Little could Elise Morris know that a simple neighborhood drive would put her smack dab at the forefront of an all-out war involving one of the most important African-American leaders in history. Two years ago, while taking in the sheer natural beauty of Fort Salonga, a secluded, affluent hamlet with breathtaking views of the Long Island Sound, the Northport resident stumbled upon a modest sign: “Summer Home of Booker T. Washington.”
A transplant from the segregated South, the 53-year-old was flabbergasted. “Booker T. Washington, here?” she thought. “What!?”
Though its view from the road was obscured by vegetation, Morris peered through and saw that the structure was dangerously close to the edge of a bluff. She called Huntington’s town historian, Robert C. Hughes, and learned all she could about the hidden site. Each week since then, Morris has made the winding trek up Cousins Street to the site, and reported the house’s status to Hughes. Last month, she noticed its window screens removed and replaced with plywood. She checked in again and learned that the Town of Huntington’s Historic Preservation Commission was holding a meeting the very next day regarding the house’s fate: Its owner was petitioning to have its protected historic designation stripped so it could be demolished.
The prospect has sparked a fervent grassroots movement among a growing number of local residents, preservationists and direct descendants of Washington to save the homestead, where the civil rights pioneer spent the final summers of his life until his death in 1915. Morris showed up at the June 22 meeting with a video camera.
“It would be absolutely heartbreaking, a national heartbreak, that people will find out about after the fact,” says Morris, who is trying to raise awareness about the situation. “If that house was George Washington’s house, you know it wouldn’t be sitting there boarded up and we wouldn’t be having this conversation about is it going to be torn down.”
Local businessman John Rice, principal of Indian Head Bluff, LLC, might disagree with that statement.
Rice purchased the famous home and its surrounding 1.7 acres for nearly $1.3 million in 2007 (it was designated a protected historic landmark in 2005). Now, he contends through hardship papers filed with the town that the house’s “uninhabitable” condition and the necessary remediation of its chronically eroding bluff warrants the revocation. Through his attorney Daniel K. Cahn, of Melville-based law firm Cahn & Cahn, LLP, he argues that engineering reports conducted subsequent to its purchase require the house be removed to stop the property from being swallowed by the Sound.
Rice wants to build a new, larger, retirement home on the site instead.
Morris suggests the site receive national historical status, since Washington was such a seminal national figure, and be turned into a museum or a library, for future generations. Her battle is not over a simple, dilapidated house, she explains, but rather for everything its former inhabitant stood for. But besides battling the petition, it is truly a battle against time.
Erosion has been slowly dragging the Washington house and the home of its neighbor, Glenn Treacher, into the Sound for decades. Both houses now rest precariously close to the cusp of a 60-foot cliff.
Without a joint securitization of the bluff soon, Cahn tells the Press, both properties will simply disappear.
“If the house just stays in its present location and nothing is done, eventually, it’s just a matter of when, not if, the house will begin to fall off the cliff,” he explains.
THIS OLD HOUSE
Dr. Booker T. Washington, the former slave-turned-voice of the African-American community during the late 1800s and early 1900s, spent the summers of 1911 through 1915 at the reclusive, two-story home at 30 Cousins St. in Fort Salonga. According to family descendants and local historians, he used it as a place to relax and reflect upon his busy life.
Washington founded, taught at, and presided over Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, for more than 30 years until his death. Besides being an educator, he was an author, renowned orator, civil rights trailblazer and advisor to presidents. Washington was also the first African-American invited to the White House by a president, famously invited to dinner by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.
“Just imagine him and his family being there in the summertime,” says Edith Washington Charles, a great-granddaughter of Washington, who lives in Mt. Vernon. “It was a place for him to come to relax, to get away from all his work throughout the year to keep Tuskegee going… The house is absolutely beautiful.”
