East 60th Street, New York City.
It’s a fashionable address now, but at the turn of the last century the neighborhood was home to hundreds of Irish and German immigrants, many of whom lived in crowded, unclean tenements and were parishioners at nearby Saint Thomas Episcopal Church.
In the late 19th century, Saint Thomas provided a number of social services to families living in the tenements. Among these was the introduction of a summer camp for children at a 75-acre property on Long Island Sound in East Marion, 100 miles away.
The property was purchased for $4,485.40 using part of a donation received from a New York City philanthropist. The camp was established so the church could offer city boys and girls an opportunity to get away to the North Fork for two- to four-week stays, during which they could benefit from fresh sea air and exercise.
The children had, as a church bulletin from the period stated, “perfect freedom to wander where they would.”
And until 1925 — the year the camp dissolved amid mounting repair costs — that’s just what children did at the Saint Thomas Summer Home: They wandered. They played.
“This was the highlight of their year,” said Ruth Ann Bramson, an East Marion native and local historian who gave a public lecture about the Saint Thomas Home last month at Oysterponds Historical Society.
“Many of the youngsters who went to camp there determined that somehow they were going to get back to East Marion some day,” she said. “And they made that almost a life goal.” In fact, some campers eventually moved there as adults and their descendants remain.
Throughout the 19th century, the land that eventually became the Saint Thomas Summer Home was owned by a number of prominent local families, including Trumans, Tuthills and finally Schelingers, who sold it to the church. During its first season, in 1893, the camp hosted 195 children in two-week increments from June through August, Ms. Bramson said. Those numbers nearly doubled in 1894.
Scores of boys and girls of all ages — “some of them were really almost babies,” Ms. Bramson said — traveled to East Marion by way of the Shelter Island Steamboat Company and, in later years, Long Island Rail Road.
Things went on in this fashion for three decades and “there was much legitimate enjoyment to be had,” according to a church report. Campers took boat trips to Shelter Island and Plum Island, hiked to Orient, had bonfires and played baseball.
But by the mid-1920s, Ms. Bramson said, Saint Thomas Church decided to sell, because the facilities needed too many repairs and had become weathered from years of use.
“We don’t know of this writing where we shall go but we do know what a boon this work of the parish is to hundreds of children and working mothers who otherwise would have no summer respite and relief,” church officials wrote in 1925.
It’s not completely clear where the camp was reestablished — or if it ever was. Church officials were not available to comment for this story and Ms. Bramson said the last surviving camper died in 2009.
Ellen Zimmerman, who partnered with Ms. Bramson in last month’s lecture, said she believes the church purchased an existing camp in upstate New York, possibly in the Catskill Mountains.
When it dissolved in 1925, the Saint Thomas Summer Home property was sold to the Corwin family of Southampton. After the main house burned in 1938, the property was sold to George Tisdale, who used it to operate a gravel business.
In 1953, H. Chester Swezey, president of the New London Freight Ferry Line, bought the land with the idea of using it as a site for a ferry to Connecticut.
“For quite some time there was talk of running a ferry from East Marion to Old Saybrook,” Ms. Bramson said.
One of the property’s most famous owners was Billy Joel, who purchased it in the 1980s while married to supermodel Christie Brinkley. The couple had spent a summer in Orient, Ms. Bramson said, and the property caught his eye. He didn’t hang on to it long, however, she said.
Today, little remains of the Saint Thomas Summer Home.
The main house, which was destroyed in the fire, had contained a dormitory, dining hall, washhouse and reception room “for rainy days and daily prayers,” Ms. Bramson said. Other buildings, including a rectory and barn, were relocated and, she said, some of them survive.
The property’s current owner has donated conservation easements on much of the interior, non-waterfront, acreage to Peconic Land Trust, said Timothy Caufield, the organization’s vice president.
It’s pure speculation, Mr. Caufield said, but he thinks the children who attended camp at the Saint Thomas Summer Home all those years ago would smile upon recent conservation efforts.
“I’m sure they would be pleased,” he said. “Most people who enjoyed it for what it was back then would, I’m sure, appreciate it.”