For Peggie Como, the idea of living in a Victorian home in Sea Cliff was a dream.
Her collection of antique furniture would surely complement the house beautifully, like the inside of a classic jewelry box. But there was something she wasn’t prepared for — at the time, Como knew nothing about Victorian architecture.
"All I knew was that the house was older and big, with a lot of room to fit my furniture in," says Como, who is now 73. "I thought it was a 1940s grandmother house. Then at the closing, the owner said, ‘You know that’s an 1889 house.’ We had no clue."
Como has been a Sea Cliff resident since 1976, and has lived in two Victorian-era houses. Her current home, built in 1898, sits where a Methodist tabernacle once stood.
In the decades since she bought her first home, she's learned plenty about architecture and its history as the office manager of Sherlock Homes Real Estate in Sea Cliff. For instance, there’s plenty of upkeep — every time there’s a chip, she and her husband call the painters.
Como and her neighbors are stewards of Nassau County’s largest collection of well-preserved Victorian homes. They’re dignified and full of character, standing proudly in a dazzling array of sunflower yellow, royal purple, baby blue, olive and lime green.
In a way, Sea Cliff, nestled atop a bluff near Long Island Sound in the Town of Oyster Bay, is frozen in time.
Like a painting
The distinctive architecture is also represented on the village’s main street. It’s lined with shops selling tarot cards and vinyl records, and narrow, winding roads call to mind a simpler era.
The village has never had any franchises in recent history, according to Terry Sciubba, a real estate broker at Sherlock Homes Real Estate. There’s a museum, two libraries and independent businesses that have been around for decades, not to mention one-of-a-kind eateries like The Onion Tree, serving up delicious, authentic Indian fare.
The expansive shore of Hempstead Harbor outlines the village, beckoning newcomers and reminding longtime residents there’s no place like home. And, there’s literally history around every corner.
All of this is packed in 1 square mile that began as a Methodist church campground in 1871. It expanded and was incorporated as a village within a dozen years.
"The downtown area looks like it came out of a Currier and Ives painting," says Sciubba, who’s lived here for 45 years. "It hasn’t changed."
Yet Sea Cliff’s landscape is shifting all the time. Amid its history and tradition, a new generation of life is coming to blend their own hues into the vibrant village.
Sciubba says millennials started moving in during the coronavirus pandemic. Visitors also come from all over Long Island and New York City for day trips, supporting the small businesses and spending time at the beach. Sea Cliff is home to newly arrived young professionals, artists of all kinds and families that have simply stayed put.
The architecture may be a testament to that.
Building a legacy
"As you tour around Sea Cliff, you’ll see a wide range of homes, ranging from Queen Anne to Gothic," says architect Jim Smiros.
But he adds that Sea Cliff’s architecture has become "as diverse as its community now" — along with Victorian homes there are bungalows, cottages and midcentury modern houses.
"I think Sea Cliff has a really rich architectural history, rooted in Victorian style," says Smiros, whose firm Smiros & Smiros Architects based in Glen Cove focuses on residential architecture. Over 30 years, Smiros has worked on many projects in Sea Cliff. "I think there’s something for everyone."
The Queen Anne architecture style is the most prevalent type of Victorian home in Sea Cliff, Smiros notes. He says caring for these homes can be a challenge, due to their size and materials, both of which can range dramatically.
Victorian-era architecture facts
- A Victorian home can range from 1,000 to “several thousand” square feet, and is made from clapboard and masonry, predominantly, according to Jim Smiros.
- A Queen Anne home is mostly made from clapboard and shingle with some masonry, Smiros says.
- The Queen Anne Victorian style emerged in the United States between 1880 and 1910.
- There are 28 Sea Cliff homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- The average price of a Victorian home in Sea Cliff is $891,000 in 2021, according to Terry Sciubba.
A passerby in Sea Cliff wouldn't be surprised to find the inside of a Victorian-era house is just as grand as its street view. The interior of such a home often features elaborate moldings, tall staircases, paneled walls and built-ins often in deeper wood tones, Smiros says.
"They do suffer from exposure to the elements," he adds. "They need a lot of regular care and maintenance."
Como agrees: "It costs a lot of money to keep these houses up. Every time you turn around, paint is peeling or something has to be repaired, like rotted wood. But even if you have a new house, you’re going to have that type of thing anyway."
Paul Anderson grew up in Sea Cliff, as did his father. Now, he’s chairman of Sea Cliff’s architectural review board, a group of residents that reviews building permit applications and additions and renovations on homes.
"There are a lot of true Victorian houses in Sea Cliff," he says. "Percentage-wise, compared to most Long Island villages, it’s got a much higher percentage and a lot of them are truly the real thing. They’re not imitations; they were built then because that was the style."
An owner of a Victorian home should know exactly what they’re getting into when they buy it, Anderson says. He should know — he lives in one, too, built in 1878.
"Topography is key. There aren’t that many places on a hill like this [on Long Island]. Northport is kind of similar; most people say that’s probably the closest thing to Sea Cliff.”Paul Anderson, chairman of Sea Cliff’s architectural review board
"My approach to these houses is you try to maintain the original integrity and hope that nothing fails," Anderson says. "My house still has most of the original windows put in way back when. It’s got a stone foundation that I worry about that’s been here literally since the house was built, and I’ve added onto it."
He says the paint on a Victorian home is a "vast undertaking" as well.
