Artifacts from the pre-Civil War and other amazing heirlooms live here
At the closing of the former Goldthwaite-Tilden home at 168 South Country Road in 1993, current homeowner John Kmetz and his wife Josephine knew they were buying a historical home. But the real significance of that was just beginning to dawn on them.
“They handed us the keys to all of the original doors, and we kept laughing. We were like, ‘What did we just buy?’” Kmetz recalled of Hank, Ruth and Hank Tilden Jr., who are descendants of the original owners.
Along with the keys, the Tildens handed Kmetz the original deed for the plot of land signed by Captain Thomas Bell deeding it over to Charles Silas Platt, who built the house in 1865.
The house is in the newest historic district.
According to Kmetz, the family also had an original tool box that belonged to Platt. “We tried desperately to get them to sell it to us,” he said, adding that it was an heirloom they wanted to keep in the family.
Board by board, Platt, who built many homes in the village, constructed the home that he would later move into with his wife, a Goldthwaite-Tilden.
The home remained in their family until Kmetz came along in 1993. “At the time, they were renting the house and didn’t quite know what to do with it,” he explained, adding that they later moved to Shelter Island. One weekend, the Kmetz couple ventured to Bellport in search of a seasonal home. “We thought it was pretty wacky. We just knew,” said Kmetz on finding the house.
Kmetz, a self-described “Americana nut,” was thrilled to be moving in. “You’re in a time capsule. This house hasn’t changed much at all,” he said, pointing out additions he has made over the last 24 years.
Until about five years ago, Kmetz and his wife used their Bellport home much as the Tildens before them: a summer getaway from their permanent residence in Brooklyn. They frequently spent weekends and summers making the house a home, adding bright yellow paint to the front rooms, modern kitchen amenities and refinishing the large floorboards from their original dark paint. “You have to make some changes,” Kmetz noted. “You can’t live totally in a museum.”
Still, artifacts from the pre-Civil War home remain. After seeing the trove of historical items that the Tildens had at closing, Kmetz asked, “What else do you have?” and was willing to pay.
Several wooden chairs and rocking chairs crafted by woodworkers Nathaniel Dominy of East Hampton and Nathan Tinker of Sag Harbor can be seen around the home. Original fixtures remain on the doors and around the fireplace. Upstairs, a chair made circa 1810 shows off weaving patterns originated by the Shinnecock Indian Nation. “Another chair we can’t sit in,” Kmetz cracked. It’s the same chair found in an old photograph showing the home’s earliest owners. “We bought the house from this man’s son,” he said, pointing to Israel Tilden.
Hank Tilden Jr., Israel’s grandson, confirmed that his grandparents had lived there.
“It was a summer place,” Tilden recalled, noting many memories in the home. “It all revolves around the bay — we were boating people,” he said. “We never got them to write things down,” he said, remorseful.
Still, the Tildens left their mark on the home, signs a family lived there. There’s the initials carved into once-still-wet concrete in the basement, 20th century suitcases marked with visas from overseas travel by ship.
The most grandiose project Kmetz has taken on since moving in is repainting the house in 2013 to its original white and green. “The only way to get the paint off was manually with grinders,” Kmetz explained. They marveled at the cedar underneath — and so did passersby. “I almost didn’t want to paint it,” he recalled. “Only a kook would do this,” he said laughing. “Only someone in love with the home.”
That love affair is soon to come to an end. Late last year, the couple bought a home in another historic district, an 1820s-era home in Bath, Maine. “It’s really sad giving it up, but we’re tired of New York,” he said, explaining the need for a change of scenery. “We always seem to be in a ‘B’ town,” he added, noting his upbringing in Brentwood, life spent in Brooklyn, Bellport and before that, Basel, Switzerland.
The four-bedroom, two-bath home is listed on the market at $900,000. According to Kmetz, every interested buyer who has looked was a second-home buyer. “And they all want to put in a swimming pool,” he said, a touchy subject for the man who revived the English garden out back.
He hopes the next buyer will have some interest in the home’s history, through stories or the items left behind. “Some people might not even want them,” he said.
Knowing that future owners will put their own personal touches on the home, Kmetz is glad to see the home preserved in the new historic district. “Look, how would you like to come back and your great-granddaughter comes by but can’t point to the house you lived in because it’s been torn down and some [expletive] McMansion has been put up?” Kmetz said.
Living in the home has made Kmetz think deeply about simplicity and legacy. In the kitchen, he imagines a large brick hearth where the modern stove is, and thinks about what life was like for the Goldthwaite-Tildens in the 1800s. “People don’t think about these aspects. They come here and think it’s all romance,” he said.
Kmetz, who has a PhD in Renaissance history, asks his students to think about legacy as well. ‘What do you know about your great-grandfather?’ is one he poses often. Most students know little to nothing.
“For most people, legacy means children — keeping the family line going. But at the end of the day, when they put you down in the ground, the thing that’s going to matter is what you did to make the world a better place. That’s the legacy you leave,” Kmetz noted. For Charles Silas Platt, 168 South Country Road still stands as his legacy.
For more recent Bellport inhabitants, legacy means preservation. Bellport Historic Preservation Commission member Victor Principe explained that the vast majority of the South Country Road Historic District homes date from the latter end of the 19th century and many were built by or for members of “founding” Bellport families. “It’s a time capsule in that most of the street is the same as it was a hundred years ago,” he said, perhaps with a few more cars driving by.
“This current administration really understands the need for historic preservation,” Principe added, noting that the now-deceased Carol and Edward Bleser pushed for historic preservation back in 2001. “You have to have a local ordinance in order to have historic districts that have any teeth.”
Preservation, Kmetz noted, involved storytelling, too. So, Tilden ghosts?
Possibly, Kmetz said, though no ghost-hunter. It is believed that patriarch Israel Tilden died in the home. “We’ve had people stay and say they hear something,” Kmetz said. “We say, ‘Oh, that’s just Izzy.’”
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