Where Hempstead Bay meets Jones Bay, on the southeastern edge of marshy Meadow Island, five houses sit. They are off grid and accessible only by boat. Their existence has a complex history (see breakout box).
Their occupants are people whose lives are inseparable from Long Island’s shores and waters. Hitching a boat ride to one bay house with its co-owner, Freeport resident Sue Lyons, takes a passenger to a universe quite apart from the bustle of today’s Long Island villages.
“I grew up on the water in Baldwin and lived on the South Shore my whole life — 65 years now,” Lyons said. One of her brothers had leased a bay house when he was first married, which Lyons often visited.
“I have searched for a bay house on Meadow Island for at least 40 years,” Lyons said.
Lyons’s father, who owned a construction business, trained her and her siblings in all the necessary water-related skills — “tides, channels, navigation, fishing, clamming, erosion,” Lyons said, as she piloted her center-console outboard boat into a stiff wind. The steel-gray waves appeared low, but their frequent jolts against the boat bottom made the ride reminiscent of driving the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in a rattletrap truck.
Unfazed, Lyons stood at the helm and guided her vessel toward Meadow Island. Her co-owner, Tommy Famiglietti, came out on their pier to help her moor the boat.
Famiglietti and Lyons were meeting at their bay house on this day because Long Island Traditions, a historical organization, had scheduled a Freeport bay house tour, and Lyons and Famigilietti had agreed to be docents for their two-story, mint-green structure.
Inside their kitchen, Lyons and Famiglietti talked about the circuitous process by which they had become bay house owners. Bay houses typically are inherited or passed from a longtime owner to a trusted friend.
“It started with Helmut Tsogl,” Lyons said, looking out the kitchen door at the buff-colored beach, the long green marsh grasses and the rugged waves. For half a century, she explained, Tsogl had owned a bay house on the spot where the new house now stands. Then came Hurricane Sandy.
“The day before Hurricane Sandy hit, I was out on the bay, and there were 11 bay houses on Meadow Island,” Lyons said. “I took a ride out the day after Sandy, and there were five left. ... Helmut's bayhouse had floated away and was destroyed.”
Tsogl still owned the land, but could not reconstruct the house. In 2016, a mutual friend introduced him to Lyons, whose late husband, Gary Williams, owned the Baldwin Harbor Boat Yard and 55 Hudson Marina. Lyons had the knowledge and means to design and complete a bay house.
Tsogl’s side of the partnership was the land. Lyons built the house, and she brought Famiglietti into the partnership in 2017. “We’re both bay rats,” she said. Famiglietti owns Baldwin Boat Haulers. When Tsogl died in 2020, ownership of the house passed to the remaining two partners.
As Famiglietti explained to the tour group, he and Lyons went to unusual lengths to make the house steadfast against future storms. Bay houses are typically elevated four to eight feet on four-by-four posts of treated wood, leaving a crawl space below the house. Lyons and Famigliett, however, dug out a foundation with a 10-foot clearance below the house, and then installed 25 12-inch-diameter pilings to which they secured the house’s foundation, plus 20 more pilings under the pier.
“These are 35-foot posts,” told Famiglietti to the tour group. “Each one is buried 18 feet into the sand.” Four-inch ropes loop between the deck and dock pilings as well as between pilings under the house.
“It was a labor of love, and really hard work,” Lyons said. “We built her solid, and we hope she survives anything that Mother Nature brings us.”
Owning a bay house is not easy. Everything that Lyons and Famiglietti had learned from a lifetime on the South Shore has been needed to build and maintain it. Their house complies with federal, state, and local environmental regulations and building codes.
“I don't like the erosion that is constantly taking our sand and marshes,” Lyons said, “and we do what we can to preserve the land.”
The progression from dreaming about a bay house to owning one was natural to Lyons’s passion for her South Shore life.
“I love the ever-present breezes. I love sleeping out there and watching the sunrises and sunsets,” Lyons said. “I love the marshes and their ever-changing colors. I love that I can watch the seasons change the color of the marsh grass, and that I can almost figure out the date by just looking at the color of the grass. I guess I love how much I learn from our tides, weather, wildlife.”