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Preservation Long Island

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Downtown Port Jeff circa 1906. Both original photos by Arthur S. Green. Digitized images from Preservation Long Island.

Time destroys all things. Photos fade, film degrades, buildings crumble. To stop entropy and the inevitable march of time, local historians, both local and regional, have been working to digitize a number of vintage Port Jefferson films and photos for more people to enjoy.

The Port Jefferson Train Station circa 1900. Original photos by Arthur S. Green. Digitized images from Preservation Long Island.

Cold Spring Harbor-based Preservation Long Island purchased a collection of glass slide photographs from renowned late 19th- and early 20th-century photographer Arthur S. Greene, who took photos from all over Brookhaven Town, many of which ended up on postcards and in books promoting Long Island as a tourist destination. 

It wasn’t until 2018 that Preservation LI curator Lauren Brincat said the historical nonprofit was able to place the very delicate glass slides where people could see them. The Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University supplied Preservation with a grant as part of the school’s Digitizing Local History Sources project, funded by the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. The grant brought two LIU students to Preservation’s headquarters to digitize the photographs. 

Only one problem, there was no guide or template on how one should scan something as fragile as a glass slide. Brincat said the two LIU students had to start from scratch, creating their own guides and frames for photos of different sizes, 4×6, 5×7, etc. The group covered the flatbed with Mylar and used spacers to prevent the scanner from touching the artifacts. 

It was a “tedious and labor-intensive” job, Brincat said, but the result is worth it. Hundreds of images are now stored online for anybody to peruse. 

The Port Jefferson Train Station circa 1900. Original photos by Arthur S. Green. Digitized images from Preservation Long Island.

“There are great benefits to this,” the curator said. “It prevents having to go back to the original material, which could result in breaking them, emulsion or impact on the negative which are very light sensitive.”

The collection of photographs, Brincat said, captures the Island at a different time, especially how it developed from an agricultural, rural setting into its suburban commercial-based future.

“These pictures show the introduction of electricity and the automobile,” she said. “Many of the streets were dirt roads, which is hard to imagine today.”

Other people closer to home have also set themselves to the task of digitizing Port Jefferson history, items that have helped both village residents and historians understand their roots. 

Chris Ryon, the Port Jefferson Village historian, has been working with Belle Terre historian John Hiz on numerous projects, including getting a number of donated film reels from the Childs family digitized. Ryon said Hiz was instrumental in negotiating that donation to the Port Jeff archive. 

“I just wanted to make sure they were kept in the community,” he said.

A video of Belle Terre includes reels of pergolas, things that Hiz said he’s only seen in print. Without such items, he said, historians don’t have that tangible way to look back on the locals’ past.

“It makes things come to life,” he said. “Having access is the most important thing. There’s probably tons of materials stored in people’s attics or basements, but being able to have access is critical.”

A woman and child burn leaves in a digitized film reel gathered by local historians. Video from Port Jeff Maritime Facebook page

The reels depict numerous scenes from 1928 through 1940, including of a woman in a fur coat burning leaves in Belle Terre, of parades, and even of a picnic in Montauk, among others. One reel even shows flooding in Port Jeff reminiscent of recent events from this year and last.

The reels were sent to a historical group in Chattanooga, which has digitized the reels at $15 a piece. The Port Jefferson Harbor Education & Arts Conservancy provided funds. 

“It blew my mind once I first saw it,” Ryon said. “Everyone I showed it to had the same reaction — to see it come alive is another level, another dimension.” 

The PJ historian is still waiting on five more reels to come back, which he expects will be in a few weeks. The videos are all being displayed in the public Facebook group Port Jefferson Maritime, though Ryon said he may look for some video to be posted to the Port Jefferson website. 

“Once it becomes digitized, we can send it all over the world,” Ryon said. “Everyone who wants to can see it.”

The Commerdinger home in Nesconset, as seen today, was expected in 2006 to become a living museum.

