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SPLIA

The 265-year-old Arthur House, located on the corner of New York Avenue and Main Street, has historic ties to Long Island’s Culper Spy Ring. Photo by Kevin Redding

A neglected, pre-Revolutionary War house on the corner of New York Avenue and Main Street in Smithtown and other historically significant structures in the area could help boost the town’s future, according to a Smithtown historian.

Smithtown scholar Corey Victoria Geske urged for Supervisor Patrick Vecchio (R) and town council members to draft a resolution to start a Town Hall National Register Historic District in the downtown area at the Aug. 8 town board meeting, which, according to her, would serve to benefit the region’s economy. 

She asked the resolution be expedited by the Town Planning Department in cooperation with the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities as well as the community.

The proposed historic district, which Geske first proposed to the board about eight months ago, would center on the town hall building — built in 1912 by St. James architect Lawrence Smith Butler — and include the 106-year-old Trinity AME Church on New York Avenue, the 105-year-old Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection on Juniper Avenue and the 265-year-old Arthur House.

The Arthur House is located at the corner of New York Avenue and Main Street in Smithtown. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Arthur House is the only Revolutionary War-era house on the Route 25A Spy Trail, Geske said, and currently sits on the grounds of the Smithtown Central School District. It’s a property she has pushed in the past to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Geske informed the board that the house, built in 1752, was once inhabited by Mary Woodhull Arthur, the daughter of Abraham Woodhull — better known as Samuel Culper Sr. — George Washington’s chief operative during the famous spy ring. The intelligence he provided helped win the American Revolution.

Her recent call for the historic district coincided with the July 27 bipartisan legislation introduced by Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) designating the Washington Spy Ring National Historic Trail. The trail runs through towns and villages in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, including Smithtown along Route 25A.

“Let Smithtown lead the way in a big way by capitalizing on its own special history and world-class architecture added to the heritage now being recognized at the state and national levels for all towns along the Route 25A Washington Spy Trail from Great Neck to Port Jefferson,” Geske said at the board meeting. “The Washington Spy Trail wouldn’t exist if not for the father of Mary Woodhull Arthur of Smithtown, a true daughter of the American Revolution.”

She also noted The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and North Shore Promotion Alliance were granted funds from the state to install signs along the trail in May.

The Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities has listed the Arthur House as endangered for more than 10 years. Photo by Kevin Redding

Geske said registering the Arthur House would be beneficial to the town as it could bring about possible grants from the state for the restoration and stabilization of old properties and promote more tourism in that area.

“The Arthur House was on the SPLIA’s endangered list over 10 years ago and it’s a building that’s been proposed for demolition,” she said. “These are the buildings that have been cast off in the past. [But] they actually could become the cornerstone for revitalizing downtown Smithtown. The history can actually bring to life a new future for downtown, it would be amazing.”

Sarah Kautz, director of preservation for SPLIA, said she hopes the town will involve its vast history into the downtown revitalization efforts. The town’s comprehensive revitalization plans came to the conclusion its historic buildings were an important component, according to Kautz, but did not provide concrete plans to address them.

“The town has never really incorporated preservation in a systematic way that would bring it into the wider plan for revitalization,” Kautz said. “The Arthur House is important because it’s an early property and is part of Smithtown’s really interesting early history going back into the 18th century. We would love to see a real clear approach for how those historic properties are going to fit into the revitalization and there’s a great potential for them to do so.”

The town board is in the process of evaluating Geske’s proposal, according to Councilman Tom McCarthy (R).

“We’ve asked the planning department to see how feasible it is … we’ll have to look at the pluses and minuses, do due diligence, but it could be a benefit to the township as a whole,” McCarthy said. “We have so much history [and] it’s very important to preserve it but now we have to look at everything surrounding it. We don’t want to shoot from the hip.”

The home of one of Bethel AME Church’s first pastors has been recently added to SPLIA’s List of Endangered Historic Places. Photo from SPLIA

By Rita J. Egan

The Eato House located in Setauket’s Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District has a chance to be restored and put to public use. The structure that is currently owned by the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Setauket was recently added to the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities List of Endangered Historic Places.

The house was once home to the Rev. David Eato, one of the church’s first pastors, and his wife Mary Baker, a freed slave. Bethel AME historian, Carlton “Hub” Edwards, said when Mary moved to the North after being freed from slavery she settled in Port Washington where she was an organist at a church. It was there that she met Eato and, after marrying, the couple moved to Setauket and the reverend became one of the first ministers of Setauket’s Bethel AME in the early 1900s. Mary took on the role of superintendent of the Sunday school and held the position until the late 1930s.

