The Town of Oyster Bay agreed to hire a firm to draw up plans to protect and renovate the deteriorating Mill Pond House at a Town Board meeting on July 13.
The town agreed to pay the Hauppauge-based Nassau Suffolk Engineering & Architecture PLLC $248,400 to assess the Colonial-era home’s structure and create a plan to improve conditions there in the short term and eventually fully restore it.
Mill Pond House sits on two acres at the corner of West Main Street and West Shore Road. Originally a small one-story structure, it grew to a two-and-a-half-story, 4,000- square-foot, 20th-century residence. The building still has the heavy timber framing used when it was built in 1653.
The house is considered historically significant not only for its architecture, but also because of who owned it. For decades it was the property of the Townsend family, and an Oyster Bay relative, Robert Townsend, was a member of Gen. George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, which historians say was instrumental in helping the Colonies win the Revolutionary War.
“The house is a tangible link with the past, one of the oldest buildings in Oyster Bay and a really nice example of Dutch architecture,” John Collins, an architectural historian and a former member of the town’s Landmark Preservation Commission, said. “It’s quite a wonderful specimen of that period and social-ethnic way of building. The house’s front door, frame, and some cabinetry are all original, and are worthy of preservation and studying for future generations to enjoy.”
Though it was granted landmark status by the town in 1976 and purchased by the town for $1.9 million in 2008, the now vacant house has been scarred by years of neglect, water damage and two arson fires in 2014. “The house is an important part of the town’s history,” Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino said. “We’re exploring all options to restore it and reopen it to the public.”
“I want to praise the town for finally recognizing there’s a problem and addressing the issue by hiring someone who will begin to preserve the building,” Collins added.
The work on the house will include selective demolition to try to determine what can be preserved, according to the architectural firm. Led by Michael Spinelli, another former member of the landmark commission, the firm first inspected the site in December, and will oversee the bidding process for the first contract. It is continuing work begun by architect Douglas A. Wilke, who died in 2019.
Community groups have advocated for the house to be saved for years now. “You don’t want just plaques saying, ‘Here once stood this historic building,’” said Meredith Maus, executive director of the Oyster Bay Main Street Association, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing the hamlet of Oyster Bay. “Not that it needs to be a museum, but it’s a living testament to how long this downtown has been here.”
The Town Board also approved putting a first contract out to bid, though the scope of the work was not included in the public documentation posted on the town’s website. Spokesman Brian Nevin wrote in an email that the initial work would focus on protecting the structural integrity of the house by reinforcing beams and walls, and disinfecting it.
Nassau Suffolk Engineering & Architecture has estimated the cost of restoring the house at $1.3 million, which could increase as additional rotted wood, vermin waste, mold and debris are removed, according to a letter from the firm to the town. It is unclear who would pay for the full restoration. In 2014, town officials discussed selling the property to a private party with restrictive covenants to ensure that it would be restored, but it has not been sold.
“There is an advisory group we call the presidents group, for a lack of a better title,” Collins explained, “which is all the different organizations within the town who have a foot in this: the Oyster Bay Civic Association, the Oyster Bay Main Street Association and others that have been advocating for and urging the town to put the house back on the market and allow the private sector to restore the structure, rather than restore it at a public expense. The town has no real use for the building, as far as I know; if they needed the house for a specific purpose, it would make sense to me to leave it in the hands of the public, but the reality is they do not have a purpose to own the house.”
Town Councilman Steven Labriola cast a lone “nay” vote against hiring Nassau Suffolk Engineering & Architecture. “The Town of Oyster Bay has done a terrific job at protecting and preserving our history,” Labriola said, “yet more information is needed on the salvageability of the Mill Pond House due to decades of deterioration, exposure to the elements and extensive fire damage.”
In a news release, Labriola also stated that he wanted to tour the house before the town spends any more money on it.
Laura Lane contributed to this story.