Early nineteen-century Baptist ministers Marmaduke Earle and Charles Wightman, former residents of what later came to be known as the Earle-Wightman House, would probably commend today’s Oyster Bay Historical Society for its stubborn refusal to give up on plans to renovate the crumbling home, a town landmark.
Built around 1720, the home, at 20 Summit St. in Oyster Bay, is one of the oldest surviving houses on Long Island. The appearance of its east wall has, however, been anything but the pride of Oyster Bay. This side of the building, which faces the neighboring Italian American Club, is covered in tattered plastic tarps, which were put up to protect the deteriorating structure from the elements.
Visitors pass this portion of the house when they follow the path leading to the Angela Koenig building, where the society holds exhibitions and lectures year-round. If they were alive, Earle and Wightman would more than likely be ashamed of the conditions at their former home.
Philip Blocklyn, the society’s executive director, has been trying to repair the house for more than two years.
“The plastic is serving as weatherproofing, and storms have torn it up, but there has been no damage,” Blocklyn said. “But in the long-run, the exterior wall is not sustainable. The town has owned the house for over 50 years.”
Blocklyn was relieved when renovations began last week. “I spoke to Supervisor Saladino directly several months ago about the building,” he said. “He is engaged in historic preservation.”
Saladino said he’s happy to be able to help. “I love antiquity and am thrilled to be a part of this,” he said. “Oyster Bay is where the spies lived, and there are so many historical aspects of this town. The Oyster Bay Historical Society does such a good job of maintaining and making sure the public is able to see all the history that is right here.”
The needed repairs included the replacement of cedar shake shingles, and the four windows required work too, although initially no one was certain how much.
Charles Doering, who has lived his entire life in Oyster Bay, is working on the house now. A master carpenter, he is experienced with restoring old homes having refurbished homes built in the 1700s in East Hampton. He’s also worked on Victorian homes in Sea Cliff, which he admires.
“The repairs are going to take a long time,” he said, removing a piece of the molding on one of the lower windows. “These windows were repaired in the past amateurishly. I have to dig out all of the putty that petrified.”
Doering, has volunteered his services and is cognizant of maintaining the historical character of the home. He realizes there will be challenges.
“I’m doing this with today’s tools as an 1880s carpenter,” he said. “There were no building codes in the 1800s or foundations like there is today.”
Some of the difficulties at the Wightman home are redressing the repairs done in July 2015, performed by volunteers who had been recommended by a society board member. That’s when the original 30-inch shingles, which are no longer manufactured, were removed and thrown away. “The repairs kind of backfired,” said Blocklyn. “They replaced anything that they removed with substandard materials.”
Fifteen bundles of 24-inch fireproof cedar shake shingles have been donated by the town, the same shingles that are on the back of the house. “The town has many historic buildings, and we had some shingles in house,” Saladino explained, adding that acquiring shingles has changed quite a bit since the Wightman home was built. “There were no Home Depots back in the 1800s.”
Blocklyn said the shingles will look a bit different from the shingles on the front of the house, but he’s hoping that with a fresh coat of paint on the entire house it will not be too noticeable. “It’s not exactly what is on the building now but it is the best that can be done under the circumstance,” he explained.
On Wednesday, the replacement shingles from 2015 were removed by town workers. Blocklyn is relieved that the house does not appear to be in as bad shape as he had feared. “Some of the issues people worried about aren’t there,” Blocklyn said. “Some of the plywood needs to be replaced, which we have on hand, but the two upstairs windows are fine.”
And although the framing needs replaced on the lower windows, the actual windows can remain, he added.
Doering is continuing his work on the windows. “There are at least five coats of paint around the windows,” he said. “They never sanded or did any prep work on them — they just painted over the other coat of paint. It’s pealing in sheets.”
He’s re-caulking the window frames, removing the old paint and will prime and then paint. After new shingles are up, and work on the windows is done, he will put up the shutters. He projects that his part of the restoration will be complete by late August.
As for Blocklyn, he’s heartened by the progress that has been made. It’s important for the work to be completed, he said.
“People like the house and they like to sit in the garden,” he said. “It’s a public space so children play in the yard and people stop by to have lunch here.”