Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island, New York

The Georgian style Sylvester Manor House, built in 1737.

Sylvester Manor is a developer’s dream. The approximately 250-acre estate of woods, water, and fields is located on Shelter Island, a wealthy enclave just a quarter mile ferry ride from the Hamptons and 100 miles to the east of Manhattan. There is no telling how many millions the property could have fetched in 2006 when its then owner, Alice Fiske, died at 88. Thankfully the two men who inherited the manor, Eben Fiske Ostby and his nephew Bennett Konesni, had a bigger vision for the place.

In 1653, Nathaniel Sylvester and his teenage wife, Grizzell, moved to Shelter Island after buying it from the Manhansett Indians. Nathaniel needed a place to support the family Caribbean sugar operation. Grizzell needed to get away from the endless taunting over her name. The desolate 8,000-acre island fit the bill.

The South is chastised for its role in perpetuating the scourge of slavery in early American history–and for good reason. The vast majority of slaves lived south of the Mason Dixon Line. But the North was by no means innocent. And of the northern states, New York had more slaves than any other.

The about 20 slaves at Sylvester Manor made it one of the largest of its kind in the region. Those Africans–along with indentured servants and local Indians–provided the labor for a plantation that produced livestock, horses, and barrels. Slaves lived on the property for nearly 200 more years; the last Sylvester Manor slave was freed in 1821, just six years before New York State banned slavery and 42 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Today the only clue to their existence at Sylvester Manor is a plot of land marked by a rock that reads: Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor From 1651. The grave markers are long gone–if they existed at all–but an estimated 200 bodies are interred there.

Once Nathaniel and Grizzell died, their son Giles, by all accounts a louse, sold off half the acreage to live la vida loca in Boston’s drinking holes and gambling dens. Giles was badly in debt by the time he died, and the estate was nearly lost to his creditors upon his death. Nathaniel and Grizzell’s grandson Brinley Sylvester fought in the courts to regain 1,000 acres and is responsible for the circa 1737 Georgian mansion that still stands today near Gardiners Creek.

Just before the Civil War, Sylvester Manor transitioned to a summer retreat under the ownership of Harvard professor Eben Norton Horsford. He married into the estate-holding family and must have liked the manor a lot, because after his wife died he married her sister. Horsford, who invented baking powder, invited some of his Harvard pals for stays. One of the friends was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote a recently discovered poem to commemorate a Horsford birthday.

Horsford’s daughter Cornelia inherited the property in 1903 and embarked on an improvements campaign. She hired Lincoln Memorial designer Henry Bacon to design the Colonial Revival style addition to the manor house. Bacon also added porches and tweaked the interior layout. Cornelia’s overhaul included the redesign of the gardens.

Pixar co-founder Eben Fiske Ostby became the 10th generation owner of the estate after Alice Fiske’s 2006 death. He was not interested in assuming the throne of the mini kingdom, but he didn’t want to sell and break the family’s continuous 350-year chain of ownership either. So in 2011, Ostby teamed up with his nephew and 11th generation owner, Ostby Bennett Konesni, to found the nonprofit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

As a result a large chunk of the estate has been protected by conservation easements. Not only does the setup prevent the land from development, it also returns 83 acres to their agricultural roots. But instead of slaves and indentured servants growing food for subsistence, it’s recent college grads growing organic crops for island restaurants. The farm has become such a point of local pride that the eateries base their menus around what foodstuffs are in season at the farm. Meanwhile, a farm stand on the property sells fresh produce to the general public.

The new ownership team also has also opened up Sylvester Manor to the public with cultural events, dinners, school programs, and tours of the Manor House. (It was through the monthly summer Saturday tours that I was able to visit the property on July 18, 2015.) And before Alice Fiske died, she endowed the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts to support digs on the property to continue to tell the story of Sylvester Manor’s deep history.

For more information

Landscape historian Mac Griswold’s book “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island” is a well researched account of Sylvester Manor’s early history.

Many articles have been written about Sylvester Manor’s recent transformation.


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This original paneling in the east parlor has received two coats of paint: the original blue poking through from 1700s and a second in the 1800s.


The Dutch Delft tiles were added to the fireplace in 1908.

The French tropical wallpaper in the west parlor dates to the 1880s.


Long dead. Still frightening.

The library.

View from the back porch.



This 17th century English cannon, found buried near the manor house in the 1950s, reportedly was hidden from the Dutch during the 3rd Dutch-Anglo War.

A canoe rests along the banks of Gardiners Creek.

Privy in the garden.



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International Yacht Restoration School


Sailboats created by students at the International Yacht Restoration School.

I felt like I was trespassing. Restoration Hall at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island, is often buzzing when school is in session, but it was empty on this Saturday in early June. The only sound was the rustling of sails on the wooden sailboats neatly arranged on sawhorses in the center of the expansive hall. As I inspected the student-restored boats–each a wondrous display of craftsmanship–and walked through the shop rooms, I understood why someone would be willing to pursue an education in wooden boat construction and restoration.