Charles adds that her great-grandfather’s original plan for the plot was for it to become the future site of another learning institute, “the Tuskegee of the North.” That never happened, but Washington did have a significant presence in the community while there, and prior to moving in, according to town records: By 1908, Washington had given at least three speeches in Huntington. He worshipped at Bethel A.M.E. church on Park Avenue and also taught Sunday school there. He frequented Northport’s downtown shopping area and spoke at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, also in Northport.
But acceptance didn’t come without some bumps.
Washington bought the house and the 2.5 acres it sat on in 1911, according to an article in The New York Times dated April 2 of that year, with the property first purchased and transferred through two others before being transferred to him. Town records suggest the color of Washington’s skin played a role in the multi-handedness of the title transaction, an effort to disguise its African-American buyer.
“The series of transactions apparently intended to circumvent any prejudice from neighbors who may have attempted to block the sale,” it reads. “Reportedly, the neighbors later offered to purchase the property from Washington for $1,500 more than he paid. He refused to sell.”
Thelma Jackson-Abidally, a Northport resident and author of 2000’s African Americans in Northport, An Untold Story, says that Washington’s move to the wealthy, white neighborhood was not received with open arms by all in the community.
“They didn’t want an African-American to live there,” says Abidally, who tells the Press some of Washington’s neighbors complained about the educator’s phone lines going through their property.
Despite this, Washington’s house—and its former owner’s legacy—still stands strong in the hearts of a few. For more than 100 years the cedar-shingled house has perched high atop its bluff, hidden by brush and trees, shrouded in obscurity. It has silently weathered countless storms, several hurricanes and a parade of vandals. It has withstood the wear of time and survived at least one fire. Currently, its windows are all boarded, its doors all padlocked. Its brown and white façade is faded and worn.
Abidally, with Morris, is spearheading awareness efforts to save the Washington house and repair it. The 53-year old is recognized as almost single-handedly saving the house from potential destruction several years ago by a previous owner. “Thelma from Selma,” as she refers to herself, Abidally also grew up in the segregated South, at the epicenter of the civil rights movement—Selma, Ala. Her book put the Washington home on the map, and helped lead to the creation, she says, of the town’s first African-American Historical Designation Preservation Council.
Abidally erected the sign that caught Morris’ attention, originally paid for, she tells the Press, with her own money. Now, she hopes to save the historic homestead once again. She has recently started a group, Friends of the Booker T. Washington Home, and is circulating a petition for signatures of support. Abidally believes even the checkered reception of the house’s owner is part of its historical significance and reason for it to be saved.
“African-American history is American history and it is as important as the Scudders’ or the Vanderbilts’,” she says, referring to two of Northport’s most famous white families.
There is no question that the bluff is eroding—the Washington house was already moved once, according to Hughes, the town’s historian and secretary of its Historic Preservation Commission—by how much and what’s necessary to fix it, however, is open to interpretation. Reading Rice’s petition and its accompanying engineering report, one would think it a miracle the house doesn’t explode, barrel down the side of the bluff or infect anyone within a several mile radius, immediately.
The house is “uninhabitable and structurally unsound,” reads the petition. There are holes in the walls, water and fire damage, mold. There are cracks in floor beams, chipping paint, weather and vermin damage. There are also dead animals.
“Squirrels have died inside several closets…creating biological hazards of feces and rotting corpses,” states the report.
A soil profile, obtained, according to the report, through two geotechnical borings 60-plus feet deep, reveal clay and sand layers atop the bluff. This creates slippage and allows for the top of the slope to move, it says. The rate of erosion is exacerbated by runoff from the neighboring Indian Hills Country Club, says Cahn, which has an “unapproved drainage system.”
Town records indicate that the Town Board passed a 2003 resolution regarding the settlement of a lawsuit it brought against Indian Hills that required the club to pay $30,000 and implement remedial actions in reparation for the removal of trees. It’s unclear whether these actions, which include planting new trees near the Washington property, have ever been done.
The course’s general manager did not return a request for comment as of press time.
Currently, the west side of the Washington house sits about eight feet from the slope’s lip and several yards from a slope off its front porch. A soil stabilization and retention project in the near future is vital to stop the bluff’s erosion, the engineering report concludes.
