On Hortons Lane in Southold, on the corner of Dilapidated and Charming, lived a tiny, rather unremarkable house built in 1763. The outside shingles discolored and damaged, the green trim grimy, it had been relocated ages ago and still looked plunked down in place. The inside hadn’t fared much better, with original wood ceilings and floors showing centuries of wear and room upgrades looking more dated than retro. But Douglas Elliman agent Kristy Naddell and local builder Gasper Vitale took a look around, breathed in its rich North Fork history and saw nothing but potential.
“It was an awful little house,” laughed Vitale, who purchased the house in September 2020. “We brought it back to life.” After a restoration, the home spurred a three-way bidding war two weeks after it was listed.
This is just one of the many renovation stories behind the North Fork’s charming 18th- and 19th-century houses. Buyers from New York City and Brooklyn are the main market for such North Fork treasures, with limited stock creating some stiff competition. “These buyers love the character and history,” said Nadell. “The old-world charm combined with the new classic farmhouse renovations made this home a hit.”
The fact that it was turnkey didn’t hurt either. Some buyers – namely HGTV addicts – love the challenge of a hard-core fixer-upper, but others, maybe after watching the movie “The Money Pit,” don’t have the stomach for it. Either way, talented North Fork builders are keen to assist.
“We live in such a historic area, with so many 200-year-old-houses around,” says builder Steven Schroeder, who specializes in restoration and carries the legacy of his great-great-grandfather, also a builder in Greenport. “Many of these houses are still in such great shape thanks to their owners, and others are just in need of repair and restoration. Every job is different, which is challenging but fun, and I haven’t found one house that couldn’t be brought back to its original glory.”
IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK
After marveling at a house’s ornately carved staircase or original stained-glass windows, homeowners usually turn their sights to the tales beneath the floorboards. Who lived here? How did they contribute to the community? Were there any scandals?
Uncovering those stories is exciting, and homeowners can start with local historical societies. “Researchers will often call us to find out if we have any old photos or information,” says Deanna Witte-Walker, executive director of the Southold Historical Society. “If a house has been landmarked, often the research has already been done, as you need to provide the history to get landmark status.”
And once those sledgehammers start swinging, stories start to seep out. Maybe someone discovers an old diary in a built-in cabinet, or initials carved into the rafters or layers of wallpaper that reveal a past aesthetic.
Roselle Borrelli, a member of the Greenport Landmark Preservtion Commission, had such an interesting time researching her 1867 house (purchased in 2012) that she wrote a book about it. “Greenport: The Right Place at the Wrong Time” details her discoveries about the original owner, Andrew J. Wiggins, and builder, Orange H. Cleaves, and even some spirits she claims to have encountered in the house’s tower.
To honor Wiggins, Borelli hung a wooden sign from his General Dry Goods Store on her wall (the previous owner found it face-down in the attic, used as a floorboard.) Other objects she displayed for nostalgia include a folding screen featuring vintage ads for Wiggins’ store that she found at a church thrift shop, some signed wooden items found under the house’s stairway that she preserves in a cedar box and remnants of original wallpaper that she framed and hung up.
Gasper Vitale, who renovated the 1763 farm house in Southold, was thrilled to discover that its original owner was a pirate. It’s all detailed in the book “Descendants of Captain John Prince,” which is now displayed at the house. That fun fact drove Vitale to incorporate nautical elements in the upgrades, such as a “Crew’s Mess” brass plate on the original kitchen cabinets, which were turned into the kitchen island. He added brass boat cleats as handles to carry through the theme.
To truly honor the house’s origins, Vitale kept a portion of the ceiling open, exposing the original 250-year-old wooden beams, called locust poles, in the kitchen and bathroom. The contrast with the modern amenities adds a sense of time travel.
BRINGING IT UP TO DATE
In addition to painstakingly restoring banisters, beams, moldings and flooring, the biggest challenge in restoring an old home is bringing it up to date — and code — without sacrificing historical integrity. That means getting rid of old electrical wiring and plumbing, adding insulation, sneaking in duct work for AC, upgrading old chimneys (never light a fire in an old fireplace before having a chimney tech do a full analysis!) and much more.
Older homes tend to have smaller rooms with simple fireplaces that could be closed off with doors in the winter to preserve heat. Luckily, today’s central heating means contemporary buyers can have their old home and an open-plan layout too.
“I am a big fan of opening living spaces up when possible,” says Schroeder, cautioning that it just has to look natural. “We do raise ceilings sometimes if it fits the situation but skylights aren’t a look that goes with a historic home. Everything has to look as if it was always there.”
And about that old plumbing? Greenporter Borrelli got creative with the original 1867 outhouse in her yard, which she opted to restore. Instead of knocking it down, she and her husband turned it into a potting shed for her garden, complete with a cello weathervane to celebrate her musical career.
PRESERVING NORTH FORK HISTORY
The North Fork’s beautiful old houses not only preserve history, they also build community and encourage tourism, which is why all North Fork municipalities have adopted ordinances to protect designated historic properties from demolition and inappropriate alteration, mainly on the exterior.
The difference between old, historic and landmarked properties can be confusing, as they often overlap. Houses falling within a history-rich area may be designated historic — for example, homes on or near Village Lane in Orient or in downtown Riverhead. Landmark status is given to specific buildings with special significance — in the case of a house, maybe a famous suffragette or one of the town’s early founders lived there.
It may be romantic to own and fix up an old home, but it’s never as easy as it looks on TV. Projects need permits and residents have been known to wrangle with towns over the size of historic preservation areas as well as desired updates to individual homes. Recommending East Marion’s Main Road Historic District for placement on the state and National Registers of Historic Places ruffled some local feathers and also restricted widening the road to ease traffic.
It helps to know what can and can’t be done. To assist, Greenport Village’s Historic Preservation Commission, for example, offers downloadable guidelines aiming to protect the integrity of the buildings in the historic district. Resources and background on local homes are also available via the Southold Historical Society, Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead and Oysterponds Historical Society, serving East Marion and Orient.
Sarah Kautz, preservation director of the nonprofit Preservation Long Island, points out that there could even be financial benefits to owning a historic property. “Local ordinances impact owners at designated historic properties and districts, but being listed on the National Register provides many attractive financial incentives to historic property owners,” she says. “Not many North Forkers realize that.”
The NYS Historic Homeowner Tax Credit covers 20% of qualified rehabilitation costs of owner-occupied historic houses, up to a credit value of $50,000, according to The New York State Historic Preservation Office. This can help cover repairs or replacement of everything from windows, doors and chimneys to new heating, central AC, plumbing and fixtures, electrical wiring and more.
When it comes to truly owning a piece of history, it’s hard to put a dollar amount on sentiment. “I’ve known this house since I was young,” says the Long Island-raised Borrelli about her once run-down Italianate home. Bringing it back to a grand home after years of painstaking research and renovation? Priceless.