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Archive for the ‘Centerport’ Category

The elegant home at 22 Fort Salonga Road was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 as the most distinctive example of vernacular Greek Revival style architecture in the Town of Huntington.   It is one of the earliest residences in Huntington to deviate from the standard, conservative local building traditions.  The house is also a good example of the tremendous resource the internet has proven to be for historical research.

The House at 22 Fort Salonga Road

When the house was listed on the National Register three decades ago, little was known of its history.  A Historic Inventory Form for the house prepared in 1979 shows the names of previous owners:   N. Velzer, Florence Draper (1909), A. Draper (1917) and James Van Alst.  That was the extent of the historical background included in the National Register nomination.  Now with the advent of online databases, such as census records and newspaper archives, a more complete picture has emerged.  Most surprising is that all the owners identified earlier are related.  The house remained in the same family for well over a century.

Of course, census records and back issues of newspapers have been available on microfilm for years.  Now that these records are searchable, historic research is much easier and quicker.  What previously may have taken weeks of research can now be completed in a day or two.

So what does the research tell us about the house that sits proudly on a hilltop overlooking Route 25A near the head of Northport Harbor?  This:

The house was built in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, most likely for a member of the Velsor family.  In 1867, John Velsor, who was born around 1786, owned a store near the head of Northport Harbor, which was rented to Charles Ketcham.  The store is believed to date from the late eighteenth century and was described in 1867 as “the old store.”[1]  That store still stands to the east of the subject property and has been designated as a Huntington historic landmark.[2] In the 1870 census, John Velsor is identified as a farmer.

In 1840, John Velsor, presumably the same man discussed above, conveyed six acres at the head of Northport Harbor to Nelson Velsor, presumably his son.[3] Nelson was the captain of a coaster, a ship that transported cargo up and down the coast.  He was born around 1819.  He married a woman named Harriet around 1849.  Their daughter Florence was born in 1850.[4]  The deed conveys the six acres and “buildings thereon”  indicating that the subject house may have been built before 1840.

In 1871, Nelson Velsor found “a perfect skeleton” on the property.[5]   It was thought to be the remains of an Indian, which is consistent with later archeological studies conducted in the early 1960s that found evidence of native settlements in this area at the head of Northport Harbor.  In 1888, Nelson Velsor is reported to have put “a new stoop on the old store adjoining his place.”[6]

Nelson’s daughter, Florence, also known as Flora, became an admired and respected teacher in the Centerport School.[7]  In 1880, Florence Velsor married John Henry R. Draper, who had come to the United States from England as a child.  Draper worked in the wholesale hat industry.  The couple lived on Staten Island and in Brooklyn, but spent a good deal of time in Centerport as well.

After Harriet Velzer died in 1903 and Nelson Velsor three years later, The Drapers used the Centerport house as a summer home.[8]  Florence Draper died in 1916.[9]  In addition to her husband, she was survived by two children, Arthur, who would become an editor at the New York Herald Tribune, and Edith.  As early as 1917, James Van Alst was a guest at the Centerport home.[10]  Two years later he married Edith Draper.  Edith’s father lived with the couple in Centerport until his death in 1930.[11]

James Van Alst, a World War I veteran, was an architect who studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard University.  He favored Colonial and Georgian designs, perhaps inspired by the fine historical detail of the subject house.  His commissions included many public works projects throughout Long Island, especially school buildings.  Local schools designed by Van Alst include the Larkfield School, Washington Drive School, Birchwood School, Pigeon Hill School, Maple Wood School, and the Centerport School (now the Centerport Methodist Church) that replaced the schoolhouse in which his mother-in-law had taught.  He also designed Gloria Dei Church in Huntington Station, the Northport and Centerport firehouses, and the Long Island Arena in Commack.   His practice also included historic restoration projects including the restoration of the “Old House” in Cutchogue.  Van Alst served on the Huntington Historic Preservation Commission as well.

Van Alst’s architecture office was in one of the small wings of the house at 22 Fort Salonga Road.  In 1950, Van Alst moved his office to the building next door to the east. [12]  Van Alst died in 1970.[13]

By 1981, the subject property was owned by local attorney Susan O’Grady who proposed converting the two historic houses into offices and building luxury townhouses on the property between the houses and Northport Harbor.  The office conversion did not take place, but a condominium complex known as Bull Calf Landing was built.[14]

As of this writing, the Huntington Town Board is considering whether to designate the now vacant house as a historic landmark, which would protect it from demolition and inappropriate alterations.

