Residents from throughout Suffolk County attended a public hearing last week, poised to fight to save a house said to be historically significant to African-American history in Southampton Village.
Located at 51 Pond Lane, the house is currently owned by David and Silvia Hermer, who want to demolish several structures on their property for a new, single-family, two-story home. Many believe the house was previously inhabited by Pyrrhus Concer, an African-American slave born in 1814. Long considered an integral part of both Southampton and local black history, Concer was freed and went on several whaling expeditions. During one expedition, on a boat captained by Mercator Cooper, he became one of the first Americans—and the first African-American—to dock in Japan.
While it is clear to members of the Southampton Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board that a house inhabited by Mr. Concer would be a historically significant property—and would merit an investigation into whether it should be given historical status—there is some question as to whether he actually lived in the house, or if he lived in a house previously demolished on the same property.
“This is a house that has no architectural interests in and of itself,” attorney for the applicants Eric Bregman said during the meeting. “The historic interest of this property is in the place, not in the house.”
Concer is a prominent figure in Southampton history, according to Sally Spanburgh, a Southampton Village resident and preservationist. The whaling boat he was on rescued Japanese sailors in distress, docking in Tokyo, and upon returning to Southampton, Concer launched the Lake Agawam ferry service.
According to Mr. Bregman, the house was more than likely built after 1900, after Concer died. Mr. Bregman said the house has been viewed by several consultants and architects and is consistent with turn-of-the-century construction, materials and design. He added that there is no historical association with the house itself, which has never been included on any past registries of historical or potentially historical buildings in the village.
Even so, Mr. Bregman said the owners appreciate the significance of the property and are willing to work with the village to commemorate Concer on the grounds. Mr. Bregman said the family is willing to consider a plaque, or any other memorial the village would suggest.
At the meeting, Ms. Spanburgh disagreed that the house was built after Pyrrhus Concer’s death. She said it was purchased from Concer by an attorney and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elihu Root, who, having owned several other homes in the area, would not have built such a small home.
“He would have surely replaced it with something more in keeping with their tastes and the times,” Ms. Spanburgh said. “They would not have kept it as such a modest structure unless they knew of Pyrrhus’s prominence.”
Lucius Ware, the president of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said last week that Mr. Concer’s legacy should be allowed to live on in Southampton. The house should be purchased and preserved, he said, and a museum should be considered.
“We are here looking at something that would demolish history—it would demolish history,” he said. “We should be sitting here tonight talking about how we are going to maintain that house. I implore you to take a great look in that direction, because there is an opportunity here that should not be passed.”
Georgette Grier-Key, president of the Association of Suffolk County Historical Societies, said that the fact that the house has not been listed on historical registries does not mean it is not important. She added that in the past, African-American history has been ignored. People who surveyed the village might not have known the significance of the property, she said, adding that the property should be studied again by someone who is familiar with African-American history in the area.
“This is a teaching moment, from which we can gain new knowledge and provide a real opportunity for the East End to develop and share the contributions of African-Americans here,” Ms. Grier-Key said. “I am saddened that we have arrived at this point today, and I am trying to be sympathetic to both sides, but it is our responsibility to [preserve] history—and in particular that of a slave who was born here and later freed here to accomplish the unthinkable in his lifetime.”
On Wednesday night, the ARB adjourned the first public hearing on the proposal to allow members of the board and the historical consultant for the village, Zachary Studenroth, as well as members of various local organizations—including the Southampton Historical Museum, the Eastville Community Historical Society and the NAACP—to research the property and determine if Pyrrhus Concer did in fact live in the house, a feat all agreed would be difficult because of the absence of historical documents surrounding early African-Americans in Southampton.
The proposal will be discussed again at the next meeting of the Architectural Review Board, which is scheduled for October 9.