by Lynn Byrne
The story of Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island reads like a novel.
A young, 23 year old man attends his great aunt’s funeral and is suprisingly and suddenly handed a 243 acre estate that has been in his family since the 1650′s from its true heir, his uncle, long employed by the Pixar animation studio in California.
The young man doesn’t want it just for himself. But what would happen to the property? Development?
Bennett Konesni would be the 11th generation to own the land. It has a rich history filled with stories. Original owner, Nathaniel Sylvester and his wife Grizzell are believed to have introduced English boxwood to North America –that explains the gigantic 12 foot boxwoods lining an aged brick path. They are over 300 years old. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a frequent visitor to the Manor but thought the teacups were too small. Another ancestor invented baking powder that is still produced today–it’s in my pantry: Rumford Baking Powder. Bennett’s late great uncle preserved Sylvester Manor’s history by cataloging documents dating from the 1600′s kept in a hidden vault tucked behind a jib door in the front hall. And that charming great aunt? She traveled Shelter Island in either a red or white cadillac, depending on which car best matched her outfit—attire that always included white gloves and a hat (my kind of gal).
But not all of the history is so rosy. The Sylvesters’ made their fortune from the labor of slaves. Yep, there were slaves in the North. Plenty. Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester were the largest slaveholders in the North in their day. Enslavement here has been kept hidden by revisionist history because it didn’t suit the North’s story about the Civil War.
Sylvester Manor was run as a provisioning plantation, which means that crops, timber, livestock and other supplies were harvested there to be used by the Sylvesters to help run two sugar plantation with more slaves, in Barbados. Today there are hundreds of Sylvesters listed in the Barbados phonebook. Some of the slaves at Sylvester Manor slept in the Manor house attic reached by a steep staircase behind a door in one of the parlors. So essentially, the Sylvester fortune stemmed from owning people like livestock and other chattel, right here in New York State.
So what did young Bennett do? Did he accept the bequest?
Sort of. Bennett did more. He forged a new history for Sylvester Manor.
Bennett worked with the Peconic Land Trust to found the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, a non profit organization dedicated to preserving the land and the home. Fast forward 7 years and all of the pieces of the puzzle seem to be falling into place.
Land long overgrown with invasive vines has been cleared and is well on its way to being returned to fields of fruits or vegetables and livestock pasture, with many farm chores completed by volunteers. Bennett knows and loves organic farming. He lived with is great aunt one summer while he interned at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett NY.
An application for National Landmark status will soon be filed and my bet is that it will be a shoe-in. Bennett believes that Sylvester Manor’s checkered past is best addressed by complete transparency. To that end, many of the historic documents have been on display at Bobst Library at New York University. He has even incorporated what surely was one of the slave traditions–work songs, into the life of the Manor. Bennett was awarded a Watson Fellowship in 2005 to study work songs around the world and he has endeavored to include this musical history in Sylvester Manor’s programming.
A series of conservation easements and the sale of development rights to the town of Shelter Island and Suffolk County has created a 7 million dollar capital fund. Operating costs are funded by a farm-to-table dinners and other events (of course all donations are welcome).
It was at this year’s farm-to-table dinner that I got my insiders’ tour. Before the dinner, during set up, I met Bennett and his lovely wife Edith. They were so unassuming that I had no idea they were “lord” and “lady” of the manor. In typical Lynn fashion, I thought they were just two of the young volunteers, until much later in the evening when Bennett gave a short speech.
But enough words, on with the tour!
Here is the West Parlor, with its French mural wallpaper first hand blocked in 1849. One accesses the slave staircase from this room. Ironic that such a lovely place leads to darkness.
The East Parlor is populated by portraits of ancestors and beautiful delft tiles. Amazingly it has had only two coats since 1737. You can see chips of the original Prussian Blue beneath the later cream coat. So cool.
Look closely at the portrait of a young girl painted in 1810 with a small porcelain fruit basket. Inside the hutch in the East Parlor lies that very same porcelain basket. It’s been in this room for over 200 years.
The vault that housed the many papers documenting Sylvester Manor’s rich history is found behind a hidden door in this front hall:
This next room is the dining room with charming topiary murals. Bennett says his great aunt fed him some awfully tough steak in this room. The small drawing of Sylvester Manor in the hearth is endearing.
Sylvester Manor is not quite a museum yet. Bennett and Edith’s instruments are hanging in this sitting room which sports some rather ugly stuff! Still it’s nice to see their young lives in evidence.
A wonderful book has been written about Sylvester Manor, by Mac Griswold. I am deep into it. And yes, it does read just like a novel.
Bennett’s wonderful plans are going well, but are still in their early stages. If you are interested in preserving historic landmarks in our country (you know I am), please do consider supporting Sylvester Manor. It is an unusually intact and important part of our nation’s history. Visit their website to learn more.
Photo credits: The photo of Bennett and Edith from their blog. Photos by Gross and Daley from the Sylvester Manor website. Book photo from Amazon, where I am an affiliate. All other photos, my own.