Newport is an ideal spot for the IYRS. The City By the Sea was a thriving port during the colonial era, and dozens of distilleries produced rum out of the sugar cane picked up in the Caribbean as part of the infamous transatlantic slave trade. The U.S. Naval Academy temporarily moved to Newport during the Civil War, and the Navy has had a presence in Newport ever since.

Southerners first discovered Newport’s merits as a summer getaway in the 1800s, and they were followed by the rest of the American monied class. The rich brought their mega yachts and passed the summer days on the water. The New York Yacht Club has decamped to Newport each summer since its founding in 1845 and hosted the America’s Cup there from 1930 to 1983.

Established in 1993 by yacht restorer Elizabeth Meyer, marine artist John Mecray and boat designer David Pedrick, the IYRS welcomed its first Boatbuilding and Restoration Program students in 1996 in the rehabilitated Restoration Hall. Ten years later, it added a Marine Systems Program, based in nearby Bristol, Rhode Island. In 2008, the school’s second building in Newport, the ca. 1831 Aquidneck Mill, opened and houses classrooms, offices, the library, and the Museum of Yachting. The IYRS’ third program, Composites Technology, was added in 2010. And now students can received associate’s and bachelor’s degrees through a collaboration with Roger Williams University.

The Boatbuilding and Restoration is a two-year program. The first-year students learn the basics of lofting, drafting, and hull modeling. Then they pair off to restore 12 1/2 foot Beetle Cats. Second-year students take a boatyard business class, and learn more complicated lofting and joinery techniques. They also work independently on a restoration project. Sign me up.


Restoration Hall, a former electric generating station built circa 1903.



The expansive interior of Restoration Hall.


Work space in Restoration Hall.


Colorful Beetle Cats constructed by IYRS students.








I inspected sailboats awaiting restoration.


The Coronet, a 131-foot schooner built in 1885, is undergoing a slow rebuild in a temporary building adjacent to the IYRS. Though not owned directly by IYRS, graduates are invited to work on the project.




Coronet’s accessories are spread along the mezzanine.


Even the Coronet’s piano awaits the yacht’s return to the water.




Dock along the Coronet building. IYRS are encouraged to sail its fleet of vintage sailboats.



The Aquidneck Mill Building, constructed in 1831, is perpendicular to Restoration Hall. It houses IYRS administrative offices, the Museum of Yachting, and offices for marine companies

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Isaac Bell House, Newport


The Isaac Bell House in Newport, Rhode Island, in June 2015.

During the warmer months, hordes of Newport visitors converge on the Marble House and Breakers, a pair of former summer homes turned house museums now owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. The buildings exemplify the excesses of the Gilded Age with their sublime architecture, sprawling grounds, and sensational ocean views.

To get to the two Bellevue Avenue landmarks, most patrons pass the Isaac Bell House, another Preservation Society property from the same era. Unlike its comrades down Bellevue, the more modest Bell House lacks features such as gold leaf ballrooms, saltwater baths, and Japanese tea house outbuildings. Instead, it is located on garden lot set back from the avenue and blends in nicely with its leafy neighborhood setting. What it lacks in showiness, it more than makes up for in taste and superior design.

The building takes its name from its first owner, Issac Bell Jr., a member of an established New York family who made a name for himself in the cotton business. In 1879, Bell’s brother-in-law, New York World newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett, commissioned fledgling architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White to design the Newport Casino. The Shingle style playground for the East Coast hoity toity proved popular, so Bell hired the same firm to design a summer getaway for himself on a lot a few blocks away.

McKim, Mead, and White created a Shingle style masterpiece that fuses colonial, European, and Japanese elements. Completed in 1883, the three-story building is distinguished by its steeply pitched gable roofs and two conical towers. The stone and brick cladding on the lower level gives way to cedar shakes on the upper floors. Deep porches and expansive windows allow plenty of shade and opportunities to catch breezes. Soaring brick chimneys top off the building.

The imaginative design continues inside. The layout has an open floor plan, a Japanese design feature rare at the time in that part of the world. Frank Lloyd Wright would embrace this layout a few years later in his Prairie Houses, and the floor plan is a must for homes today. A fireplace with seating area with dark wood walls is located at the center of the house. Rooms with sliding doors radiate off the central hall. An intricate stained glass window is located along the central stair with an equally alluring skylight above.

Bell’s ownership of the house was brief.  He died in 1889 at the age of 42 after he served two years as the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands. New York attorney Samuel Barger rented the house while Bell was overseas, and Bargar bought it from Bell’s widow in 1891, renaming it the Edna Villa after his own wife. It remained in the Barger family until 1952. In the latter half of the 20th century, the building was used first as a nursing home and then divided into apartments. The Preservation Society of Newport purchased it in 1994 and commenced its restoration. The Bell House became a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

I first encountered the house in 2009 when I visited as part of Preservation Institute: Nantucket. Our two-day stay in Newport also included tours of the Hunter House, Marble House, Breakers, Chateur-sur-Mer, and Kingscote. All are richly furnished with not a cockeyed painting in sight. All also present a false sense of history. In contrast, the Isaac Bell has hardly any furniture, curtains, paintings, or the like; it instead is interpreted to allow its timeless design to stand for itself.

