women or honest citizen we draw our swords, but from the noble and generous principle of maintaining the right of humanity and vindicating the liberties of freemen. The officers and soldiers are therefore most earnestly exhorted and strictly commanded to forbear all violation of personal property; not the least article is to be taken but by orders; we are to convince our enemies we despise their practices and scorn to follow their example. But should any person be so lost to all virtue and honor as to infringe this order, he or they may depend on the most exemplary punishment … and the greatest silence on the march is to be observed.”

“On the present expedition … ‘tis not to distress the helpless women or honest citizen we draw our swords.”

—General Samuel Parsons

The expedition left Fairfield Harbor that night under cover of darkness. Parsons knew that the success of the mission depended on surprise. Care was taken to avoid detection, but it was to no avail. The force was spotted from shore as it crossed the Sound and landed at Crane Neck Bend early in the morning.

The alarm was quickly spread and the Loyalist officers and men assembled at the fort. Hewlett was staying at the home of Benjamin Floyd. He arrived at the fort just ahead of the Americans. The element of surprise was gone and with it any chance of capturing the fort.

Parsons set up his cannon behind the large rock on what was then part of the Village Green. He sent a message to Hewlett demanding the surrender of the fort. Hewlett asked for a half hour to consult with his officers. Parsons said he would give them ten minutes. The reply came back, “Colonel Hewlett’s compliments to General Parsons, and is determined to defend the fort while he has a man left.”

The artillery officer was Continental Army Lieutenant Caleb Brewster, a refugee from Setauket. Parsons knew that a frontal attack would be suicide so he attempted to breach the walls of the fort with cannon fire. The two sides fired at each other for about four hours with little effect. Then Parsons, fearing that British warships on the Sound would cut off his return route to Connecticut, broke off the attack and headed back to the vessels at Crane Neck. The Patriot troops took with them some horses, blankets and other supplies belonging to the loyalists.

The attack had failed to accomplish its primary purpose, but the residents in Setauket now knew that Washington and the Continental Army had not forgotten the plight of the Patriots in enemy territory on Long Island. However, this is not the end of the story, which continues next with Hewlett, Parsons, Brewster and the Culper Spy Ring.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

The William Miller House had a new roof installed to protect the historic building. The renovation was made possible with local donations. Photo by Kevin Redding

When it comes to saving the oldest existing house in Miller Place, the community has it covered.

In its 298th year, the William Miller House on North Country Road stands stronger than ever thanks to a brand new, $18,300 roof made possible by donations from residents, local businesses and community groups. The roof’s installation, by Patchogue-based Ultimate Exteriors, began Dec. 26, 2017, and was completed the following week.

Miller Place-Mount Sinai Hisotrical Society Vice President Antoinette Donate and
historian Edna Davis Giffen show off some of the old shingles. Photo by Kevin Redding

Replacing the historic structure’s dilapidated roof has been a top priority for the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society members since 2015, when a campaign was launched to complete all needed repairs in time for the house’s 300th anniversary in 2020.

“The roof was open partially — you could see the sky when you were in the attic,” said Antoinette Donato, vice president of the historical society. “It’s so nice to know that the community supports us and understands the importance of this house, because it’s not just Mount Sinai and Miller Place history, it’s American history.”

Built in 1720, the house is the ancestral residence of the family the town was named after, and is on the National Register of Historic Places, significant for its lack of interior changes over the centuries.

Historical society members said they saw a spike in community donations in May 2017 after their goal was reported by local news outlets. On the day the story got out, a resident who wished to remain anonymous approached the society and promised to donate a dollar for every two dollars it raised. Local residents pitched in, as well as large contributors,including the Suffolk Federal Credit Union and PSEG Long Island.

“It’s so nice to know that the community supports us and understands the importance of this house, because it’s not just Mount Sinai and Miller Place history, it’s American history.”

—Antoinette Donato

According to members, the most memorable donor was 12-year-old Jack Soldano, who rushed to the society’s rescue by selling 1,000 comic books over the summer at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai. In the end, he raised more than $1,220 for the project, which, at the time he presented the check, brought the repair fund to $7,500. He said he did so because of his strong connection to the town landmark, as he and his family were regulars at its annual Postman Pete and Spooky Lantern Tour events.

“I remember when I was younger and having so much fun” he said. “I want the younger kids to be able to experience that too.”

Gerard Mannarino, treasurer of the historical society, announced the historical society reached its $18,300 goal in December, and shingles were delivered right before Christmas.

Society board member Edna Davis Giffen said she couldn’t believe her eyes as construction crews began the repair.

“We’d been talking about this for years — wanting to get this roof done — and never had the money to do it,” Giffen said. “Now, all of a sudden, here it was. And now it’s all done. It’s just so wonderful.”

