Preservationists Robert and Catherine Harper of Mattituck have lived in their home on New Suffolk Avenue for 30 years, but not long after they moved in, Mr. Harper realized something was off in a big way.
The house, which overlooks Lake Marratooka and 75 acres of farmland, originally had a third-story tower, but that was destroyed by fire on April 22, 1948, and never rebuilt. After Ms. Harper discovered a 1906 photograph of the house at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, the couple hired architect Robert Brenner to reproduce the missing feature, down to the smallest detail.
“When we first bought the house [in 1989], I really felt that there was something missing,” said Mr. Harper, former chair of Southold’s Historic Preservation Commission. “I took [that] photograph of the house — a regular, tiny little photograph — and I made this little, teeny-tiny tower and put it on there and said, ‘I bet there was something like that on this house.’ ”
Once they began researching, their home’s story began to emerge. They pieced it together and are today in the process of returning the house to its near-original Victorian state.
A couple of years after Mr. Harper drew a tower on that photograph, Ms. Harper found herself back at the historical society, speaking to head librarian Joanne Brooks.
“I said, ‘I’d like to find out something about my house; it’s 2600 New Suffolk Avenue,’ ” Ms. Harper recalled. “And [the librarian] said, ‘That was my house in the 1960s.’ ”
Ms. Brooks added that she had a postcard with a picture of the home on it and offered to let Ms. Harper borrow it. This solidified her husband’s original hunch that something akin to a tower had once sat atop the structure.
Ms. Brooks lived in the house in the 1960s and raised her two boys there. Their names, the Harpers said, are written on the basement walls.
Based on a series of similar markings, along with writings and clues found around the house and plenty more research, the Harpers put together a chronology of their home.
They believe it was built in 1873 and that the tower was added in 1895. They also determined that the house followed a Queen Anne style of architecture.
“In 1895, it was all the rage,” said Mr. Harper. “There was a builder — this back part of the house here got built on and when the guy built it, he signed his name in the basement and dated it and it was 1895. Stylistically, it would make sense also. So, we think that was put on, maybe the porch was put on. We know this back room here was put on. And they kind of jazzed the house up with the current style.”
The house changed hands from one family to the next over decades. During her research, Ms. Harper located the Gildersleeve Newspaper Scrapbook Collection at Mattituck-Laurel Library, which included a Suffolk Times article about the 1948 fire.
“The beautiful home of Mrs. J. Wood Wickham,” Ms. Harper read from the article, “overlooking Marratooka Lake at Mattituck was badly damaged by fire and water about 5 o’clock Monday afternoon. It was presumably started by sparks from a fire in an adjacent lot, which was being burned off. The roof of the house was already in flames before the blaze was noticed and the fire had worked its way downward.”
The article went on to explain that because of the speed with which the flames spread, Mattituck firefighters were forced to use a great quantity of water to save the house, resulting in serious water damage.
“A gaping hole was burned in the roof, while walls, ceilings and furniture were damaged by fire,” Ms. Harper read. She wrote her own overview of the event, based on extensive research, in which she says that not only the physical structure, but the interior contents were destroyed by the water. The tower was ravaged beyond saving, she wrote. The 72-year-old owner abandoned the house, her piece continued. Home repairs were eventually made and the roofline was extended to cover the spot where the tower had stood.
“You have to understand,” said Ms. Harper, “we’re preservationists from a long time ago. This was our second restoration. We’ve since restored a place in the city and now we’re going to restore a place out in Shelter Island, so, we’re career preservationists.”
Mr. Harper created 1,500 shingles by hand to match those of the original tower, cutting, sanding, priming and painting them.
From self-constructed pocket doors to stained glass windows, the Harpers say they are invested in bringing their home back to its original state – or coming as close as they can. They found a lightning rod in the shed and plan to put it where they believe it originally belonged — atop the tower that will once again stand tall, overlooking the lake.
Top photo caption: A look up at the interior of the historic tower that is being reconstructed in Mattituck. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)