Learn more about Southold

The Whitaker House – In Retrospect

In 1640 John England was granted his home lot in Southold, on Main Road and Hortons Lane. It was a fine location, right across the street from the church, which meant that it was in the hub of the religious and civic life of the new little community in the wilderness. John England was fortunate in his choice of a vocation, too. He was a well-digger – a trade much esteemed in frontier towns. From his day, there are two wells on the back lot of the property today, and one in the basement of the house, all filled in, of course.

Forty-four years later, in 1684, the Southold church had outgrown its quarters, and a second church building was raised across Main Road – historians say on, or near, the John England property, on which the house was built later.

Little is recorded about this lot until, in the mid-1700’s, a salt-box house was built on it. The house was constructed with integrity. Its floorboards were a tree wide. It was a one-story home with a loft in the back, and no windows on the north side. It is the central section of the house as it stands today.

As time passed, a third church building was needed for the growing town, and in 1803 the present Southold Presbyterian Church was built across the street from this home; the church which stands there today. This home served as a parsonage for several of its ministers, until the Presbyterians in 1836 built the manse that still stands today on the east side of the church.

In time the home came into the possession of Captain Lazarus H. Jennings, whose sister had been described by J. Horton Case as a “schoolmarm par excellence.” For her, Captain Jennings built the east wing of this house, and around 1815 “sister Katie” set up a Dame School in the new wing – the right side of the sketch. Perhaps it was during this renovation that the front of the house was raised to make a second story.

According to Southold Town records, in 1819 Foster Sayre bought the house from Captain Jennings, and later sold it to Ira Tuthill, who passed it to his lawyer son, also Ira. Some time during this period, the large west (left) wing was added to the house.

In 1892 the house was bought by Rev. Epher Whitaker, beloved pastor of the Southold Presbyterian Church since 1851 and an admired historian. Dr. Whitaker had published his definitive “History of Southold” in 1882, and was instrumental in forming the Suffolk County Historical Society and the Southold Academy. Southold Library’s Whitaker Collection honors him.

Dr. and Mrs. George T. Thompson bought the house in 1940, and found it a charming shell, in much need of repairs. They asked architect, Robert Bryson to advise them on accurate restoration. He found that the wide floorboards in the central section had crumbled and needed replacing. He suggested replacing the long-deteriorated front porches with two entrance porches. He found that the original walls were plastered with a mixture containing beach sand and hog bristles, attesting the age of the home, but were inadequately insulated, so this was corrected. The oldest window, a wavy-glass affair, was found in the rear of the central section. The whole house was carefully restored to retain its period features.

Upon moving in, Alice Thompson was surprised to find that, under the hand-loomed carpet in the Dame School’s east wing, layers of newspapers had been laid as insulation – papers bearing 19th Century dates! She was delighted to discover, on a door panel of the west wing, a painting done by a visiting missionary; and in the east wing she was surprised to find a closet full of bottles of home-made fruit tonic. A friend of Mrs. Thompson’s, Ann Currie-Bell, founder of the Southold Historical Society, who knew the house well historically, once said with a smile: "There are poltergeists in this house! Things unexpectedly keep hopping off the shelves..."

Thus this home and property have been identified with the religious, historical and academic life of Southold during its entire recorded history.

Post Script: This account was written by Joy Bear in 1983 for the Weekender. Over time the home fell into disrepair once again and was purchased by the Town of Southold to use for the expansion of Town Hall, which is adjacent to The Whitaker House. A committee was established to restore the home. Marie & Lee Beninati purchased The Whitaker House in 2004 and a restoration began anew. Today, this historic house has a new life. May it continue to stand for many more years to come!