And you America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
To girlhood, boyhood look, the teacher and the school.
-- An excerpt from the 1891 edition of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass"
Years before Walt Whitman composed "An Old Man's Thought of School," he taught in schools all around Long Island, including a one-room schoolhouse at the corner of Woodbury Road and Jericho Turnpike in the summer of 1840.
The schoolhouse, built in 1807, now sits five miles away on an estate in Oyster Bay Cove. Instead of holding rows of wooden desks, the simple white building has hosted dead poets-themed dinners and salsa lessons and the 50th wedding anniversary party for owner Maureen Brennan's parents.
Brennan recently put the more than six-acre property, which includes a whitewashed, redbrick Georgian Colonial designed by Kimball & Husted in 1936, on the market for $4.895 million.
The house, originally named Hickory Hill, was built by Alexander Moss White Jr., whose father was a founder and partner of the White, Weld & Co. investment bank. In 1927, the Woodbury schoolhouse in which Whitman had taught was sold at auction to make room for a new school and was set to be demolished.
According to the book "Long Island Country Houses and Their Architects, 1860-1940" (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997) White purchased the building for $60 and moved it to his estate, using it to house the collection of Whitman material he had started to amass while he was a student at Harvard University.
Brennan bought the property in 2006 and spent 2007 renovating the eight-bedroom home. She made few changes to the schoolhouse, though she installed baseboard heating so it could be used year-round. While a previous owner painted the floor red, it still has many old details, including exposed wood beams, old windows and a barn door and a large brick fireplace with a wooden mantel. There's also some shelving and a small cupboard.
The building sits perpendicular to the main house, off a circular drive.
"It's in perfect balance to the other side of the house," Brennan says. "It really fits in beautifully."
The desk used by Whitman at the Woodbury school is now at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in Huntington Station. According to "Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself" (University of California Press, 2000) by Jerome Loving, the future poet taught at eight district schools on Long Island between June 1836 and spring 1841, during which time he also founded the Long Islander newspaper, which is still published in Huntington.
It's not clear why Whitman's tenure at the Woodbury school was so short, though in letters to friend Abraham Paul Leech that Syosset historian Tom Montalbano compiled in an article for the Oyster Bay Historical Society, he shows a bit of disdain for the farming town of Woodbury, describing its dullness in flowery terms:
"Woodbury! Appropriate name! It would bury me or any being of the least wish for intelligent society, in one year, if compelled to endure its intolerable insipidity, without the hope of relief."
Though Whitman romanticized and celebrated schools and the common folk in his poetry, he wasn't enthusiastic about teaching. Richard Ryan, curator at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, says it's likely that Whitman had higher aspirations.
Just like Whitman's later work, the building where he left his mark has fittingly been preserved.