Tourists may know Southold Town for its wineries, open fields and beaches, but equally important are the historic buildings dotting the landscape. Southold’s dozens of registered historic structures help create its characteristic small-town feel, advocates say.
And for years, few have pushed harder to preserve those historic buildings than Cutchogue native James “Jim” Grathwohl.
He’s helped inventory every historic building in town, spearheaded efforts to register more houses, assisted local historical societies and chaired the town’s Historic Preservation Commission.
“Jim has always brought his perspective that history is important, in every aspect in every institution in Southold Town,” said Supervisor Scott Russell. “He makes sure everybody doesn’t forget that as we live our lives in Southold Town there were people that were here before us that were responsible for … creating the Southold that we’re living in today. And his effort is to make sure that we recognize and pay homage to those people.”
For his decades of volunteer service fighting to keep Southold’s many historic homes and buildings safe for generations to come, Jim Grathwohl is The Suffolk Times’ 2016 Public Servant of the Year.
“He knows the history of almost every old building,” said Jamie Garretson, chairman of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, on which Mr. Grathwohl has served for years. “He’s a walking history book and he loves preservation. It’s just in his heart.”
Mr. Grathwohl was born in Cutchogue in 1937 and grew up on the North Fork. After earning degrees in psychology and economics, he joined the U.S. Army, attaining the rank of captain.
Before devoting his days to historic preservation, Mr. Grathwohl worked at what is now Unisys Corporation, as an executive for Lockheed Martin in Washington, D.C. He retired in 1996, but showed great interest in the history of his hometown even before then.
“Jim has been a student of local history his entire life,” said Zachary Studenroth, director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, which Mr. Grathwohl’s family helped to found. “He’s really been a constant champion of Southold’s town history.”
Mr. Grathwohl helped lead the Old House Society, dedicated to the oldest English -style medieval house in New York State, which was likely built in Southold in 1649 and moved to Cutchogue by the 1660s.
His most significant work has come as a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, to which his extensive knowledge has been an invaluable asset, member Don Feiler said.
“Our goal is to help preserve our rich history here in Southold,” Mr. Feiler said. “We look to him for nearly every project that comes in front of us.”
“He considers himself a preservationist and he’s also an amazing historian,” added Mr. Garretson. “It’s meant an enormous amount. He’s led us on so many rough rides and we’ve really come a long way.”
Mr. Garretson attributed three recent additions to the town’s landmark registry specifically to the work of Mr. Grathwohl and commission member Ted Webb, who was The Suffolk Times’ 2014 Public Servant of the Year. Mr. Grathwohl also helped dedicate signs recognizing the town’s historic stone mile markers and welcomed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor during a July 4 celebration in Orient.
In a letter after the ceremony, Mr. Grathwohl urged his neighbors to take an active role in preserving the town’s history.
“Become a partner in preservation by joining a local historic society (there is one in each village in Southold Town) or other organizations doing their part to maintain the ambiance that makes our town special,” he wrote.
Mr. Russell said Mr. Grathwohl has helped raise the profile of the importance of historic structures.
Residents might assume that someone is taking care of the historic structures in town, but sometimes that’s not the case, the supervisor said. “You need people like Jim to make sure that work is actually getting done,” he said.
Although Mr. Grathwohl currently splits his time between Cutchogue and Virginia, he’s rarely missed a meeting at Town Hall, despite some health issues.
“Jim doesn’t slow down,” Mr. Russell said. “He was at a presentation last night. He’s had some difficulty walking and he was here with a cane … Jim recognizes that it’s our turn to be good stewards of the community.”
Mr. Grathwohl shows little sign of slowing down on his quest; even if he wanted to, Mr. Garretson said, commission members might not let their treasured colleague leave.
“When he wants to retire we won’t let him retire because he’s so important to us,” he joked.
Top file photo: Jim Grathwohl, wearing his Benjamin Franklin hat, with Aidan Vandenburgh (center) and Sam Basel in front of the new mile-marker informational sign in Laurel during an unveiling ceremony in December 2015.
2015: Jack Martilotta
2014: Ted Webb
2013: Heather Lanza
2012: Ed Romaine
2011: Greenport and Southold Highway Department Crews
2010: Leslie Weisman
2009: Betty Neville
2008: Thomas Crowley
2007: Philip Beltz
2006: Jesse Wilson
2005: Martin Flatley
2004: Mattituck-Cutchogue School Board
2003: Ben Orlowski Jr.
2002: Jack Sherwood
2001: Dave Abatelli
2000: Melissa Spiro
1999: Valerie Scopaz
1998: Jamie Mills
1997: Karen McLaughlin
1996: Lisa Israel
1995: John Costello
1994: Ray Jacobs
1993: Judy Terry
1992: William Pell
1991: Beth Wilson
1990: Antonia Booth
1989: Frank Murphy
1988: Venetia McKeighan
1987: Paul Stoutenburgh