This old house … is becoming new
Several Pioneer Construction workers drilled and pounded away inside the Homan-Gerard House last week. They’re restoring the 10-room, circa-1790 miller’s residence, a home that represents prosperity from a bustling industry when lumber and grain were brought to this one-time economic epicenter for grinding, when it was called Millville.
Situated at the entrance to Yaphank’s historic district, this formerly derelict structure is emerging from its neglected phase with a new life, thanks to the dogged, passionate efforts of the Yaphank Historical Society and Suffolk County Parks Historic Services. The county entered a partnership with the Robert L. Gardiner Foundation for matching funds; once the county has completed its part and submitted their bills, the foundation will release their commitment.
This $1.2 million project will eventually showcase its Federal-style architecture, the history of the times with period colors, furniture and an exhibit of the mill and its influence on daily life.
“They’ll be completing this stage on July 31,” said Yaphank Historical Society president Bob Kessler.
Richard Martin, Suffolk County Parks director of historic services, described Homan House as a high-style home. “We’ve been bringing in architect historians and they’ve been impressed with the trim around the mantles, the windows and the doors. They were probably made in New York City.”
As the oldest of the historic homes here, it will also be the starting point of tours. The soft green landscape across from Lily Lake, a nearby Main Street with houses that look like Stockbridge, Mass., and pretty nature trails create a jolt exiting the Long Island Expressway. Yaphank’s historic district is like entering another realm.
The interior has been in a state of construction upheaval for the last month; there were floorboards, bare walls with gaping spaces, long-ago worn-off paint, tools here and there. But that will change.
The original doors will be refinished, painted and repaired. Windows will get the same attention. “They were fragile, so we sent them out to be restored, but we needed storm windows in the meantime,” said author and historian Tricia Foley. There are 28 to be addressed; Foley wrote a grant for partial window restoration to the Gerry Charitable Trust. That was approved for $10,000.
As some of the members of the Homan-Gerard House committee looked over the progress, sections of fanned-out wood lathing peeked out from walls. “They all have to be re-plastered,” Foley said, standing in the parlor.
This old manse, which had servants’ quarters, a third floor and two staircases, one that ends in the kitchen, has seen its share of centuries and owners, but historical society members are witnessing a finite completion effort to the metamorphosis they’ve been longing for.
“There would be 50 to 75 people walking, shopping, working here daily and on Main Street,” explained historian emeritus Karen Mouzakes of the late-1700s and early-1800s. “While they were here, they’d go down to the general store or get their horses shod.”
“You would have heard the noise from the mill grinding,” said Martin, who pointed to the current kayak launch nearby, where a section of the mill wall remained.
The Homan family owned the house until 1873, Mouzakes explained. The Gerard family then inhabited it and ran the mill; in 1899, when E.L. Gerard died, his wife took over, but the mills were being phased out by then, with the introduction of hydroelectric power. The property was then sold to Ansen Hard in 1922.
It was then used for hunting purposes. “The gamekeeper lived here, but he moved in 1942,” Mouzakes said.
The house was sealed up and abandoned in the 1950s.
And there it stood.
The county purchased it in 1967 from the Hard family, including the adjoining property that is now Southaven County Park.
The Yaphank Historical Society, established in 1974, surveyed its old treasures and pushed the county for help when Suffolk’s historical preservation arm came on board in 1980. But they began working on their own. President Bob Kessler, who is principal of a contracting firm, performed a lot of the grunt work gratis, including shoring up the foundation. “The Yaphank Historical Society started restoration efforts before we were established,” Martin confirmed.
Then, “we encouraged the county to put on a new roof,” Mouzakes said of the gambrel roof. “We were their first contract.”
And that’s what saved the building, said Martin.
First on the list of Suffolk County endangered properties, the request for restoration has taken time to wind its way through legislative approval. Plans were requested; BBS Architects, Landscape Architects and Engineers in Patchogue provided that work.
New support beams were needed in the walls and some of the floor joists and ceiling beams required replacement or supplementation. “The county funded $300,000 for construction and $100,000 for planning, and we’ll receive matching money [of $300,000] from the Robert L. Gardiner Foundation as soon as we hand in the bills for work completed,” Martin said. “In concept, we’ve received between $200,000 and $300,000 of in-kind services, including Bob Kessler’s work and county jail workers, who maintain the trails and mow the lawn now. They built the storm windows, which was very helpful, and have done cleanup work.”
A Homan-Gerard House committee to review the renovation’s progress, research family history, furnishings and landscape plans was about to meet after the walk-through. “We had a committee overseeing the Mary Louise Booth house and were happy with its renovation and wanted to replicate that,” Martin said of the previous county collaboration.
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