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Riverhead group home restored to its post-Civil War glory

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Association for the Help of Retarded Child staffers joined with town and county leaders to celebrate the renovation work at Lincoln Street building that dates back to the late 1860s.

The big house on 126 Lincoln Street in Riverhead, at the intersection with Griffing Avenue, is probably best known locally as a group home.

The Association for the Help of Retarded Children has operated a group home there since 1979, and has owned it for about 15 years, according to its CEO, Bill Leonardi. There are currently eight people living there.

But the building also has an extensive history.

Mr. Leonardi says while the company and residents knew it was an old building, they didn’t know until recently just how old it was.

That’s when they started renovating the exterior of the building and working with Riverhead Town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, he said.

“Over the years, we found out little bits and pieces about the house, but since we started doing the work with the landmarks commission, they’ve actually given us information to fill in the pieces,” Mr. Leonardi said.

According to commission head Richard Wines, the house was built just after the Civil War, in the late 1860s.

“When a contractor for AHRC removed worn out vinyl siding from the structure, he revealed an architecturally spectacular building underneath, with most of its original detail still intact,” Mr. Wines said. “AHRC’s restoration of this fine, late-1860’s Italianate house makes a major contribution to the preservation in Riverhead. ”

The house was built by John Downs, a wealthy produce broker, Mr. Wines said. By the beginning of the 20th Century, it belonged to Elija Griswold, a cigar maker whose cigar factory is still standing a few houses down, on the corner of Lincoln Street and Washington Avenue.

Mr. Griswold and his son, Oliver, were among the first commissioners of the Riverhead Water District, and were founding board members of the Riverhead Savings Bank and the Suffolk County Trust Company, according to Mr. Wines.

The Landmarks commission was so happy with the restoration job being done by AHRC, that they held a press conference Thursday to publicly commend them.

“I think what AHRC has done here is quite remarkable,” Mr. Wines said, adding that the restoration will be good for the neighborhood and will help neighboring property values.

“The Lincoln Street house is a fine example of the Italianate style popular after the Civil War, with its original double doors, ornamental window in the front gable,  distinctive rope moldings,  wide cornices and many other interesting architectural details,” Mr. Wines said.

Town Board members and County Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) also were present and gave proclamations to AHRC for their work.

Also present was Pam Hunt, who is Elija Griswold’s great great granddaughter and who brought some old photos of the house, which she recalls being in when she was very young. Ms. Hunt also remembers going to the cigar warehouse as a child, since it was also a candy store. She believes it was one of the oldest standing warehouses in the country until it was converted to a lawyers’ office several years ago.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said AHRC also got some help from local businesses in their renovation efforts. Riverhead Building Supply donated supplies, and Wayne and Liz Kogel, who own EM Flooring and Radiant Insulation in Middle Island, who also donated supplies. Mr. Kogel’s brother lives in the home.

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