Instead of selling their property to a developer for nearly $2 million, the family of Walter S. Commerdinger, Jr. sold to Suffolk County in 2006 their property on the north side of Lake Ronkonkoma with its historic home, circa 1810, for a reported $1.2 million. The idea, said Commerdinger’s heir, Paul Albert, was to turn the site into a living museum to honor the legacy of the family, regarded as one of Nesconset’s earliest settlers.

The home, which was in pristine condition when sold, has sat vacant for more than a decade now and has been repeatedly vandalized. Despite being awarded $100,000 in grant money for repairs from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the county has allegedly not yet followed through with its end of the bargain.

The Commerdinger home in 2006, when the county purchased the site.

Both parties aim to renegotiate the agreement. 

Marie Gruick is a member of Nesconset Chamber of Commerce and she’s been helping Albert navigate the situation he’s facing with the government.

“They keep saying they’re broke,” Gruick said. “It’s been a bunch of empty promises. They just gave other communities $500,000 for a parking lot.”

The situation, though, highlights the challenges of preserving history on Long Island and in New York in general. Commerdinger Park and Marion Carll Farm, in Commack, are two examples of families hoping to preserve history with gifts of historic homes and properties to public entities. Both sites have historic homes that have fallen into a state of disrepair. 

Sara Kautz is the preservation director of Preservation Long Island. The not-for-profit organization works with Long Islanders to protect, preserve, and celebrate cultural heritage through advocacy, education, and stewardship of historic sites and collections.  The organization offers many services for free.  She said that more and more places are at risk.

John Kennedy Jr. (R) served as Nesconset’s county legislator in 2006 and helped facilitate the initial transaction for the Commerdinger site. Kennedy now serves as county comptroller and is running for county executive. His wife Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) now serves as county legislator for District 12. She said there are no new updates.

“There’s a contract that everyone is reading through, so Commerdinger can join up with Smithtown Historical Society,” Leslie Kennedy said. “But it’s all in the talk stage.”

Gruick said the park is the last green space in Nesconset and its trails stretch to Lake Ronkonkoma. If the county isn’t interested in maintaining the home, she said, they should give it back. The family formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit, W.S. Commerdinger Jr. County Park Preservation Society, in 2008 to serve as stewards for the site but have been unable to accomplish what needs to be done for the house and its buildings. They say they feel like they’re on a merry-go-round.

“How long is the county going to dangle carrots,” Gruick said. 

The most immediate task, Gruick and Albert said, is to get PSEGLI to hook up the electricity to the site, so they can install security cameras to prevent further damage and to get county water hookup. What Gruick doesn’t understand, she said, is why the county is telling them that hooking up to electricity needs to go to bid if PSEGLI is the business that connects electricity. 

The county said in response to our inquiries that the order is in with PSEG, which needs to schedule the work. They could not provide a time frame for electric hookup and could only say that the request has been in for a while. 

Albert said that he has collections of antiques, including pottery crafted in the first kiln brought to America. He had hoped to move the pieces into the site by now. Formerly a banker, Albert said that he needs a lawyer that specializes in preservation but is unsure who has that expertise.

Crolius family heirs hope to exhibit a rare pottery collection in the Commerdinger home museum.

Kathryn Curran is the executive director of the Gardiner Foundation, a philanthropic group that supports historic preservation projects for 501(c)3 organizations with an education mission, but not for schools. 

The foundation offers $5 million in grants annually and said that some projects go more smoothly than others. When a municipality owns a building, she said, they typically have a contract in place with a “friends” group to manage the property. 

“The money is allocated to the friends group, not the municipality,” she said. 

Because of the “friends” agreements with government, she said the group needs town approval for the work and the contracts it hopes to secure. For some reason, towns or government entities don’t always feel comfortable with the process.

“We’re trying to give historic educational experiences to enhance a community,” she said. “It’s a downtown revitalization gift.”

She said that local businesses benefit when these projects are completed, so she doesn’t always understand herself why governments are reluctant. She said that many people are willing to volunteer as part of a friends group. These people, she noted, are also a precious gift. 

“It appears they don’t want to be beholden to private money,” she said. 