Note: Most of the photos below are from my latest visit in June 2015. Despite my request, I was not granted permission to capture interior shots during my latest visit. The Preservation Society has a backward policy that bans interior photos–unless one is part of a tour group. They claim it is to protect the interiors, but non-flash photography has no effect on historic elements, and the effect of flashes is negligible at best. If they want to be safe, they should ban flashes, but the blanket interior photography ban for amateur photographers is ridiculous. 



East facade facing Bellevue Avenue.


Even the downspout system is beautifully designed.


Deep front porch with floor to ceiling windows.



Bamboo inspired columns.




The side entry porch bottom stairs are two heights for both arrivals by carriage and foot.


Also note the dragon head canopy braces, another Japanese design inspiration.




Side entry porch and tower.


View of the building’s rear elevation.




The interior of the house is centered around the first floor firelpace, called an inglenook. Source: courtesy Gavin Ashworth/The Preservation Society of Newport County

The interior of the Bell House. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County

Bedroom. Source: Instagram user miphall

Interior from my 2009 visit.

Stained-glass ceiling detail from 2009.

Stained glass window detail. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County

Door roller detail. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County

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Six-Year Anniversary

I debuted this blog six years ago today!

My career took a big step in the past year. Since 2011, I worked as an architectural historian for a small cultural resources management in Florida. But, in January, I began work in Maryland as a preservation planner for a municipality in suburban Washington, D.C. While I remain interested in Florida’s historic resources, the move has opened a smorgasbord of new historic places to visit.

Meanwhile, this blog carries on. In the past six years, its 97 posts have been viewed 55,160 times, though about 175 of those hits were me accidentally. This is up from 2,490 hits after the first year, 6,409 after the second, 15,542 after the third, 28,204 times at the four-year mark, and 40,998 views at five years.

The most popular post this past year again was Cocoon House with 2,040 hits, bringing its all-time total to 6,713. Of the posts written in the past year, the top three most popular were:

All three places are located in Florida. My travels also took me to the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, Saratoga Race Course in New York, Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct in Pennsylvania, and Octagon House in D.C. My favorite post of the year was on the Rod and Gun Club, though it was fun to ride around on a bike in Key West to scout out the eyebrow houses.

The Gator Preservationist Facebook page, where I post my photos of old structures as well as links to preservation-related articles, is up to 244 likes, not including myself. Last year it had 188. I also still write for Curbed’s Past Lives series, which features unique multifamily rehabilitation projects. The Gator Preservationist blog content also remains available on the Field Trip smartphone app.

Until next year, thanks for reading.

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Octagon House, Washington, D.C.

The Octagon House looks like it’s about to be eaten by the AIA headquarters. Courtesy AIA

I was mesmerized by ghost stories when I was growing up. Once I exhausted the supply of ghost books from the library system, I turned to the Internet to feed my fascination. One location seemed to come up often: the Octagon House in Washington, D.C.

The story was the the building’s first owner, Colonel John Tayloe III, was a tyrant who killed not one but two of his daughters by shoving them to their deaths from the home’s grand central staircase. The building is also supposedly haunted by ringing bells, a man in black, and a lilac-loving Dolley Madison, who briefly inhabited the Octagon House with her husband, President James Madison, after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. Add it up, and the Octagon was often bestowed with the title of most haunted place in D.C.–no small feat considering the White House is a few blocks to the east.

I recently relocated from Florida to the Washington, D.C., area, so on my first foray in the city it was only fitting that my first stop be the Octagon House. The building, designed by U.S Capitol architect William Thornton and completed in 1801, is owned by the American Institute of Architects and open for free, self-guided tours from 1 to 4 on Thursdays through Saturdays.

The Octagon’s surroundings have changed quite a bit since it was completed in 1801. Then it was a castle in the newly born city. Today, it’s ancient compared to the modern glass, steel, and concrete office buildings nearby. The AIA headquarters are just behind the Octagon, and the concrete hunk of a building appears about ready to eat the much smaller Octagon House.

The Octagon House does not appear as its name implies. Yes, it does have eight sides, but they’re not equilateral. It’s still a unique example of Federal style architecture. Its importance was recognized long ago as evidenced by the AIA’s purchase of the building in 1902. Now open as a house museum, the interior is sparsely furnished so as to not detract from the restored elements. I read some of the wordy laminated sheets available in each room, but I would like to go back for a guided tour, available for $10 outside of open hours.

Oh, and about that whole Tayloe was a daughter murderer story? Completely unfounded. He did have seven daughters, but none died at the house. The AIA actively tries to set the record straight, but it’s hard to quash a story that is more than 100 years old. No word on the validity of the other reported hauntings.


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Early 1900s view. Courtesy Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)

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Boy on stairs ca. 1920. Courtesy National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)


Early 1900s interior shot. Courtesy Library of Congress

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Early 1900s interior shot. Courtesy Library of Congress


The Octagon House today.



Looking toward the main entrance.



Incredible carved fireplace.


The detail–wow!


Looking up the infamous staircase.


No ghost. Just my wife.




The minimal furniture lets the real draw stand out: the architecture.


Subtle door.


The basement was less restored.

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