Ok—so I must confess. What do I like to do most in my free time?
Yup, you guessed it—look at old buildings just like the ones I’m working on, especially old houses.
So last week, when Preservation Long Island teamed up with the Yaphank Historical Society and Suffolk County Historic Services for a “behind the scenes” peek, mid restoration, at the historic Homan-Gerard House in lovely Yaphank, Long Island, I was there!
And what could be better than this, folks, for an historic house architect? The Federal style Homan House dates to ca. 1790 (although new evidence suggests it may be as late as 1820), and restoration is underway but not completed. Walls and ceilings were opened up.
Some original finishes and fragments of wallpaper and trim from the layers of lives lived in this house (and the inhabitant’s tastes) from the past two centuries were still in evidence. Original plaster lath was showing, and some of the original paint colors, confirmed by paint analysis, had been applied to trim, in preparation for final painting.
We went to the attic and looked at original pegged beams. We climbed into the cellar, where a 21st century structural intervention was preventing the house from collapsing in on itself. What could be more exciting? This was hog heaven!
A little background: the house is owned by Suffolk County and is part of the Suffolk County Historic Trust, and for the last 65 years the house has been abandoned.
The County owns more than 200 historic properties, ranging from modest farmhouses of the Colonial era, some Gilded Age mansions from the early 20th century, and even a dude ranch from the 1930s.
With little funding for historic preservation, the County has a tough row to hoe taking care of these buildings.
So their priorities are often to stabilize them—new roof, protect the windows, stop leaks—until such time that they have the financial resources to restore them. They often look to “Friends” groups to partner with to raise funds and create programming for historic properties once restoration is completed.
For six decades at Homan House vegetation ran rampant, water found its way in through the roof, animals climbed in and made homes for themselves, and most recently Homan House looked like it might not survive.
Finally, in 2012, Suffolk County stabilized the building with a new roof and foundation work. Yaphank Historical partnered with the County and provided funding, in part, though grants from the Gerry Charitable Trust, and the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. The nearly $700,000 restoration is expected to be completed this fall.
Sarah Kautz, Preservation Director for Preservation LI, who created the “behind the scenes” program, did a quick overview of the Homan-Gerard House history outside the house, and then introduced our hosts and guides from Suffolk County—Richard Martin, Director of Historic Services—and for Yaphank Historical, President Bob Kessler and Historian Tricia Foley, who also happens to be the magazine editor, stylist and interior designer (Tricia Foley Design) famous for her all white interiors, as well as author of a multitude of popular books on home design.
On the contractor side there was Jeremiah McGiff, an historic house carpenter and antique furniture restorer, who is currently working on the house.
Our hosts took us through the house, step by step. They described where the house had been historically, what layers of its material past they are preserving and why, and what the house will be like when the restoration is finished.
Most of their restoration decisions take the house back to the early 19th century. The house will be open to the public from the first floor to the attic.
McGiff started the tour showing us an original shutter he is restoring for the exterior, and explained how he views them as he would a piece of important furniture to be restored, carefully preserving as much original material as possible, rather than replacing the shutters with new.
He also showed us original windows he restored as well as new windows where windows were completely missing.
Homan House was already in particularly bad shape when the County bought it in 1963. And then it languished for 60 years. Let’s put that in perspective: the construction of the Long Island Expressway was so long ago that most people alive today don’t even remember it being built.
At the time the LIE was being built, an access road planned for Yaphank that would’ve required demolishing Homan House was dropped from the construction program.
But the house was still scheduled to be demolished, and so it was through the efforts of SPLIA and the Yaphank Historical Society, that Homan House was ultimately acquired by Suffolk County and spared.
Preservation Long Island (then known as SPLIA—the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities) did extensive research on the house and documented it in photos in the 1960s.
This research and photo documentation proved invaluable to the restoration going on today.
The house, situated on Yaphank Avenue just a block from Yaphank’s Main Street, is adjacent to a lovely millpond that still exists, called the Lower Lake.
Like most houses of its time, Homan House is a just a few feet off the road. Pre-LIE, one can imagine how quiet it was there, in this rural outpost far from New York City. At least that’s what one might think at first.
In reality, our guides explained, Yaphank was a beehive of activity at the dawning of the Industrial Revolution. Yaphank is geographically almost the exact dead center of Long Island.
Damming a part of the Carmans River system at Yaphank created two ponds at opposite ends of the village a mile apart that provided waterpower for mills.
Soon other industries and businesses arrived and Yaphank’s residents were among Long Island’s most prosperous. They built several architecturally sophisticated houses to show off their wealth, including the Homan’s who built the first mill in the 1760s a couple of hundred feet from the house.
A later generation built the Federal style house with the high style details of the time, including taller ceilings at the first floor, elegant parlors and a dining room.
This century-long heyday ended by World War I, when the mills closed and jobs dried up. (Yip, Yip Yaphank is the title of an Irving Berlin musical revue written and first performed when he was stationed at nearby Camp Upton during WW I).
Yaphank declined and was forgotten, and its once wealthy denizens started renting out rooms in their houses to vacationing New Yorkers, looking to get away from the City.
The millponds were the draw for swimming, fishing and boating. Homan House became a boarding house. By the mid twentieth century, that endeavor had collapsed as well.
Today, the Homan mill no longer survives. Despite proximity to the LIE, the edges of the Lower Lake remain undeveloped, surrounded by a park. There are beautiful views of this pond from the house, and one can imagine that the landscape looks much like it once did, nearly two centuries ago.
We completed our outing to Homan House with a reception at Yaphank Historical’s headquarters at the Swezey-Avey House, where there are numerous exhibitions. This is another lovely historic house facing the Upper Lake that is also part of a well-loved village park.
Tricia Foley told me that she moved to the area four years ago, restored a 19th century house, sold it, and then moved to another house nearby dating from the 1970s, that she recently restored.
Mid-century Modern in all respects, it was featured in Architectural Digest online last month.
As village historian, Trish, as she is known, is an articulate and passionate spokesman for all things relating to historic Yaphank, and for old houses in general, having now added Mid-Century Modern to her repertoire (the 1970s are officially “old"!).
As to the coming completion of the Homan House restoration, and its eventual opening to the public this fall—Yip, Yip Yaphank! I can’t wait to be there when the doors open next, to see the restoration completed!