Edwards said the members of the Eato family owned the house until the church purchased it a few years ago. The historian would like to see the structure utilized to educate people about local African-American history and the influence of the Setalcott Native Americans in the area.

“I think they should do something with it because it’s one of the oldest houses here in the historical district, and I hate to see old buildings torn down,” Edwards said.

For the past few years, the church has been working with Higher Ground Intercultural and Heritage Association, a nonprofit historical group, to have the Eato House restored, according to Robert Lewis, president of the association.

“Higher Ground has a preservation interest and an intercultural interest,” Lewis said. “There is the Native American culture and African-American culture, so we were looking to create a portion of the structure for a historic interpretation study center.”

Rev. David Eato, circa 1910, was one of the first pastors of Bethel AME Setauket. Photo from SPLIA

He said the plot of land originally belonged to Richard Hawkins, who was known for setting up private sales for prospective buyers who were unable to get a loan from the bank during the Jim Crow era when African-Americans couldn’t borrow money. However, Lewis said he’s not sure if Baker had to buy the house privately from Hawkins or did obtain a loan.

Lewis said a preliminary sketch has been drawn to present to the Town of Brookhaven’s Historic District Advisory Committee, and the church had completed some work on the inside before running out of money for restoration. He said the recognition by SPLIA will help with plans to move forward.

Sarah Kautz, SPLIA preservation director, said many structures added to previous lists, which has been published every other year since 2010, have been saved and renovated. Among the success stories are the Roslyn Grist Mill and the John Coltrane Home in Dix Hills. She said the mission of the list is to raise awareness with the hope that community members will initiate conversations about what problems a structure might face and come up with ideas on how to save it.

“Each [structure] shares a broad story that is important for historic reasons, architectural reasons, and they lend an aesthetic value to communities,” Kautz said. “They’re great for tourism and a sense of place. Other than that, they really need the community to embrace them.”

Kautz said one of the reasons the home was added to the list is because it’s a significant representation of the story of African-Americans as well as freed slaves in the area.

“It’s a really important early story of home ownership of people of color, especially African-Americans in the Jim Crow era,” Kautz said. “This is before civil rights.”

She said another interesting factor is there are memories and photos that will make renovation easier.

“It has great potential to be restored,” the preservation director said. “We know a lot about it, we have a lot of photos. There is a lot of great oral history from within the community. People remember, people who spent time in the house or with their grandparents.”

She said many times buildings such as the Eato House are torn down or altered extensively, and the list can serve another purpose to those involved with older homes.

“[It shows] how homeowners and property owners can celebrate and recognize that part of their value,” Kautz said. “Rather than demolish or do inappropriate renovations that completely erase the historic character they can, instead, celebrate and recognize it.”

York Hall, formerly the recreational center of Kings Park Psychiatric Center, has deteriorated after years of vandalism and disuse. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

A historical society is holding out hope that a unique piece of Kings Park community history can be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

The Society for Preservation of Long Island Antiquities has placed York Hall, the auditorium and community center of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center, on its 2017 List of Endangered Historic Places.

Sarah Kautz, director of preservation for SPLIA, said the historic building located at the entrance of Nissequogue River State Park is in critical need of preventative maintenance and security to preserve it for future community use.

York Hall, built in 1930, was used by the psychiatric patients for recreational activities and later as a community civic center and public meeting place.

“In a place where there are some darker stories to tell, it was a place where people came together to celebrate and enjoy life,” Kautz said.

When the hospital was decommissioned in the 1990s, the property was transferred to New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Since then the building has been vacant, with the exception of trespassing ghost hunters and graffiti artists, and has fallen into disrepair.

Kautz said York Hall has signs of advanced deterioration over time. The roof is damaged, allowing rainwater to leak inside, and many of the windows and doors are damaged and spray painted.

“The interior is in very poor condition due to roof leaking, copper stripping and extensive vandalism over an extensive period of time” Kautz said. “It’s been the same cyclical and recurring concern with all the buildings of Kings Park Psychiatric Center.”

SPLIA is advocating for York Hall to be secured by sealing off the building, including boarding up the roof, and mothballed. The group is seeking a public-private partnership to rehabilitate the building. Kautz said she has reached out to the Kings Park Civic Association and Kings Park Chamber of Commerce to open avenues for collaborative discussions.

“The community still wants it to be used as a theater and civic center,” Kautz said. “It’s a great mid-sized performance space that is rare to find in this area. I think because of its history and why it was built, the community would like to see it returned to that role.”