The historical society hopes to tackle its second priority, restoring the house’s 16 windows, as soon as possible.

The majority of Shoreham-Wading River residents at the Feb. 13 meeting leaned toward preserving the historic Briarcliff Elementary School building. File photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Some residents see it as a magical place full of rich history and memories that deserves preservation, others consider it a tax burden that should be sold and disposed of. The future of Briarcliff Elementary School, a shuttered, early-20th century building on Tower Hill Road in Shoreham, is currently up in the air as the school district looks to community members to weigh in on potential options.

A dozen voices were heard Jan. 9 during a public forum held by Shoreham-Wading River’s board of education to decide the fate of the beloved historic school, which has sat vacant for the last three years. The nearly 27,000-square-foot manor was built in 1907, expanded on through 2007 and closed permanently in 2014 as part of the district’s restructuring plan.

David Madigan, a Tesla Science Center board member and a former Briarcliff student, pleads his case to the board as to why it should preserve the school building. Photo by Kevin Redding

Administrators made it clear during the meeting that the board has no plans for the property at this time and, due to declining enrollment throughout the district, does not foresee it will be used for instructional use anytime soon — be it a pre-K or BOCES program. Board members said it will determine the best course of action for the building based on input from the community in the coming months.

“The board will not be making any decisions tonight on the future of the Briarcliff elementary school building, we’re only listening to residential statements,” said board president Robert Rose. “We recognize the importance of input from the entire community.”

This year, the annual operating costs for the property are estimated to total $95,000, which are expensed through the district’s general fund and includes building and equipment maintenance; insurance; and utilities, according to Glen Arcuri, assistant superintendent for finances and operations.

A presentation of the pricey upkeep didn’t dissuade several residents from speaking passionately about the school’s place in the history of Shoreham, pleading with the board to neither sell nor redevelop it for condominiums, as one speaker suggested.

“It was such a wonderful place — the children loved the building,” said Bob Korchma, who taught at Briarcliff for a number of years. “To lose such a great part of our community for housing and any other endeavors would be crazy. It has such history and working there was one of the best parts of my life.”

Debbie Lutjen, a physical education teacher at the school for 10 years, echoed the sentiments, calling the building “special,” and encouraged the board to move the two-floor North Shore Public Library that is currently attached to the high school to Briarcliff.

“If we sell, it’s a one-time influx of cash and we’re never going to get it back again. I think we should work together to keep it as an asset for Shoreham-Wading River.”

—Colette Grosso

“The majority of my teaching career in the district was at the high school, and when they put the public library there, I believe it created several security problems where the general public was on school grounds during the school day,” Lutjen said, suggesting that the freed up space at the high school could be used for classrooms, a larger cafeteria, a fitness center and testing rooms.

Residents also pushed the idea to designate the building a historic landmark and pursue grants, potentially from U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), to restore it. David Kuck, whose son went to Briarcliff, said on top of making it a historic site, the district should turn it into a STEM center for students across Suffolk County, as it stands in the shadow of inventor Nikola Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe Tower.

David Madigan, a Tesla Science Center board member and a former Briarcliff student, outlined the building’s history for the board — three generations of the prominent Upham family, including a veteran of the Civil War, built and owned the school in three different phases — and urged that covenants be filed on the property that says the building could never be taken down.

“The exterior must be kept in its historic state,” Madigan said. “It’s a very valuable and historical asset for our village. And it’s the most important thing to preserve as a resident.”

Joan Jacobs, a Shoreham resident for 40 years and former teacher, explained to the board how the building was the model for the mansion in the “Madeline” children’s books by Ludwig Bemelmans, who worked at a tavern on Woodville Road.

Joan Jacobs gets emotional talking about her connection and history with Shoreham’s Briarcliff Elementary School. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s so rich and having taught there for 14 years, having a daughter go through there, there’s an awful lot there,” an emotional Jacobs said. “It’s a shame to throw away our history.”

Both Bob Sweet and Barbara Cohen, members of Shoreham Village, advocated that the school be redeveloped as a residence for seniors in the area.

“I care about this building and sorely miss when the school buses coming up the road to drop the grade schoolers off,” Sweet said. “I admonish you don’t sell the property and explore the notion of turning this into condos for retired village members.”

But Colette Grosso, a special education aide at Miller Avenue School, said she hopes the community works toward a solution where the building remains an asset within the district for educational purposes as opposed to housing.

“All-day daycare and aftercare services could be done there, and there are other organizations besides BOCES that would love to use the facility to serve special education, which is an underserved population,” Grosso said. “If we sell, it’s a one-time influx of cash and we’re never going to get it back again. I think we should work together to keep it as an asset for Shoreham-Wading River.”

Further discussions with community members on Briarcliff will occur at the next board of education meeting Feb. 13 in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m.

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