Threat to demolish Pyrrhus Concer home draws protests

Pyrrhus Concer, after retiring from whaling, operated a Pyrrhus Concer, after retiring from whaling, operated a shuttle service in his catboat moving tourists and residents from the north end of Lake Agawam to ocean beach on the south. His house on Pond Lane faced the lake. Photo Credit: Picasa

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Plans to demolish what may have been the home of Pyrrhus Concer -- a former slave, whaler and once cherished 19th-century Hamptons resident -- have sparked calls to save the property and honor the legacy of a somewhat forgotten Long Island figure.

Owners have applied to remove the house to make way for a new two-story home at 51 Pond Lane, in the heart of Southampton Village, arguing the structure was built after Concer died in 1897.

But local historians said further study needs to be done on the two-story white house on the west side of Lake Agawam, where Concer ferried residents for 40 years on his sailboat after ending his whaling career.

On Wednesday, the Southampton Village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review delayed a decision on the demolition for at least a month, while further study is conducted.

A plaque at Lake Agawam Park commemorates Concer, believed to be the first African-American to visit Japan, when the whaler he was on returned stranded seamen to the then-isolated island in 1845.

Black leaders on the South Fork said the house should be preserved, arguing that too much history related to free blacks and slaves on Long Island has been lost.

"We're at a place of saying enough is enough," said Brenda Simmons, chairwoman of the African American Museum and Center for Excellence of the East End in Southampton. "So much history has been unrecognized, destroyed or eliminated in the community."

Sally Spanburgh, a preservationist who lives in the village of Southampton, said that she thought it was "extremely unlikely" that the house was built after Concer died and said a forensic historical analysis of the property is needed.

The property was bought by a prominent Southampton family after Concer's death on Aug. 23, 1897. Spanburgh said she believes the owners, if starting from scratch, would have built a bigger, grander house -- "more in keeping to their taste and times."

Zachary Studenroth, a town historian who consults for the village board, had pegged the construction date at 1900 to 1920, based on a review of the exterior architecture. But he said at Wednesday night's board meeting that more study was needed, including looking at the home's interior.

Eric Bregman, the Southampton attorney for homeowners David Hermer and Silvia Campo, said they would allow an interior inspection. But he maintained it was built after Concer died.

"The historic interest is in the property, not the house," Bregman said, adding that the homeowners would put up another marker to commemorate the place where Concer lived. "Is it fair to the property owners to keep the house as a monument to a terrific guy, and important guy, when he never lived there?"

Curtis Highsmith, chairman of the village preservation and architectural review board, asked how Bregman could be sure Concer did not live in the house. Bregman said he was being asked to prove a negative.

Concer was born on March 17, 1814, as a slave to the family of Capt. Nathan Cooper in the Village of Southampton. When he was 5, he was sold to Charles Pelletreau, another prominent Southampton man, for $25. Concer was freed when he was 21 and signed on to the whaling ship Manhattan.

Concer held a place of honor in the village's 250th anniversary parade in 1890, and when he died, an obituary in the Southampton Press described him as "one of the most respected residents of the village." He left the First Presbyterian Church $1,300 for youth programs.

Lucius Ware, president of the NAACP Eastern Long Island chapter, said the house should be turned into a museum to Concer. "We're looking at something that demolishes history," he said.

Bregman, who said the house is in poor shape, said it's "not going to be a museum. This is going to be a private home, one way or the other."

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