A tale of two houses

04/29/2010 12:00 AM |

In a community that lays claim to being home to the oldest English-speaking settlement in the state (a claim made also by our cousins on the south side of the bay), one would expect to find a significant number of historic buildings of varying ages, pedigree and states of repair, or, unfortunately, disrepair.

To be sure, Southold’s history is well represented in its extant old homes, churches and other buildings. And many buildings throughout town carry the small markers denoting official “landmark” status, and in each case, the owners agreed to that status. There have been attempts over the years to put more teeth into Southold’s historic preservation ordinance, but at the moment it’s still a voluntary program.

For the most part.

It’s certainly not voluntary for Julien and Claudia King Ramone, who inherited a small 19th-century house on Village Lane in Orient and who want to raze it and build a more family-friendly home. But their property lies within two separate historic districts — town and federal — and that places them under the aegis of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission.

This is new ground for both the Ramones and the commission because this is the first time anyone has sought permission to tear down a building within a historic district. Judging by the comments offered by commissioners during a recent public hearing, the panel doesn’t seem happy with the request. See story on page 22. Should it deny the application, the Ramones face three choices. They can leave the house as is, file new plans to add an extension or appeal to the Town Board to overrule the commission.

Some might view the process as an assault on property rights, even institutionalized snobbery. But whatever the outcome, the applicants still have options. No doubt, owning a historic home, however modest, can present significant financial and practical challenges. But it’s also an opportunity to be an active participant in helping maintain the attractive — and still highly marketable — character of the community,

There’s also a downside to the voluntary nature of Southold’s historic preservation program. This week’s cover story tells the sad, yet hopeful, tale of the neglect and deterioration of a house near Cedar Beach in Southold where Helen Keller, left deaf and blind by an early childhood illness, vacationed with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who succeeded in bringing her out of the darkness. “The Miracle Worker,” a play later made into a movie, tells their story.

The abandoned house is open to the elements and falling apart. It’s not on the town’s landmarks list, but it could be. A house’s age is one criteria, another is who lived there. An unlikely historic preservation advocate, Southold High School student Ian Toy, is leading the charge to save the Helen Keller house. It’s a daunting challenge certainly, but our guess is it would be foolish to bet against him.

The Orient and Southold houses may seem to have little in common, but they serve to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the town’s ongoing attempt to retain standing examples of its rich architectural history. In Orient, the Ramones are part of a detailed and lengthy review process that they may see as frustrating and burdensome. But the price of doing nothing is all too evident in the sorry state of the Helen Keller house.

Historic preservation is much more than simply affixing a plaque to an outside wall. As a matter of history, preservation and community identity, it would be a shame to see the Ramone house go. Avoiding its demolition is precisely why the two historic districts were created.