Hometown History: The Tile Club visits, welcoming Port Jefferson

Hometown History: The Tile Club visits, welcoming Port Jefferson

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The Townsend House was located in Port Jefferson at the southeast corner of today’s Main and East Main streets. Photo by George B. Brainerd, photo from the Kenneth C. Brady Digital Archive

Members of the Tile Club, a group of New York City artists, arrived in Port Jefferson on Oct. 26, 1881 and spent a week in the village sketching the local scene.

The Century Magazine chronicled the artists’ Port Jefferson sojourn in “The Tile Club Ashore (February 1882),” a lighthearted narrative featuring 20 drawings.

During the Tile Club’s sojourn in Port Jefferson, they stayed at this hotel, which bears a striking resemblance to the Townsend House. Sketch by F. Hopkinson Smith, sketch from The Century Magazine

The article is actually a composite account of the cosmopolitan Tilers’ two trips to Long Island, one by tugboat in summer 1880 to an undisclosed location on the North Shore and the other by train in fall 1881 to Port Jefferson.

Blurring time and place, the story was written by Tile Club member William Laffan as if there had been a single excursion. 

Besides recounting the adventures of the Tile Club in The Century Magazine, Laffan also promoted Nassau and Suffolk as vacationlands in travel guides he had written while a passenger agent for the Long Island Rail Road.

Laffan had lauded Port Jefferson for “its sandy shore, its still woods, and its placid bay” in The New Long Island, an 1879 LIRR handbook, and continued to extoll its appeal in The Century Magazine, describing the village as a “conservative, steady-going, sensible settlement,” “rich in historical interest” and “a delightful place.”

After deboarding the train at Port Jefferson’s railroad station, the Tilers walked down a path to an inn where the kindly landlord assigned the artists “to neat and comfortable bedrooms,” charged them “astonishingly low” rates and encouraged the Tilers to make as much noise as they liked.

Although the hotel is not identified in Laffan’s article, F. Hopkinson Smith’s sketch of the establishment, The House of the Reckless Landlord, bears a striking resemblance to a vintage photograph of the Townsend House which was located on the southeast corner of today’s Main and East Main streets.

Seeking artistic inspiration in picturesque Port Jefferson, the Tilers “invaded the town in every part” and found “there were no closed doors to them.” Unearthing a “bewildering wealth of material” in the surroundings, they drew the village’s orchards, hills and valleys, sail loft, pebbly beach, shipwrecks, and residents, including “a great jovial sea-dog with a skin of leather.”

Arthur Quartley sketched A Corner by the Harbor which shows one of the shipyards that graced Port Jefferson’s waterfront during the late 19th century and Alfred Parsons portrayed one of the village’s quaint cottages in A Sea-Side Homestead.

Sketch by Arthur Quartley of a shipyard that once graced Port Jefferson’s waterfront; sketch from The Century Magazine

While the Tilers were so-named for their painted ceramic tiles, they did not limit themselves to this medium, evident in J. Alden Weir’s vibrant Port Jefferson, 1881, a pencil and watercolor on paper.

Before leaving Port Jefferson, the Tilers honored the genre painter William S. Mount by visiting his Stony Brook house, sketched by Smith in Home of the Artist, a charcoal on paper.

Published at a time when Port Jefferson was transitioning from a shipbuilding center to a vacation spot, Laffan’s article depicted the unspoiled village as a haven for artists but also as a tourist destination.

His story in the mass-circulation Century Magazine put Port Jefferson on the map and introduced its readers to the village’s beautiful countryside and harbor, inexpensive accommodations, and rail connections, but most important, to Port Jefferson’s welcoming residents.

Kenneth Brady has served as the Port Jefferson Village Historian and president of the Port Jefferson Conservancy, as well as on the boards of the Suffolk County Historical Society, Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council and Port Jefferson Historical Society. He is a longtime resident of Port Jefferson.