Gruick and Albert said they are frustrated but remain hopeful. They plan to meet with officials in the Town of Smithtown in the upcoming weeks for help. 

Visitors to last year’s Long Island Apple Festival vote for Best Looking Pie. Photo by Kyle Barr

Time to bake a pie!

The humble apple will be the focus of the largest Apple Pie Baking Contest on Long Island to be held in conjunction with the 30th annual Long Island Apple Festival on Sunday, Sept. 29 at the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, 55 Old Post Road, Setauket from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Contestants will have the chance to show off their favorite family recipes and participate in an old-fashioned blue ribbon competition during the event, which is sponsored by Preservation Long Island and Homestead Arts.

Entries must be traditional apple pies only. The pie, including crust, must be homemade by amateur bakers. The registration deadline is Sept. 27. Pies must be on the contest table at the Sherwood-Jayne House by 10:30 a.m. on the day of the festival. A written recipe must be submitted with each entry including the name and address of the baker. Each contestant will receive one free Apple Festival entry. Judging will begin at 2 p.m. with prizes awarded between 3 and 4 p.m.

According to Darren St. George, director of Education and Public Programs at Preservation Long Island, this year’s contest will be judged by nine distinguished judges including Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant; Lisa Basini, founder of The Baking Coach Inc.; Chef Marc Anthony Bynum, restaurateur and owner of MB Concepts; Adam Devine, manager of Three Village Inn’s Mirabelle Restaurant & Tavern; Bernice Fehringer from Chocolate Works in Stony Brook; Chef Phil Morizio, chef and owner of Café Al Dente in Oyster Bay; Nick Acampora, president of Port Jefferson Historical Society; New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright; and Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie M. Cartright plus one lucky apple festival guest who will be selected as an honorary judge.

First-, second- and third-place winners will be announced for Best Tasting Pie. A fourth winner will be chosen for Most Beautiful Pie. The first-place winner will be invited to be a judge at next year’s Apple Pie Baking Contest. All pies, including their dishes, will be auctioned off after the winners have been announced.

For contest entry forms, please visit www.preservationlongisland.org. For more information, call 631-692-4664.

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The boarded-up house at 49 Sheep Pasture Road. Photo by Kyle Barr

The vines inch up the side of the house at 49 Sheep Pasture Road. The grass was recently mowed, but only enough to keep the shrubs and the weeds from overtaking the lawn, and a unsecured Christmas tree light strand dangles from the front porch like a loose appendage. To the right-hand side of the one-acre property is a small, gazebo-like structure where old faded paintings cover the windows in flowers, hearts and what seems to be the names of children. Inside that structure, debris is strewn about, windows are broken and the back wall is caving in.

An outside building at 49 Sheep Pasture Road is filled with debris. Photo by Kyle Barr

On Long Island, zombie homes like this are a dime a dozen tragedy, but local historians look at the home along Sheep Pasture and see an even greater misfortune, since the house has real historical significance, having been built in the pre-Revolutionary War period by the famous Tooker family, which gave the house its name. 

“It’s one of the oldest homes still on its original location in the village,” said Nick Acampora, the president of the Port Jefferson Historical Society. “We have zombie problems with the Island, of course, and if it’s a house that was built later on, that has no historical value, people are quick, let’s get it out of here. When you have a 200-year-old building, it’s a little different.”

At a May 20 village board meeting, village officials voted to have the house at 49 Sheep Pasture Road demolished, citing the general state of the building and complaints of the residents.

At the May meeting, acting Chief of Code Enforcement Fred Leute helped present a number of pictures to those who attended the meeting. This included images of needles, used alcoholic bottles and other obvious signs of vagrancy. 

The village has yet to put out bids for the demolition, and Mayor Margot Garant said the village has paused in any further action on the building while continuing to take care of the grass and state of the property, all the while hoping to see what may come out of trying to communicate with the property owner.

“I’m glad we’ve brought awareness to the property because it hasn’t been in good repair for 18 months,” Garant said. “If they can purchase it, that would be great.”

