A Second Chance For Second House In Montauk

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Joan Baum

Jun 14, 2016

The keepers of livestock that grazed on the thousands of acres of “rolling plains and freshwater ponds of the Montauk peninsula” lived in one of three houses there in pre-Revolutionary days.

Second House had the distinction of being the only one whose inhabitant was in charge of sheep, cattle being the primary concern of First House—which burned down more than 100 years ago—and Third House, which survives. The keeper would ride through the pasture two and a half days a week, secure fencing, walls and gates, and oversee the separation of sheep from cattle.

Slow-forward to March 2016, when the East Hampton Town’s historical preservation consultant, Robert Hefner, presented a report on the condition of the house, which was built in 1797. The structure, which had been transformed into a museum run by the Montauk Historical Society after the town purchased it in 1968, has recently been closed as it is in need of repair.

Additions made in the 19th and 20th century by previous owners both to the house and to a nearby barn and pasture mean that Second House does not currently meet guidelines for preservation set by the National Register—the structure “does not possess the integrity to express its historic significance as the residence of livestock keepers,” Mr. Hefner said.

The shepherds—or “graziers,” as John Lyon Gardiner called them in 1798—“would not likely recognize the farmhouse they lived in,” according to his report.

Now, things are set to change. Rather than simply repairing what needs to be fixed and removing racoons living at Second House, Mr. Hefner has recommended restoring the property to its appearance in 1886, when George A. Osborne, the last keeper, was still in residence, and the town is developing plans to put the project out to bid.

The Montauk Historical Society’s president, Kathryn Nadeau, said the society was delighted with the report as well as the prospect of restoring Second House to its 19th-century incarnation. “It made a couple of us feel like we were right there … or could have been there,” she said of Mr. Hefner’s report, “and we definitely want to return back to there.”

By 1895, when Mr. Osborne left the site, the traditional use of Montauk’s pastureland by East Hampton farmers had come to an end. The restoration date will take into consideration alterations made from 1879 to 1895, when Arthur A. Benson, a businessman and avid sportsman from New York, purchased huge chunks of Montauk and made changes to Second House that included adding a wing, a porch, new and expanded rooms and a stairway.

Before Mr. Benson, there had been eight different keepers at Second House, usually young men who tended to various duties, among them some with locally familiar surnames—Parsons, Miller, Lester, Osborne and Hedges. As Mr. Hefner’s historic structure report points out, all three houses at times took in boarders, many of them tourists and sportsmen from New England, and the three houses also served thousands of soldiers returning from Cuba and Puerto Rico as well as those quartered at Camp Wikoff in Montauk.

By 1912, Second House had undergone substantial revisions under the ownership of David E. Kennedy, an asphalt manufacturer who had been living there with his family in summers since 1909. The Town of East Hampton acquired the house for $75,000—half of which came from the New York State Historical Trust—in June 1968, and the following year it opened as a museum operated by Montauk Historical Society.

Second House had a form and floor plan “typical of medium-size East Hampton farmhouses of the period,” Mr. Hefner’s report notes. “Significant interior spaces” from before 1912 do remain.

Restoration would mean removing the 1912 east addition, dormers and porch and reconstructing a lean-to and a porch dating to about 1880. As part of the restoration—a split rail fence with four tiers like the original would be built. A barn, dating to 1809 and typical of the period, is part of the plan, which also includes removing an overgrown privet and clearing a vista from the house and barn to Fort Pond, which lies to the north of Second House, which used to be called “the house at Fort Pond.”

The town has budgeted money in its capital fund toward the renovation, and Supervisor Larry Cantwell said there may be some funding from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation as well.

The restoration will be a “hugely complex” undertaking, said George Biondo, the attorney who negotiated the licensee agreement between the East Hampton Town and the Montauk Historical Society, which will oversee the active operation of the museum by way of a committee and growing cadre of dedicated volunteers.

The restoration, said Montauk Lighthouse historian Henry Osmers, will go a long way to establishing Montauk as a “multifaceted historic center,” consisting of Second House, the Montauk Lighthouse and the Montauk Indian Museum, which opened on the Second House property on May 26, 2016—all of which are managed by the historical society.

Second House is ideally situated at the gateway to downtown Montauk. “If plans hold,” said Ms. Nadeau, “construction under the direction of historical engineer Drew Bennett will begin early in 2017, and Second House will be on its way to being a place for families to go.”

It will also be, she said “a rainy day alternative and an attractive destination for groups of school kids and tourists—a great opportunity to glimpse something old-fashioned in modern times.”