 

[1] The Long-Islander, May 3, 1867, page 2

[2] Huntington Town Code §198-42B(53), added 1989

[3] Suffolk County Clerk’s Office Deed Liber 39, page 10; the 1865 New York State Census lists a Knelson Velsor as the child of John Velsor.  The age of this Knelson Velsor matches the Nelson Velsor in the 1850 census.  Records for the Old Northport Burying Ground list a Harriet Velsor, wife of Nelson Velsor who died in 1857.  That Harriet’s age matches with the Harriet listed as Nelson Velsor’s wife in the 1850 census.  It could be that after his wife died, Nelson Velsor lived with his parents (the residence of his daughter is not indicated).  However, Nelson is listed with a wife named Harriet in the 1870 census as well.  That Harriet Velsor died in on February 3, 1903.  It may be that Nelson remarried another woman named Harriet who was about the same age as the first Harriet; or the Harriet Velsor buried in the Old Northport Burying Ground may be unrelated to the Nelson Velsor who owned the subject property.

[4] U.S. Census, 1850, Roll M432_601; Page 53A

[5] The Long-Islander, March 16, 1871

[6] The Long-Islander, August 25, 1888

[7] The Long-Islander, October 6, 1933

[8] The Long-Islander, October 7, 1910, page 6

[9] The Long-Islander, January 21, 1916, page 6

[10] The Long-Islander, June 1, 1917, page 6

[11] The Long-Islander, May 23, 1930

[12] My Architectural Journey, by Alfred DiGiacomo, A.I.A. (Self-published, Ithaca, NY 2016), pages 7-30.

[13] The Long-Islander, April2, 1970

[14] The Long-Islander, July 2, 1981

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While you could say that historic preservation is its own reward, it is nice to have outstanding preservation projects recognized publicly.  In this spirit, Long Island’s leading historic preservation advocacy organization, the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, recently recognized several projects, organizations and individuals for outstanding preservation work.

The 2016 awards were given to

Friends of Connetquot State Park – Organization Excellence
People for the Pavilion – Organizational Excellence
Old Whaler’s Church, Sag Harbor – Project Excellence
289 East Main Street, Huntington – Project Excellence
Sands Point Lighthouse, Sands Point – Project Excellence
Mr. Jake Gorst – Huyler C. Held Award for Publications

All are worthy recipients, of course.  But the one that was most meaningful to me was the recognition of the wonderful work of Peter Moore in restoring the late eighteenth century saltbox home at 289  East Main Street, Centerport.  And not just because the house is located in the Town of Huntington.  This project is meaningful because it shows that the most important ingredient in any effort to preserve our built environment is a sympathetic owner.

All the preservation codes, deed restrictions, tax incentives, and other carrots and sticks employed to preserve our past pale in comparison to the loving efforts of a dedicated homeowner.  Most remarkable of all is that Mr. Moore had no previous experience with historic restoration projects.  But he could see value in this little house that others could not.  He saw the potential that others did not.  He made the investment of time and money that others would not.

So what did Mr. Moore see when he first visited the property?  He saw a historic house that had only been used as a summer residence since the 1920s.  The last owner, Ruth Barto, died in 2009 and bequeathed the house to the Congregational Church of Huntington, which is located at the top of the hill behind the house (there is a stairway from the house to the church affectionately called “the stairway to heaven”).  The church did not have the resources to restore the house, nor could it make any use of the building.  In her will, Mrs. Barto encouraged the church to sell the property and use the proceeds to enhance the church’s endowment.

The house had been a cherished summer retreat for most of the twentieth century.  It was purchased by two friends in 1923.  Isabella Brandow and Eunice Allen, who lived and  worked in the City, visited the house on weekends.  Ms. Allen married and died in childbirth a few years later.  Ms. Brandow bought Ms. Allen’s ownership interest in the house from her estate.  Ms. Brandow thought that like any good vacation home, the little saltbox needed a name.  When Ms. Brandow went to  a performance of Hamlet and heard the Danish prince claim “I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space” she had the name:  “The Nutshell.”

The Nutshell around 1930

The Nutshell around 1930 (photo courtesy of the Greenlawn-Centerport Historical Association).

When Ms. Brandow died in 1945, her sister Margaret Muller, a Port Director for the United Seaman’s Service, inherited the house.  She spent most of her time overseas, but spent her home leaves at The Nutshell.  Ms. Muller died in 1973 and left the house to her niece Ruth Barto, who continued to spend summers at The Nutshell, just as she had as a child.

After Mrs. Barto died in 2009, the house sat vacant for three-and-a-half years.  Mr. Moore closed on the house a week before Super Storm Sandy hit Long Island.  This is what he found when he visited the property after the storm.

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Luckily this large tree wasn’t taller or growing closer to the house or it would have destroyed the house.

 

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Rot was clearly evident.

 

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Mr. Moore, a master carpenter, was undeterred.  Over the next several months he made many trips to Old Bethpage Village Restoration to learn all he could about authentic period details that would be appropriate for the house.  He rebuilt the stone foundation, replaced rotted sills and siding, and made new moldings.  He installed a new bathroom and kitchen.  He winterized the house for the first time in its 200 year life.  The results of his work are amazing.

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Peter Moore on the restored front porch.

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Mr. Moore rents the house out.  His tenant reports that the spirit of Ruth Barto continues to inhabit the house.  I’m sure she is happy that her family’s beloved Nutshell has been given new life and that she thanks Mr. Moore for all his work.  And so should we.

 

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