The largest issue at hand is the property is privately owned, and it does not exist on any current historic registries. The village has reached out to the current owners, Jericho-based Tab Suffolk Acquisitions LLC, with no success. 

“I don’t think anybody’s been ignoring this, it’s just been a difficulty with the owner,” the historical society president said.

In the book “The Seven Hills of Port” by the late Robert Sisler and his wife Patricia, the house is referenced as “the only 18th century house still intact today in our village sitting in its original footprint on its original foundation,” being dated back to the 1740s.

In fact, the manner in which the book, written more than three decades ago, describes the house could not be any more distinct than how the home looks now. The book references Roman numerals on the attic rafters of hand-hewn post-and-beam construction. The building also contains a beehive domed oven in the fireplace and an old coat cellar in the east end of the building and an additional 20th-century modification to the living room for hiding liquor during the prohibition era, according to the book. Additional later modifications include added dormers and a porch. The book says even the original windows exist on the building’s north face. 

“We do have a couple of houses from that time that have been moved, but this one is still on its original property,” said Catherine Quinlan, historical society trustee. 

However, comparing then to now is staggering. A number of local residents who attended the May meeting asked for the building to be razed, saying they knew it had been broken into and used by vagrants in the past.

“To have a house from the 1700s, with this kind of context, is extraordinary.”

— Steve Englebright

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said he had been in touch with both the village and historical society, adding the preservation of such a venerable home would be a top priority for him and his staff. He said there should be a chance to bring in a historical architect to verify the real historical nature of the location, and he would be working to identify funds necessary to take over the building from the current owners and creating stewardship over the building with a nonprofit.

“To have a house from the 1700s, with this kind of context, is extraordinary,” the assemblyman said.

Preservation Long Island, a nonprofit historical preservation organization, posted June 6 about the house to its Facebook page.

“Instead of a village-funded demolition, perhaps the village could fund an independent engineering assessment for a second opinion on the condition?” it reads. “Long Island’s oldest houses are surprisingly resilient thanks to old growth timber-frames and incredible craftsmanship.”

The mayor and other officials were hesitant to allow people into the building since she said the engineers who studied it had told her there was major structural defect in the building.

“We’re really concerned about people going into the premises and literally falling through the floor,” she said.

In the book, it references the owner as of 1992 when the book was written as Tony Chiarini, saying he was rewiring the house at the time. 

Acampora said he understood the position the derelict property has put the village in, and only hopes that the historical society is contacted before the building is demolished or condemned in order for them to see if they can acquire any and all historical items from the house.

“They have to answer to the folks around it,” Acampora said.

Photo courtesy of Preservation Long Island

Looking for something to do this Saturday? Why not take a step back in time and visit the historic Sherwood-Jayne House, 55 Old Post Road, East Setauket on Saturday, Oct. 6? 

Preservation Long Island will offer docent-led tours between noon and 3 p.m. Originally built around 1730 as a lean-to salt box dwelling, the house and agricultural setting were maintained as an operational farmstead for over 150 years by members of the Jayne family. In 1908, Preservation Long Island’s founder, Howard C. Sherwood, acquired the property to showcase his lifetime interest in collecting, studying and living with antiques. The house contains period furnishings and features original late-eighteenth-century hand-painted floral wall frescoes. 

Admission is $5 adults, $3 children ages 7 to 14. Tours are also offered by appointment. For more information, call 631-692-4664.

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Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Ginger Gold, no matter which apple catches your fancy, all were available to bite on as the nonprofit group Preservation Long Island, Homestead Arts and Benner’s Farm hosted the 29th annual Long Island Apple Festival Sunday, Sept. 30, at Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket.

Throughout the day, volunteers showcased how apples were used in colonial times for making applesauce, pies or cider, stuff that a man dressed as Johnny Appleseed said was “so good it will make your tongue slap your eyeballs.”

The event also included live folk music, hayrides, pony rides, games for kids, tours of the historical Sherwood-Jayne House and an apple pie baking contest.

Funds from the event went to Preservation Long Island to continue its efforts to maintain historical places like the Sherwood-Jayne property, among others.