The state launched a remediation initiative in 2012 to transform the former psychiatric center into Nissequogue River State Park. Phase one of the project, which was started in 2013, focused on demolition of 19 buildings, removal of the steam tunnels and asphalt, site restoration and reconstruction of the north boat launch to improve access to the Nissequogue River. In April 2016, phase two was announced and is currently underway to remove nine additional buildings and a segment of a 10th building, according to the state parks department’s spokesperson Randy Simons.

“We have our concerns about the wider context of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center,”  Kautz said “There’s no master plan. There’s never been a master plan which would include the former psychiatric center.”

Simons said that two former psychiatric center buildings, Buildings 130 and 132, which both served as medical staff housing, have been preserved for future adaptive reuse as the development of the park progresses.

Port Jefferson Village Center hosts traveling exhibit’s last stop

A unique barn on the North Fork with clapboard siding (wood shingles and vertical planks are the preferred sidings). Photo by Mary Ann Spencer

By Ellen Barcel

The Port Jefferson Gallery at the Port Jefferson Village Center is currently showing The Barns of the North Fork, a photographic exhibit by Mary Ann Spencer, of the disappearing agricultural heritage of Long Island.

Spencer, who was a board member of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, has long been interested in local history. The exhibit was first shown in SPLIA’s gallery in Cold Spring Harbor.

“I’ve been driving out east since I arrived here 30 years ago,” said Spencer in an interview 10 years ago when she first completed the exhibit. Originally from Wyoming, the East Setauket resident had spent several years documenting these vestiges of Long Island’s agricultural past and present. Most of the photos are from the Southold area.

An Estate Carriage House in Bayview (Jamesport). Photo by Mary Ann Spencer
An Estate Carriage House in Bayview (Jamesport). Photo by Mary Ann Spencer

Spencer became so closely associated with the history of barns that people began to recognize her not by name but as “The Barn Lady.” So, Spencer added, “My husband got me a vanity plate that says, ‘Barn Lady’.”

Now, 10 years later, when asked how many of the barns are now gone, Spencer noted, “That’s an interesting question. I have been out there (recently) and a few are gone, but not a large number. It’s a good thing to hear.”

“The exhibit was inspired by the book [of Spencer’s photos]. It represents the antiquity of the barns which are vanishing. It preserves that important history of Long Island when we were basically farmland,” said Sue Orifici, administrator of Graphic, Archival and Special Projects of the Village Center. While the book and exhibit are not intended to be a detailed history of each barn, basic information is provided such as town, approximate date if known, use and other miscellaneous information.

Noting that this is the last time that the traveling exhibit will be shown, Orifici added, “It’s a great show for cultural reasons. That’s our focus at the gallery. As you go through the exhibit [with the blown-up photos] there is information on the background, the architecture, the names of the types of barns and their purpose … It’s not just a photo essay.”

Spencer, a freelance photographer, added that while she has hung the exhibit many times, “the time that was the most fun was the State Fair in Syracuse because I’m a fan of state fairs,” another part of local history.

All of the photos in the exhibit — there are approximately 70 of them — were taken with film. So, now, 10 years later, how does Spencer feel about digital photography? “I did come into this century. My work is now digital. I started the (barn) survey in 2001, all in film. I had negatives everywhere.” The negatives were specially printed in a custom lab. “Now that I’ve gone digital I do all my own printing, matting and framing.”

A three-story estate dairy barn with a Gambrel roof in Bayview (Jamesport). Photo by Mary Ann Spencer
A three-story estate dairy barn with a Gambrel roof in Bayview (Jamesport). Photo by Mary Ann Spencer

Spencer noted that in going digital, she bought a very expensive camera, but added, “I haven’t taken a picture (digitally) that I think is as fine as film,” and that while most people can’t see the difference, “I can see the difference. There’s a depth in a print made from film,” that you just don’t see in digital images. “I used film for 40 years. To my eye it was better.” Now it’s hard to even find film in stores. “Now you have to go into the city to develop color film.”

While this is the last time she plans to show this exhibit, she still does a PowerPoint presentation on the barns. She changes the presentation based on the audience’s interests and locale. She can be reached at barns@cims.nyu.edu.

Don’t miss this exquisite show, which was partly funded by Suffolk County under the auspices of the Cultural Affairs office and the New York State Council of the Arts. It is open now through Feb. 28. A reception, which is open to the public, will be held on Friday, Jan. 15, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the PJVC. Spencer’s book, “The Barns of the North Fork” (Quantuck Lane Press, 2005), is available locally and online. She will also have copies of the book available for sale at the reception.

The Port Jefferson Village Center, 101-A East Broadway, Port Jefferson, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The center can be reached at 631-802-2160 or go to www.portjeff.com.