The house must be moved to do this, they contend, to make way for the necessary equipment to remedy the problem. Retention walls must be put in and several feet of the bluff shaved down. The house can not be relocated to a different area of the property, the documents argue, and would likely be destroyed in the process if attempted. It would also be cost-prohibitive to restore the house to its original condition, they read. The stabilization and retention project is necessary and would cost at least several hundred thousand dollars, according to the papers.
The house’s dilapidated condition and the impending danger of the bluff’s erosion, Cahn tells the Press, creates a public safety hazard and an unreasonable hardship for his client.
Ultimately, he explains, it all comes down to dollars and cents.
“The bottom line is that the owner can not earn a reasonable return on the property unless he’s permitted to construct a larger dwelling,” says Cahn. “He just wants to build a house that’s in keeping with the character of other homes in the neighborhood, certainly larger than the existing house.”
Some question why Rice would have bought a property with such apparent problems in the first place, not to mention its historic designation, if he had no intention of maintaining it. “It seemed that every problem that they kept bringing up there was only one solution, and that was to tear down Booker T. Washington’s house,” says Morris.
On the contrary, Cahn insists his client had every intention of keeping with the plans of its previous owner, builder Jerry Gucciardo, who had been granted permission by the town to build additions to the residence and improve the site. Rice installed a new roof, for example. When engineering reports subsequent to its purchase revealed the deeper issues, however, Rice scrapped those plans—and stands behind the argument that he simply didn’t know how bad the situation really was, according to papers filed with the town.
“Despite the dilapidated appearance of the house, its lack of structural integrity—not to mention the failing condition of the bluffs—was not and could not have been known to the Petitioner at the time he purchased the property,” contends his petition.
Others allege he knew all along about the problems and bought the property, with its breathtaking view of the Sound, with the full intention of tearing the historic home down.
“He knew what he was buying when he bought it, and he also knew it was historic,” charges Morris. “Even looking at it with your naked eye, you can see that money needs to be spent to shore up the bluff. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
That the house is falling apart and must be removed in order to stop the erosion is also disputed. Larry Weller, a direct descendent of Juliet Cornell Brown, who built the house for her son, John Cornell Brown, who sold it to Washington, says there is no stability problem and that bulkheads can be secured without moving the house.
“That cliff has actually been stable,” says Weller, an engineer. “Even though it looks close to the house, it hasn’t changed. So the storm erosion that we’ve had over the last 100 years has not affected that west side slope of that house… That’s an incorrect assessment. That’s his engineers telling him what he told them to say. That’s not true.”
Weller adds that his family would buy the property and properly maintain the site if it were only up for sale—his ancestors once owned 800 acres of the area’s surrounding land.
A surefire way to find out the true conditions of the house is to inspect it. Cahn has refused a request for entry by the Press to do so, however, citing safety concerns. The preservation commission—the very body determining whether or not to strip the house’s designation—has also been denied access to its interior, says Jennifer Casey, the commission’s chair. She says the commission usually requires access to a site before rendering its recommendation to the Town Board and describes it as “very rare” that the group wouldn’t be given consent.
“We were in the house [in the fall] and it was in great shape when we were in there,” says Casey. “We even went below the deck and we didn’t see any rot, so, I don’t know what has changed.”
If the Washington house is sluggishly slipping, the home of Glenn Treacher, its next-door neighbor, is plummeting like a piano out of a 10-story window. Touring the perimeter of his “dream house,” which he and his wife purchased about six years ago for $1.4 million, signs of impending doom are omnipresent. The erosion here is fast and furious—more than 25 feet gone in five years, Treacher tells the Press.
A massive oasis of wooden planks and concrete slabs lies abandoned several feet down the side of his back patio, overgrown by vegetation—remnants of a part of his deck that had to be abandoned as it ripped off his porch toward the Sound. Patio stones are cracked and buckling. There are fissures in his front driveway where subterranean streams torrent during rain storms due to layers of clay, flushing his property over the cliff’s edge. The deteriorating bluff has gobbled half his deck already, and it is obviously hungry for more. Treacher installed a new fence to protect his small children from tumbling over the side.
