An important structure in local history will be visible to the public once again.
The Roe Tavern, built circa 1703, will be moved near its original location on town-owned property on Route 25A in East Setauket. General George Washington slept at the public house on April 22, 1790. During his trip, many people believe he came to thank the Culper Spy Ring members based in Setauket.
Brookhaven’s Town Board voted unanimously to approve the purchase of the tavern from current owner Art Billadello at its July 21 meeting. The cost will be $800,000, and the town will fund the purchase with a state Dormitory Authority grant.
In a phone interview, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said he has been working on acquiring the funds for the move for two decades. The hope is that the former tavern will be open to the public for tours once it’s moved and renovated.
Billadello, who has owned the house since 2000 and is a Revolutionary War reenactor and history lecturer, will return to live in the house when it’s completed and will serve as a curator. According to Billadello, while the Roe Tavern is being renovated, he will live in another town-owned house.
At the July 21 town board meeting, Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said of the tavern, “I think it will be a tremendous part of the historic district and somewhat of an attraction.”
Englebright agreed and added that the spies helped save the revolution and exposed Benedict Arnold.
“After the revolution was over, Washington didn’t forget. He came back,” the assemblyman said. “The most poignant moment in Long Island’s history.”
He said the trip was a long one for the general.
“He spent four days to get here and go back to what was then the capital of our nation, which was in New York City, on muddy roads and difficult to travel,” Englebright said.
The Culper Spy Ring gained recognition nationwide in 2014 with the AMC series “Turn; Washington Spies.” Major Benjamin Tallmadge organized the ring led by Setauket residents Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend.
A historic marker currently marks the spot where the public house once stood on North Country Road west of Bayview Avenue. Selah Strong built the house, and after his death, it was sold to the Woodhull family, who turned around and sold it to Capt. Austin Roe. It was Roe who converted the structure into a tavern. The Culper spy became known as the Long Island Paul Revere.
According to a September 2021 article in The Village Times Herald by historian Beverly C. Tyler, “Five gentlemen and a lady — The Culper Spy Ring,” Roe would go undetected as a spy during his 110-mile round trips to Manhattan due to being a tavern owner. While in the city, he would purchase supplies, providing him cover while he delivered spy messages written in code or invisible ink. He would receive the information from Robert Townsend and return it to Abraham Woodhull.
The Roe Tavern was moved half a mile from its original location in 1936 by the owner at the time, Wallace Irwin. Billadello said Irwin thought the state would turn Route 25A into a thruway when it acquired the roadway. The house needed to be moved in sections.
While Billadello always appreciated the tavern and its history, he never imagined he would buy the house one day when one of the previous owners, Tom Cooper, was selling it. He called Billadello, but with the home sitting on more than 7 acres of property, there was no way he could afford it due to the taxes. When the owner after Cooper put the house up for sale, now on 1.17 acres, Billadello went to look at the home that was starting to deteriorate. He decided to buy it, despite him and his family living in a newly-built house, and it took a few years before he, his wife and children could move in.
As for the people who didn’t understand why he would buy the house, he would say to them, “You see it now. I see what it’s going to look like in the future. It’s a diamond in the rough to me.”
While Billadello and his family stayed in their previous home a few more years before moving into the Roe Tavern, asbestos was removed from the pipes in the basement. A new kitchen was constructed, and an electrician and plumber updated the wiring and plumbing.
Soon after Billadello bought the tavern, Englebright asked him what he was going to do with it. He told the assemblyman that he may not fully be able to restore it, but he promised he would never sell it to a private buyer. Billadello said he always wanted it to be accessible to the public one day.
Englebright said while the contract will soon be finalized, it will take a significant amount of time to move and renovate the tavern. Therefore a completion date is currently undetermined.
“A strategy will have to be worked out to choreograph all of the experts and the moving parts of this project,” Englebright said.
Renovating the structure will involve carpenters who have experience with historic buildings and moving the home will require considering what power lines are along the travel route, according to Englebright. How to avoid or navigate those lines will also need to be determined.