What brought them here
The rainbow color splashed throughout Sea Cliff is a draw, particularly for out-of-towners. There’s a standout on Sea Cliff Avenue, which is the hub of the village. This Victorian home towers over boutiques and restaurants in eye-grabbing color. The golden yellow wood siding is accented by turquoise and barn red trim, along with touches of teal.
Couple Liam Byrne, 41, and Christy Painter, 36, recently moved in there. They were living and working in New York City, but both have siblings who live in Sea Cliff. So when the time came to start house hunting, they had a lead.
"I’ve been here a million times to visit," says Painter. "So I said, if we leave the city, I only want to live in Sea Cliff."
They’ve been here for about six months now. Although their offices are in Manhattan, they’re still working from home. But another selling point of Sea Cliff for them was the proximity to their stomping grounds, via Long Island Rail Road.
The laid-back energy, beautiful beach and the walkability of the village attracted the couple to Sea Cliff, too. As for that regal architecture, it does come with challenges. Their home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means they must consult the village’s landmark preservation commission about any repairs they wish to make on the house, Byrne says.
"It’s a lot of work but I’m a handy guy and we love old stuff, so it definitely fit the bill," he says. "And that’s what makes Sea Cliff, Sea Cliff."
When Nehal Gatha, 40, and his wife first moved to Sea Cliff from Floral Park in 2014, they tested the waters by renting.
"We wanted to make sure we’d love it, and then bought a place," he says.
They lived in a Victorian-era home for two years before buying their own place. After living there, the couple wanted a few of those old-fashioned elements in a more modern setting. Their current home was first built in 1928, but had a fire before they moved in and had to be rebuilt, Gatha says.
The house is "quirky" and full of character; yellow with a bright green door. There’s a house down the road painted bright blue. Gatha loves this about his neighborhood.
"No two houses on the street, let alone in Sea Cliff, are the same," he says.
Above all else, it was important for them to find the right place to raise a family: their daughter is turning 5 in October, and their son is 3.
"We were looking for a town that had that charm and didn’t feel like the rest of Long Island," says Gatha, who grew up in East Islip.
Iris Eplan and her husband moved to Sea Cliff in 2007, in search of the same thing.
"We’ve always loved the artist-feel of it," she says of the village. "It spoke to us because we were looking for something not so conventional or conforming."
Eplan, 51, grew up in Atlantic Beach, and her husband is from Beirut, Lebanon. Their home was built in 1890, and they’re raising two sons in it.
"With a teen and a 12-year-old, it’s not like they're exactly easy on the house," Eplan says with a laugh. "There’s lots of slamming of doors and playing and bumping into light fixtures that are literally 100 years old."
But she and Gatha agree that Sea Cliff is a wonderful place for kids to grow up, and new families are moving in all the time. The village is served by the North Shore School District.
"My daughter just started kindergarten last week, and most of the people walk to the school, even in the rain or snow," Gatha says. "Sometimes we feel like we know everyone with kids in town, then that week we’ll meet like five new families with kids the same age as ours."
Planting new roots
Sea Cliff is a hidden gem that’s been discovered over and over again.
"Since the '70s, it has always been an allure for people who want to move somewhere that’s a little bit different," says Sciubba.
That’s what drew Laurie Schoeman to the village. She currently lives in Brooklyn and is searching for a new environment in which to raise her 5-year-old son. Schoeman has browsed a few houses in Sea Cliff, and is just waiting for the right Victorian — with the right price — to come along.
"I’m looking for a really charming, close-knit community that I can call home," says Schoeman, 43. "[Sea Cliff] checks off all the points."
She adds that what she’s paying for rent right now, she could get a mortgage in Sea Cliff. "And it reminds me a bit of the Bay Area," says Schoeman, who used to live in San Francisco.
For 33-year-old Elizabeth Olivier of Williston Park, it's all about the aesthetics. The interior designer "fell in love with the intricacy of the architecture" and is eager to find a home for herself and 8-year-old son. She says she’s visited the village "hundreds" of times.
"As a visitor, I’ve only ever been greeted very nicely," she adds.
But hopefully she won’t be an outsider for long.
"I have looked at listings," Olivier says, "and the way my brain works is, when I want to do something, I am doing it."
Michael Dunn, 37, and his wife are taking that leap. The Brooklyn couple has family throughout Nassau County and just closed on a ranch in Sea Cliff, built in 1954. After some renovation, they’ll be ready to move in early next year.
And with a baby on the way, they’re looking forward to a change of scene — in marvelous color.
"As we drive around and explore it more and more, we find different areas about it that are really charming," Dunn says. "We’re excited to be a part of it."
Writer, producer and photographer: Rachel Weiss
Additional production: Heather Doyle
Photography: Chris Ware, Linda Rosier, Danielle Silverman, Howard Simmons, Steve Pfost
Interactive editor: Jeffrey Williams
Photo editor: Reggie Lewis
Sea Cliff on Instagram
Margaret Watt is the photographer behind Beautiful Sea Cliff, an Instagram account with more than 3,500 followers that serves as an archive of Sea Cliff homes and their history.
Watt began the endeavor during the coronavirus pandemic. She grew up in Sea Cliff and headed to New Jersey for 10 years after college, then moved back in March 2019. She returned with a new appreciation for the architecture's beauty, photographing and researching close to 500 homes so far.
"It's been nice to document history," Watt says. "It wasn't even my intention, but that's what it's become."
She says things have been changing lately, with new residents renovating and painting their homes different colors all the time. Watt wants her Instagram to serve as a snapshot in time.
"It's such a beautiful, interesting town, and I hope it stays that way," she says. "I hope people are more conscious of preservation, because things can get lost so easily."