The partial demolition of the landmarked Maine Maid Inn, a historic stop on the Underground Railroad, proceeded this week without approval from the Oyster Bay landmarks commission, outraging preservationists.
Shingles had been torn off much of the Quaker home's southern side, leaving wood studs exposed to the elements as an excavator rumbled over the debris-strewn property this week.
"To think they would take a landmark like this and just throw it away is heartbreaking," said Kathleen Velsor, a historian and professor at SUNY Old Westbury who researched the house's history and last week discovered the demolition work. "This is the only public place we have on Long Island that we could go and see where the Underground Railroad really took place."
The home at 4 Old Jericho Tpke. was built in 1789 and owned by Valentine Hicks, a Quaker. It received landmark status from the town board in 2012. The town code requires that exterior work on landmarked buildings receive approval from the Landmark Preservation Commission.
John Collins, a commission member and president of the Raynham Hall Museum, said that did not happen. "If the system worked the way it was supposed to, the owner would have submitted drawings," Collins said. "We would have reviewed it and commented what we liked and didn't like and possibly they'd have to revise it."
The project has been undertaken by the Scotto Brothers company, a Jericho-based restaurant and catering-hall business that bought the property last year. Arthur Viana, a representative of the Scotto Brothers, said Wednesday that a news release describing the project would be forthcoming. "It'll all be in the package," he said.
It was unclear whether the work was approved by Town of Oyster Bay planning and development Commissioner Frederick Ippolito, who is on leave while facing federal tax evasion charges. Oyster Bay officials declined to comment on whether a permit had been issued for the construction and did not respond to requests to make permits available.
Diana Aquiar, who once was Ippolito's deputy commissioner before leaving the department, has returned to the department and was reviewing the property file on Wednesday. "I'm just looking at the files now," she said.
Philip Blocklyn, executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society, said he was concerned about the work being done without landmark commission approval. "Without knowing what they're doing, it's a little troubling," he said.
Velsor, who included the history of the Maine Maid Inn in her book, "The Underground Railroad on Long Island: Friends in Freedom," said the partial demolition that appears to have gutted the interior may have destroyed history: a linen closet that concealed a staircase to the attic, where families of Africans escaped enslavement and historical documents are believed to have been hidden in the walls.
"They took a piece of history that belongs to Long Island and just said they were going to renovate without any sensitivity," Velsor said.
After being contacted by Collins, town officials on Wednesday announced the landmarks commission would meet on April 30 to consider the building's alteration and restoration.
Collins said it may be too late for the commission to properly do its work, which typically involves lengthy proposal reviews. "It's after the fact," he said."They haven't built anything, but they've started physical work, and they've removed stuff. Hopefully, this will be an example of why they should play by the rules."