In Greenport, a historic house built from circus billboards

02/09/2016 3:41 PM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO

One day last September, Walter Foote was working on the second floor of his newly purchased Victorian at the corner of Broad and First streets in Greenport when a contractor renovating the home asked him to come take a look at something.

While removing the clapboard, the local contractors, Steven and Ted Schroeder, had made a discovery they’d never seen before in all their years of doing home remodels: The house had been constructed using wood from 19th-century circus billboards.

Hidden beneath the clapboard all these years were full-color lithographs advertising the arrival of the Walter L. Main Circus in Greenport on July 27, 1891.

“When I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Mr. Foote said.

He immediately texted his wife, Diane, in New York City, sending her an iPhone photo of the intricate designs.

“He said, ‘Look, my [first] name is on the wall,’ ” she recalled, noting what a strange coincidence that was.

A portion of Walter L. Main's face as it appears inside the kitchen wall as the renovations continue. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

A portion of Walter L. Main’s face as it appears inside the kitchen wall as the renovations continue. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

On Saturday at 3 p.m., Stirling Historical Society will host “The Hidden Circus and other Renovation Revelations,” a pop-up exhibit at the Little Red School House on Front Street. While the Footes will be on hand to tell their story, the historical society hopes other community members will attend to share what they’ve found in their own historic Greenport homes.

The Footes said that since their discovery they’ve spoken with several others who have come across artifacts over the years.

Jim Betz said he found an actual time capsule in the walls of his house on the corner of Webb and Main streets, which was recently gutted for a renovation. Inside were membership cards belonging to the local Webb family dating back to the early 20th century, along with cufflinks and hat pins.

A contractor also found a boot in the wall.

“It turns out people did that to ward off evil spirits,” Mr. Betz said. “So we put it back in the wall.”

The Footes also found mementos in the walls of their home, including sheet music for a song by a popular mid-19th century composer, a Ladies’ Home Journal from 1893 and a New York City department store catalog from that same year.

The Ladies Home Journal found inside a kitchen wall. It is believed to have been placed their during an 1893 expansion of the kitchen. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

The Ladies Home Journal found inside a kitchen wall. It is believed to have been placed their during an 1893 expansion of the kitchen. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Ms. Foote admits that since the clapboard was removed five months ago, she’s become obsessed with the history of the house and the circus whose billboards were used in its construction. She’s even become a bit of a sleuth, piecing together a narrative from the various discoveries.

She was able to narrow down the specific date the circus took place by reading the artwork and finding Walter L. Main routes from the late 19th century. One of the boards in their home was dated July 27 and she confirmed the circus paid its first visit to the village on that day in 1891.

“That was the first year they traveled by rail, which made it possible for them to come to Greenport,” Ms. Foote said.

The village was the third of seven stops the circus made in Suffolk County that month, sandwiched between an appearance in Huntington and one in Riverhead.

When they returned to Greenport in 1893 and 1894 they arrived on different dates, so the July 27 billboard was key to establishing a timeline for the home’s construction, Ms. Foote said.

She’d later establish that the house was built by members of the local Corwin family and was once owned by the Prestons and, more recently, the Claudios. It was the childhood home of the current owners of the Claudio’s restaurants, she’d later learn.

She said the Corwin name is stamped on many of the boards, leading the Footes to believe they built the house.

A circus gypsy, as depicted in the 1891 billboards. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

A circus gypsy, as depicted in the 1891 billboards. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

The lithographer who designed the circus billboards was the Russell & Morgan Co., which achieved notoriety designing playing cards and later was called the United States Printing Company.

When Stirling Historical Society first announced Saturday’s free event, it was called “If These Walls Could Talk.” That was later changed.

“The title was great but didn’t exactly work,” Ms. Foote said. “These walls are talking.”

The Footes said that despite all the clues they’ve been given they haven’t been able to nail down exactly how the billboards came to be repurposed to build their home. One theory is that the Corwins constructed the billboards for the circus and reacquired the wood. Or perhaps they simply claimed the boards after they were no longer needed to promote the event. Either way, Ms. Foote said, it was enough boards to build a house.

“They must have advertised the heck out of that circus,” she said.

Saturday's Stirling Historical Society event is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Little Red Schoolhouse on Front Street. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Saturday’s Stirling Historical Society event is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Little Red Schoolhouse on Front Street. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

While the initial discovery was made on an exterior wall on the east side of the home, where the Footes are extending the kitchen, circus billboards have since been found in every corner of the house — even the attic.

The couple plans to incorporate some of the billboards into the interior design of their home as they work toward completion of the renovation. Many of the others were left in place during the construction.

As for the tradition of stuffing mementos in the walls, Mr. Foote said, “We’re going to do the same thing.”

“A time capsule,” his wife added.

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect time for Saturday’s event. It begins at 3 p.m.

Top caption: Diane and Walter Foote hold a board depicting Walter L. Main Circus performers riding horses and elephants. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

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