John Schmid, a contractor who moved to Huntington Bay nine years ago, had heard about the estate known as High Lindens ever since he started buying property in the area. When told it was up for sale three years ago, he jumped in his car and drove up the winding driveway for his first glimpse.
It was love at first sight.
"It was just breathtaking," he says. "And you could see that once it was put back together, it would be magnificent."
After a few delays, he bought the stately white mansion for $1.3 million, and a year later he is close to completing its renovation. Now, Schmid has the house up for sale, listed for $2.695 million, although he is still pondering the possibility of making it his home. Either way, he says he's glad he got to know the dwelling, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a sweeping view of the bay. Like others drawn to historic home restoration, he has learned that although the process can be time-consuming and expensive, it also can reveal a world of lost grandeur.
"To me, this is what a beautiful old home should be," he says.
The home, constructed sometime before 1839, was built by John R. Rhinelander, a wealthy doctor and Manhattan landowner whose abundant garden yielded peaches, plumbs and grapes. He dubbed the estate Rhineland.
The next owner, Thomas Lord Jr., son of a wealthy New York merchant, christened it Interbaien, a combination of Latin and Dutch meaning "Between the Bays." In 1877, a local newspaper called it "perhaps the most picturesque site in this section of the country, commanding a view of the Harbor on the west, the bay on the east, the Connecticut shore on the north and the village on the south."
The home passed through other owners but was first listed on historic maps as the John P. Kane Mansion, named after a partner in a masonry and building supply company in Manhattan. Another wealthy owner, Frederick L. Upjohn, one of the founders of the Upjohn pharmaceutical company, remodeled it, added two wings and christened it High Lindens.
"I went crazy for this house," says Schmid, a contractor who renovates brownstones and residential buildings in Manhattan.
The home, which sits like a grand dame at the top of a hill on 2 1/ 2 acres, was constructed as a traditional three-story Georgian, but it is known for its Italianate elements, including elongated windows, flat roof and deep overhanging eaves.
There are seven bedrooms, 4 1/ 2 baths, a music room, two family rooms, a formal dining room and a ballroom along with three French-style balconies. While refurbishing the walls, Schmid discovered bricks between the beams holding up the home.
"That was apparently to slow down fires," he says.
The home is near the top of Huntington Town Historian Robert Hughes' list of important structures.
"A big part of that is because it has survived so long and is so well intact," he says. "And it represents the beginning of Huntington as a summer house area. We usually associate that with the Gilded Age, but actually it started here in the 1830s."
Its location on a hill overlooking the bay also makes High Lindens special, he says. The previous owner, Joseph Mack, shared that opinion -- so much so that he requested to be buried in a town cemetery that has a view of his home.
"A house like that needs ... someone who appreciates its history and grandeur and is willing to spend the time to restore it the way it should be," Hughes says. "This one has a lot of detail work both on the interior and exterior. Restoring it entails more than just getting up there with a paint roller."
Leading this visitor around the residence, Schmid points out things like the 14-foot ceilings, oak paneling and hand-molded plasterwork around the lights. He says he particularly likes the dumbwaiter, which servants used to transport meals upstairs from the basement kitchen.
It was life on an elegant scale, all right.
"Almost every room had a fireplace," he says. "The servants stoked the fires and kept the heat going."
The fact that the restoration of High Lindens was going to be a daunting task kept away many potential buyers, Schmid says. Not him.
"If you can break it, you can fix it," he says.
Selling such a home isn't more difficult than selling other types of homes, as long as the restoration has been done properly, said Paul Mateyunas, a real estate agent with Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty and the author of two books on the North Shore's historic homes. Then, there's the fact that they usually were built with quality materials and in prime locations, with a fair amount of land.
"You get a little piece of history," he says. "I think it's the best of both worlds."
Whether Schmid sells the property or decides to make it his home, the project at least has given him the opportunity to taste a bit of the elegance of a bygone era.
"I sit on the porch and I see the boats coming and going in the harbor," he says. "I take a picture of it almost every day because you can't describe what you see."