Down on the beach, dumped chimneys and rusty pipes were tossed as makeshift bulkheads for his and Rice’s shoreline. They are the only two properties without a substantial sea wall to protect their land.
At the same time he laments the collapse of his home, Treacher reassures this reporter that he understands and fully respects the importance of trying to hold onto Washington’s old haunt. The most logical solution, as he sees it, is to move the house to another location nearby that is more accessible to the public and turn it into a museum.
And Treacher has a lot to gain from a quick resolution of the preservation dispute. His destiny, and that of his house, is tied to it. Both properties must secure their bulkheads at once, he explains, or it is pointless. His property will still get washed out to sea, he says. Treacher, a restaurateur who speaks with a thick British accent, is not naïve, but frustrated. No politician is going to want to be the one who gives the green light to destroy the home of Booker T. Washington, he tells the Press. He has thus accepted his house’s inevitable fate.
“It’s going to be a political ball of fire that’s going to bounce around,” he says. “No one’s going to want to make a decision, because no one’s going to want to say you can knock it down. And no one is willing to put up the money to save it and the land and to just turn it into a museum or a library.
“So it’s just going to go on and on till it falls off the cliff and then everyone will be not happy, but at least they won’t have had to have made the decision,” he continues. “Now, I’m not going to be happy, because I’m going to lose my house.”
The commission requested Cahn supply it with additional information regarding the feasibility of moving the Washington house to a different location while the bluff rehabilitation is done. The attorney says he is complying with the request and will present that information at the commission’s next meeting on the issue, July 27. The commission will weigh Rice’s petition and eventually make a recommendation to the Town Board, which will hold a vote to ultimately decide the issue.
Treacher stormed out of the meeting before it ended.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
As the town battle over what will happen to Booker T. Washington’s summer home rages on, the Village of Northport has been working on legislation to prevent the very same issues from happening within its borders. The new legislation would require stricter maintenance requirements for residential property owners of houses 100 years or older.
“We are very concerned about this very kind of situation,” explains Gretchen Haynes, co-chair of the historic preservation committee for the Northport Historical Society, “where a house is allowed to deteriorate and then claim hardship that it has to be demolished.”
The new code wouldn’t apply to the Washington home, however, says Haynes, since it’s in Fort Salonga, and outside the village’s jurisdiction. Yet those involved with the Washington saga still hold out hope that something will happen to prevent the home’s destruction. After all, jazz legend John Coltrane’s house in Dix Hills received national and state historical designation in 2007.
And as the word gets circulated there is the potential for more preservationists to join the cause. Alexandra Parsons Wolfe, director of preservation services for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, explains that it will be reminding the town’s Board of Trustees of the Washington house’s value and need for continued protection.
“This building should continue to be a locally designated property unless the circumstances are just so extraordinary that there’s no way to save it,” she says. “You can move any building if it’s important enough.”
Remember, Huntington’s Town Board has the final say. And at least two of its five members tell the Press they haven’t been sold just yet.
“It would really take a lot to prove to me that it’s in order to revoke the designation,” says Huntington Town Councilwoman Glenda A. Jackson. “Right now I haven’t been convinced.”
“I believe the gentleman that bought it knew that it was historic designation when he purchased it,” says Town Supervisor Frank Petrone. “Hopefully he did do an engineering study to know what his potential was going to be for any kind of an expansion or renovation. And so I don’t think the facts are any different today than the day he purchased it.
The town officials’ sentiments are sure to be welcome news to Morris, who is presently in Alabama petitioning the president of Tuskegee University for support.
“The symbolism of this [house] is great for me,” she says. “That people are recognized for what is inherent about them, not what is just apparent from the outside. And certainly, if there was anyone who was an emblem of rising to your own ability, your own heroism, I would say that Washington embodies all of that.”