Opinion: A sad farewell to a North Fork landmark



The Aldrich House (1873-2015)

Cause of death: Demolition by neglect

Next of kin: The Old Steeple Church and some 90 other “relatives” along Aquebogue’s Main Road

Burial: Town landfill 

There was a time when this old house teemed with activity. Births and deaths, weddings and holidays unfolded within her walls. With her elegant Italianate brackets under the eaves, a double bay and arched gothic windows, she provided a charming welcome to all who traversed the North Fork’s main road as well as a tangible connection to our nation’s past. For 142 years her Victorian exterior withstood the weather and changing tastes. It took over 50 years of demolition-by-neglect to get to the point of being razed. It will only take a few days for the site of this singular artifact of earlier times to return to an empty lot — and we are all the worse for it.

It didn’t have to end this way.

Our culture provides us with so many freedoms, yet we often forget that with great freedom comes great responsibility. The owners of historic properties have an even greater responsibility. They are stewards entrusted with the care of something endangered and irreplaceable. No one can bring back a house from 1873. Once it is gone, it is gone forever. Even the land we so zealously try to protect is still there underneath our parking lots and strip malls, but the Aldrich House will only live on in our limited memories and some rare photographs. To repurpose a popular quote, we don’t inherit these architectural portals to the past, we borrow them from our children. How will we ourselves be remembered if we allow our historic homes to vanish?

Now that the Aldrich House has been reduced to a pile of debris, are there lessons we can learn from this loss? Can this be our Penn Station moment? When did this house go from a grand home to an uninhabitable derelict? What could the Town of Riverhead have done to prevent this from happening? Why was it left to deteriorate for over 50 years without an attempt to at least stabilize it? Why didn’t the owner sell it to someone who would protect it?

The government of Southold Town where I reside has made great strides in preserving open farmland through the Peconic Land Trust and providing incentives to farmers and vineyard owners. It has recently passed a law that will give incentives to individuals or organizations that buy historic churches or community buildings with the intent to landmark the building in order to preserve the façade. But what is being done for the owners of historic buildings like the Aldrich House and so many others on our heritage-rich North Fork? There is a community in Pawtucket, R.I., called Quality Hill. The local government there grants a $700 annual property tax credit to owners who list their historic properties on the city’s Historic Overlay District. It is critical for Riverhead and Southold towns to recognize and protect our architectural heritage by giving homeowners incentives to landmark their historic properties and thus protect them.

Our historic properties are a gift to the street. They significantly contribute to the ambiance and character of the North Fork. They are just as important as open land and just as endangered. We all share the responsibility for every act of architectural vandalism. Are our town officials ready to take on the responsibility of addressing this issue?

Like the Aldrich House, our old homes are an essential fabric of our community and contribute to the unfolding tapestry that is our place in American history. This year, Southold celebrates its 375th anniversary. There are many extant, local pre-revolutionary homes that proudly sheltered our earliest settlers, and many Victorian homes that proudly greeted returning Union soldiers. These structures speak to a uniqueness that is the North Fork, and the envy of the rest of Long Island. Ours is a rich treasury of homes that deserves protection.

The late Aldrich House was a de facto landmark in that it was recognizable and helped establish one’s location — even in derelict condition, its presence informed the passerby of arriving on the North Fork. Unfortunately, it was not a town landmark and lacked the protection of such a designation. Collectively, it seems that we lack the larger vision — a vision that’s 20/20 regarding open land — of the role these historic homes play in the public good, and the civic conscience to protect them. It’s not so much that we lack the money, but that we lack the appreciation for, commitment to, and priorities that value our local historic homes.

In her farewell to Penn Station (1963), Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for The New York Times, remarked, “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

It is not too late for the remaining historic structures on our North Fork, but Riverhead and Southold towns must institute incentives for owners without delay if these towns value their architectural treasury. If not, future generations will undoubtedly judge us harshly.

Robert Harper is a member of the Southold Town Historic Preservation Commission. The Harpers are residents of Mattituck.