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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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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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Five-Year Anniversary

I debuted this blog five years ago today!

In the past five years, this blog and its 87 posts have been viewed 40,998 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, and 28,204 times at the four-year mark.

The most popular post this past year again was Cocoon House with 1,847 hits, bringing its all-time total to 4,672–the most for one of my entries by about 3,000 views. (Who knew a weird looking guest house would be so popular throughout the world?) Of the posts written in the past year, the top three most popular were:

The last one was written by a friend of mine, and I hope for more guest posts in the future. I think my best entry of the year was on Derby Lane, the oldest greyhound racing track in the world. In addition to that post, I also presented on Derby Lane at the Society for Commercial Archeology Conference last month in St. Petersburg.

Gator Preservationist is no longer only accessible through Word Press. Last October, I signed a contract with Google to share much of the blog’s content on their Field Trip app.

Meanwhile, the Gator Preservationist Facebook page, where I post my photos of old structures as well as links to preservation-related articles, is up to 188 likes, not including myself. Last year it had 98. This year I have posted photos from my travels in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and throughout Florida. I also still write for Curbed’s Past Lives series, which features unique multifamily rehabilitation projects. And I’m still working as an architectural historian at a cultural resources management company in Florida.

And, in personal news, I am happy to announce that my wife and I got married in September.

Until next year, thanks for reading.

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Four-Year Anniversary

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog’s first post. For previous anniversary posts, go here, here, and here.

Last month, I did something I never did in this blog’s four years: I didn’t post an entry. Most of my research and writing is dedicated to the Past Lives series I do for, so I abandoned my goal to post at least one entry here per month. That is is not to say this blog is over. It just means the entries I do post will be of a higher quality–I hope– than if I posted monthly.

My preservation career has continued to progress in the past year. Besides writing the aforementioned Past Lives, I still work as an architectural historian for a cultural resources management company. I attended Section 4(f) and historic road trainings in November, and I presented my thesis findings at the DOCOMOMO U.S. conference last month. 

In the past three years, this blog and its 78 posts have been viewed 28,204 times, though about 150 of those hits were me  after Word Press unknowingly logged me out. This is up from 2,490 hits after the first year, 6,409 after the second, and 15,542 after the third.

The most popular post this past year again was Cocoon House with 1,220 hits, bringing its all-time total to 2,825–the most for an entry. Of the posts written in the past year, the top three most popular were:

Along with St. Pete Shuffle, Newport’s Cliff WalkNewport Casino, and Ichetucknee Springs State Park represent my best entries of the year. The busiest day was September 6, 2012, when I received 382 hits–a record for this site. The busiest month was January with 1,550, a monthly record for the site.

I continue to post links to preservation-related articles on the Gator Preservationist Facebook page, and I have started to post my own photos on that page. The page has 98 likes, not including myself.

I have trips planned this year for New Orleans and San Francisco, so I hope to post entries related to those cities. Until next year, thanks for reading.

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Sarasota School of (Commercial) Architecture

The Sarasota School of Architecture, the group of designers who adapted the International Style to Florida’s west coast beginning in the 1940s, are well known for their houses and institutional buildings. But the Sarasota School’s commercial buildings receive much less attention. It’s understandable; many of the buildings look like any other commercial building constructed after World War II, and none is in pristine condition. But a few, particularly those designed by Victor Lundy, are one-of-a-kind.

655 Plaza de Santo Domingo, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce (Pagoda Building), 1956. Victor Lundy



Pagoda Lundy

1575 Main Street (1959). Architect unknown20130311-223850.jpg

1851 Hawthorne Street (1961). Tim Seibert20130311-223910.jpg

Doctors Gardens (1957). Unknown architect20130311-223924.jpg


2051 Main Street, Lawyers Professional Building (1961). Frank Folsom Smith20130311-223946.jpg


339-361 St. Armand’s Circle (1960). Tim Seibert20130312-174707.jpg

25 S. Osprey Avenue (1957). Victor Lundy20130311-224000.jpg

261 S. Orange Avenue (1960). William Rupp

1551 Second Street. Chamber of Commerce (1969). Jack West20130311-224029.jpgs

318 S. US 301 (1949). Paul Rudolph.


I don’t think Paul Rudolph would want his name attached to this.

533 S. US 301 (1958). Victor Lundy.20130226-201300.jpg

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Century of Progress: 1933 World’s Fair Houses

The 1933 World’s Fair was held in Chicago to mark the city’s 100th anniversary and celebrate scientific advancements. Known as the Century of Progress, the fair was not as transformative as the 1893 Columbian Exposition, but it did draw 62 million people and spawned the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

The Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition focused on the dwellings of the future. The World’s Fair design committee sought homes that were affordable and easy to mass produce. Twelve homes were included, but with features such as heliports and airplane garages, few actually met the guidelines.

A couple years after the fair ended, Robert Bartlett moved one house by truck and four by barge across Lake Michigan  to Beverly Shores, Indiana, about 50 miles away. Bartlett hoped the houses would bring attention to his new, lakefront community. Bartlett’s development failed, but the houses stayed. By the 1950s, their often experimental materials were already deteriorating.

Today, the homes are within the boundaries of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. In 1993, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana placed the five, failing houses on their 10 most endangered list. Three years later the preservation nonprofit teamed up the national lakeshore to sublease the homes to preservation-minded stewards who would restore the buildings. One of the lease stipulations is that the houses must be opened to the public once a year, the third Saturday in October.

I’m a northwest Indiana native and was visiting this year when the houses were open. The homes are in differing states of repair. The Armco-Ferro and Florida Tropical houses have been painstakingly restored. The Cypress Log Cabin has also been restored, and an adjoining addition has been built. The Wieboldt-Rostone is undergoing restoration, but the House of Tomorrow awaits a lessee.

Armco-Ferro House


Armco-Ferro, right, and House of Tomorrow, left. Courtesy Library of Congress.

From the street.

From the rear. Lake Michigan is in the background.

Photo of the house before the panels were removed.

House of Tomorrow


At the fair. Courtesy University of Illinois-Chicago.

Steward needed.

Cypress Log Cabin

HABS interior documentation. Courtesy Library of Congress.

HABS interior documentation. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Original portion is to the right. Addition to the left.

Wieboldt-Rostone House


The move. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Florida Tropical House

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At the fair. Courtesy University of Illinois-Chicago.

Appears right at home on the beach, though 1,000 miles too far north.

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