Keeping alive a historic Bay Shore manor

Eileen Curran, a docent at Sagtikos Manor, dressed

Eileen Curran, a docent at Sagtikos Manor, dressed in period costume, is shown in the 1902 peacock dining room. (May 28, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan)

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At Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore, the wooden stairways creak, the antique mantel clock is ticking, and everywhere, images of the mansion's most famous visitor, George Washington, meet the eye.

If the walls of this 318-year-old estate home could talk, what tales they would tell. Instead, stories of the past are unfolded for visitors by members of the Sagtikos Manor Historical Society.

The society was founded by volunteers 50 years ago, when the last private owner of the home, Robert David Lion Gardiner, moved out, leaving a legacy of historic clutter as long as his name: 42 rooms full of period furniture and valuable artifacts.

Since then, the group of about 250 has been preserving the legacy of the house, one of the oldest and most historically significant on Long Island.

In the past decade, working with Suffolk County, the society has helped keep the manor open as a museum, cataloging thousands of items under its roof and interpreting the house for about 6,000 visitors a year.

"They are the group that really saved Sagtikos Manor," says Richard Martin, Suffolk's director of historic services, who has worked with the society since the manor became a county museum in 2002. In particular, Martin cites the passion and energy of the society's 25 docents, mostly retired teachers who are trained to interpret the house's history for visitors.

"The docents keep the house alive," Martin says. "Without them, it would be closed to the public most of the time."

Although Martin considers the society a model for other volunteer-driven historic homes on Long Island, there is a cloud on the horizon. The docents are an aging group -- and it's an open question as to who will fill their shoes in the future. "I used to be one of the young ones," jokes 60-year-old society president Christine Gottsch of West Islip. "What happened?"

When Norma Meder joined the society in 1980, the average age was younger -- and there were more men involved. Now the house's senior docent, Meder, a retired teacher who allows to being "over 65," was recruited by a friend and fell in love with the manor. "The house is fascinating," she says. "Every time you open a drawer or a door, there's something new."

Gottsch, who joined the group in the mid-1990s, agrees. "It's a puzzle we're still unraveling," she says.

You think you've got a lot of old stuff in the attic? Sagtikos boasts more than 200 pieces of furniture, some dating to the 1700s, 100 clocks, more than 1,000 pieces of decorative art (china, glassware, etc.), 400 prints and paintings and more than 3,000 books and periodicals.

Cataloging it all is an enormous, ongoing process that the county and docents undertook, culminating in the unveiling of some of the newly found treasures, which were on special exhibit in May for the society's 50th anniversary fundraiser. These included a watercolor painting done by a child in the 1700s, rare 18th century cutlery by the East Hampton silversmith Elias Pelletreau, and an original George Washington letter from 1777.

When Meder first got involved, Sagitkos Manor was still owned by Gardiner, a member of the Long Island family that has owned Gardiners Island on the East End for nearly 400 years. "It was very much a private museum," Meder notes.

Gardiner, who visited the manor regularly until his death in 2004, was also a bit of an embellisher. "He was a wonderful storyteller," Meder recalls. "However, when he didn't know the answer, he filled it in out of his head."

Thus, researchers found that many of the stories behind the paintings and artifacts in the house turned out to be exaggerations or outright fabrications. No matter: The real history of Sagtikos Manor, much of it pieced together by Meder, Gottsch and their colleagues, is interesting enough.

The land for the manor was purchased in 1692 from the Secatogue Indians by Stephanus Van Cortland, the first American-born mayor of New York City. The Indians called it "Sagtikos," which the society's website (sagtikosmanor .com) says is a Native American word for "head of the hissing snake." It's believed that two creeks on the property's boundaries ran north to south in a slithering manner, inspiring the name.

In 1758, the house belonged to the Thompson family, who expanded the structure, adding nine rooms and a hallway to what had been a five-room house. Isaac Thompson, the owner during the American Revolution, was an ardent Patriot, which may have prompted George Washington to choose the manor over Ye Olde Holiday Inn as one of his stopovers during a weeklong presidential tour of Long Island in April 1790. Thompson also married a Gardiner, which made that distinguished family a part of the Sagtikos lineage.

In 1902, the house was lifted up and in 21st century parlance "blown out"; a three-story west wing and one large room on the east side were added. A summer home for the city-based Thompson and Gardiner families, the manor was the scene of much Gatsby-esque socializing in the early part of the last century.

This colorful history is what attracted Maria Pecorale of West Islip to become a docent a dozen years ago. "I just love this house," said Pecorale, 71, as she gave her daughter Erica Pecorale a tour during the anniversary event.

"And she really loves George Washington," chipped in Erica, 45, who lives in Brightwaters. "If she'd been alive then, she would have been a George Washington groupie!"

The fact that most of the docents at Sagtikos Manor are 60 or older is hardly an anomaly in the world of historic museums. Sandra L. Baker, a board member of the American Association for Museum Volunteers in Washington, D.C., estimates the average age of volunteers at historic houses and museums nationwide is mid-60s.

Why are so many older adults attracted to places that celebrate the past? "A major factor is that older, often retired, people have the time," says Baker, who is also the volunteer program director for the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. "But there is another element in terms of their interest level in comparison to that of younger people. They have discovered the importance of the past at a very personal level . . . especially as they watch it fade out of public memory. I have so many volunteers who say, 'You know, I just hated history when I was in school, but now I see how the past has shaped the present and dictates the future in ways that I never noticed when I was younger.' "

Baker is optimistic that people in the next generation will become more interested in local history as they get older. For the present, the past at Sagtikos Manor is preserved through the efforts of the Society's old guard.

As Gottsch says, "The story needs to be told."

BECOMING A DOCENT

An interest in history and the ability to communicate it are required for volunteer docent positions at Sagtikos Manor. New docents receive a background manual and suggested narration for about 20 rooms open to the public. Newbies are paired with experienced docents for practice. "New docents are asked to narrate one or two rooms initially," says senior docent Norma Meder. "However, all are encouraged to learn as many rooms as possible." Typically, recruits are ready to solo after a few weeks.

Docents wear costumes geared to the periods of the manor. Some spend $200-$300 for their costume, but Meder says others "have been very creative and put together costumes from thrift store finds."

TAKING A TOUR

The tour reveals the story of estate owners as well as the architectural styles of the rooms. Visitors see the second-floor bedroom where George Washington is believed to have slept and the window where, legend says, Isaac Thompson, a Patriot and owner of the house during the Revolution, was shot at by passing British soldiers. The tour takes about 45 minutes.

In July and August, tours are given on Fridays and Sundays from 1 to 3:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

In September, tours are on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1-3:30 p.m.

Admission $7; students and seniors 60 and older, $5; children ages 3-12, $3. For information, call 631-854-0939, or visit sagtikosmanor.com.

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