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Hamptons Life

Apr 29, 2012 10:30 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Historic Westhampton Homes Open Doors For The First Time

Apr 30, 2012 12:31 PM

The year was 1727.

At the time, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas among the Puritan colonists on the East End, who were railing against the British customs they’d left behind on the other side of the Atlantic.

George Washington hadn’t even been born yet.

It was that same year that the Howell Homestead was built in Westhampton Beach. And nearly three centuries later, while much in the world has changed, the house is still standing strong.

“This is considered the oldest English house west of the Shinnecock Canal,” owner Larry Jones said at his home last week. “That’s its claim to fame. And that’s why we went to so much trouble to keep it from being bulldozed.”

For as long as it’s been standing, the Howell Homestead has left decades’ worth of passersby wondering what lies inside.

This coming weekend, their curiosities will be quelled.

For the first time in its history, the Howell Homestead will open its doors—on Saturday, May 5—to visitors on the Westhampton Beach Historical Society’s inaugural “Historic House Tour.” The tour will also include five other famous area homes never before seen by the general public.

“People come here and look at these fancy, brand new homes,” Historical Society President Bob Murray said during an interview last week, given while driving in his car en route to the Howell Homestead. “They have no history. They have no bones. The historical fabric isn’t there. Anybody going on this tour will come away with a real appreciation of the history in the area. I think they’ll be very pleasantly surprised.”

The houses on the first-ever Westhampton Beach Historical Society’s “Historic House Tour” date from the Howell Homestead’s era up to 1941. That house, the “youngest” on the tour, is a shingle-style center hall colonial named “Wits’ End” in Remsenburg.

Designed by architect Aymar Embury II, who was working with Robert Moses on the construction and renovation of Manhattan parks at the time, the home was built by Joseph C. “Hap” Fitzpatrick of East Moriches for $22,800.

“You enter not necessarily from the front of the house, but the back of the house,” Brown Harris Stevens listing agent Gayle Osman Lopata said at the home, which is being offered for sale for $4.5 million. “You’re drawn around. The rooms are to the left and the right, and then you go above. So you go in one room to get to another room to get to another room, and so forth and so on.”

Working backward, chronologically, the tour also features circa-1902 “Kenah,” a shingle-style grand cottage, Mr. Murray explained, which was the norm for all homes on Seafield Lane in Westhampton Beach, where it sits overlooking Quantuck Bay. It is currently listed for sale for $10.8 million by the Corcoran Group.

Going further back in time are the Wilcox Homestead—a late-period, Victorian-style residence in Westhampton dated 1898—and the Griffing House, which was constructed in 1803 as a homestead, tavern and stop for the Brooklyn-to-Sag Harbor stagecoach.

Just a ways from “Wits’ End” is the Raynor Farmhouse, originally settled by William Phillips in 1757. He and his three brothers—Josiah, Joseph and Moses—were some of the earliest European settlers of the area.

But the Howell Homestead has the Raynor Farmhouse beat in terms of age. It is the oldest home in Westhampton Beach. Builder Hezekia Howell was the grandson of Edward Howell, a Southampton Town founder who emigrated from England in the 1640s.

For more than 200 years, the Howell family owned, maintained and added on to the Cape Cod-style homestead, which was frequented by circus tycoon P.T. Barnum and Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster, who were also avid geese hunters, according to Mr. Jones, who has named one of his Norwich terriers after the famous entertainer.

But in 1997, disaster struck.

“A worker was trying to live in the house in the winter, and there wasn’t any heat, so he was burning garbage in the fireplace and set it on fire,” Mr. Jones said. “It was a wreck. It didn’t look too strange from the outside until you got closer to it. And then you could see right through it.”

Despite the damage, Mr. Jones—who runs Westhampton Beach-based Jack L. Jones Building Conservation—bought the house two years later. The finished project has taken 12 years and just under $2 million to complete.

“I restore storied buildings,” he said. “And after this house, I determined it’s better to restore houses for other people than to do your own. It just goes faster and they’ve got more money,” he laughed.

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