A large fireplace is the centerpiece of the kitchen inside...

A large fireplace is the centerpiece of the kitchen inside the Home Sweet Home museum. (June 27, 2012) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

One of the most famous American songs of the 19th century inspired one of the most unusual museums on Long Island.

"Home, Sweet Home!" and its sentimental lyrics brought tears to the eyes of generations of American and English listeners:

"Home, home! Sweet, sweet home! There's no place like home."

The Home Sweet Home museum, located in a 1720 saltbox in East Hampton, is an example of the power of legend, an early case study in historic preservation and an interesting East End attraction. Not to mention the house is crammed full of enough 18th-century furniture and ceramic ware to merit its own episode of "Antiques Roadshow."

The legend involves the lyrics, the man who wrote them and his presence on Long Island.

The case study is the actual museum, a saltbox that overlooks the Village Green and is a shrine to the songwriter -- John Howard Payne -- who supposedly grew up in the house.

Only Payne didn't grow up in the house. In fact, he never even lived in East Hampton.

Still, 160 years after his death, even as Payne's name and his music have dimmed, the Home Sweet Home museum endures.

The fact that few of the 2,000 objects on display in the house-turned-museum, which opened in 1928, have any direct relationship with Payne just adds to the charm and eccentric nature of the place.

"We tell his story here," said Hugh King, site director of the museum, which is operated by the Village of East Hampton. "But we also tell the story of the house and of the Colonial Revival period."

So who was Payne, and why is there a museum dedicated to him in a place he never lived?


A life of struggles

Payne was born in 1791 in Manhattan. Based on letters he wrote, he did visit East Hampton, where his father once taught school and where he had relatives who later lived in the house that would become known to locals as "Home, Sweet Home."

But Payne was bound for distant shores. A talented thespian from childhood, he moved in 1813 to London, the only place for an aspiring actor to go in those days. He earned rave reviews for his performances at the famous Drury Lane Theater and is believed to have been the first American to play Hamlet. After a short stint in an English debtor's prison -- despite his talents, Payne was a bad money manager -- he went to Paris, where he wrote an operetta called "Clari," or the "Maid of Milan." The climatic song of the show, featuring lyrics by Payne and music by Henry Rawley Bishop, was "Home, Sweet Home!" It was sung by the title character, a poor maiden who has become embroiled in a relationship with a nobleman of questionable virtue. When the nobleman reneges on his promise of marriage, Clari, surrounded by the trappings of palatial life, longs for the humble but wholesome home she was duped into leaving.

According to Gabriel Harrison, Payne's 19th-century biographer, the song "at once became so popular that it was heard everywhere." More than 100,000 copies were printed in less than a year, netting huge profits for its English publisher. However, copyright laws being what they were in those days, Payne saw little money from the song. He would still go on to write more than 60 comedies, tragedies and operettas, while becoming friends with the writer Washington Irving, painter Benjamin West and John J. Audubon, founder of the Audubon Society and with whom Payne traveled the American West, becoming enamored with the Cherokee Indians. Payne also acted with Edgar Allan Poe's mother and unsuccessfully courted Mary Shelley of "Frankenstein" fame.

Later, he managed to wangle what he thought would be a comfortable sinecure as U.S. consul to Tunis (now Tunisia). But money issues persisted, and Payne died there, forgotten and debt-ridden, in 1852.


Song gets second wind

However, "Home Sweet Home!" enjoyed a revival a decade later during the Civil War. It was one of President Abraham Lincoln's favorite songs, and there are accounts of regimental bands on both sides serenading each other with the melody across battle lines.

Fast-forward to the early 1900s, where the Payne myth grew: Gustav Buek, a wealthy New York businessman, arrives in East Hampton and hears the stories about the man who wrote the still-popular aria of the Civil War. He is told that the old house next to Mulford Farm on James Lane was Payne's boyhood home. Some even claimed it was where the song was written. The house, badly in need of repair, is up for sale. Mr. and Mrs. Buek buy it, restore it and furnish the home -- now on the National Register of Historic Places -- with antiques to make it look as it may have at the time Payne would have lived there (but didn't).

"Did they fall in love with the house or with the myth of the house?" said Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society. "It may have been both."

The resulting makeover, he said, is a striking example of Colonial Revival, the design movement in vogue in America at the turn of the 20th century that sought to bring back some of the styles that had been popular at the time of the nation's founding.

When Buek died in 1927, the village purchased the property with an eye toward opening it as a museum. This prompted an angry response from Payne's grandnephew, who in a letter to the New York Herald Tribune declared it all a fiction.

"The song 'Home, Sweet Home' was not written in the home in East Hampton, L.I.," wrote Thatcher T. Payne Luquer, "nor did Payne ever live in it."

Mrs. John W. Hand, president of what was then the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Association, one of the local groups behind the effort to open the museum, offered a tart response.

"It doesn't make any difference to us whether Mr. Payne lived in the house or not. We know from letters he wrote that he was acquainted with East Hampton and loved it as we do. We know he was thinking of a house like this when he wrote 'Home, Sweet Home,' and anyway, it represents our ideal of home, sweet home, which is enough for us."



Fact and fiction


The Home Sweet Home museum opened in 1928. "It was a very popular attraction out here in the pre-Ralph Lauren store days," according to Hugh King, the museum's director. "Unfortunately, most of what people were learning about the house and Payne was not necessarily true."

What is true is that the house at one point was the home of a sea captain, Elisha Jones. It was his 1750 renovation that established the two-story, six-room structure as it stands now. It was probably also one of his descendants, Sophia Jones, who claimed that the house had been Payne's boyhood home, which then became local legend.

Eventually, it also became a moot point. Despite the imposing bust of the actor that greets visitors at the museum, few people today have ever heard of Payne, and most probably can't even hum the melody of "Home, Sweet Home!"

No matter, the Home Sweet Home museum attracts about 1,000 visitors a year. Its serene gardens and nearby windmill, its lovingly re-created rooms are idyllic, and certainly conjure up an image of family and hearth -- emotions captured and expressed for audiences of his era by a talented, but wandering soul who never really seemed to be able to find the home that his most famous song celebrates.

To visit

Home Sweet Home museum

14 James Lane, East Hampton

Hours: May-September, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 2-4 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $4 adults, $2 children




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