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Long Islanders share their joys, sorrows of owning an old home

The owner of the Andrew J. Wiggins house discussed some of the benefits and drawbacks to investing in a historic home.  (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Not everyone who discovers their home was the scene of a homicide is pleased with the news. For Beth Obergh, the incident, which took place in Colonial times, was just another intriguing tale uncovered while researching her three-century-old residence in Wantagh.

"We're surrounded by history here," she says. "Everything has a story."

This reaction isn't unusual for people who live in historic dwellings on Long Island, which, after 375 years, has a significant inventory of such homes. Those who choose to live in them are a special breed willing to put up with expensive restorations, ghostly presences and the compromises often made between modernity and the past.

Here are three stories about owners who sought out historic homes and how they made them their own.

'It's always a challenge'

For Roselle Borrelli, 57, owning a 1867 home in Greenport is like having her own time machine.

"I love the feeling I get coming home every day and looking out my bay windows," says Borrelli, 57, who six years ago bought her Italianate Victorian and painted it lavender. "I feel transported to another century."

A former musician who holds a variety of jobs including substitute teaching, Borrelli says she used to live in Spain and was searching for a residence for her antique furniture when she noticed the old home with its distinctive tower on 1st Steet. The former owner, also a musician, was only selling some adjoining lots, but reconsidered and sold her the house in 2012, Borrelli says.

The years since then have been spent restoring and modernizing her find, which at one point had been divided into apartments. To finance the work, she took out a home equity loan (she won't reveal for how much) and has continued to make improvements year by year when financially feasible. Now, she has a renovated kitchen, refinished wood floors, a restored master staircase, a home office, a restored living room and a coat closet she transformed into her own private chapel. An outhouse on the one-third-acre property was converted into a potting shed. She says she hopes to replace the storm windows if she can find some that don't look out of place.

"It's always a challenge to keep things looking historically correct," she says.

Borrelli ended up writing a book about the home, known as the Andrew J. Wiggins House after its original owner. He was a prosperous dry goods store owner and the original builder was Orange H. Cleaves, Borrelli says. The book also cites tales of ghostly sightings of past residents and some believe the home is haunted, she says.

That's OK since she is convinced they are benign ghosts.

"I brought the home back to what it was," Borrelli says. "I feel extremely privileged to live here."

'This house is my kid'

The obligations of living in an historic home might be scary to some, but not Jaclyn Rutigliano. The 32-year-old marketing and communications consultant had been looking for such a residence for some time when she spotted an 1846 "saltbox" home for sale in Huntington.

"It was as if my Pinterest page had come to life," she says.

Her husband, Marc Iervolino, 32, a commercial plumbing project manager, wasn't thrilled. While his wife swooned at the wavy windows, wood-burning fireplaces, period hardware and wide-plank hardwood floors ("I savor things that are flawed," she says), he saw a tiny home with poor heating, limited lighting and a steep "deathtrap" staircase leading to the cramped second-floor bedroom.

The home originally was owned by Zopher Ketcham, a local saddle and harness maker, says Robert C. Hughes, Huntington town historian. It may be older than advertised since according to legend its ceiling beams came from a local church built in 1715, he says.

Its two-year renovation — prompted by the birth of their second daughter — added a living room and master bedroom. Beams for the new addition's ceiling came from an 1800s school in Brooklyn. Every door or piece of hardware within the home was repurposed to ensure its historical integrity, Rutigliano says.

The work was financed with a loan (he declined to reveal the amount) and Iervolino's sweat equity. He also got help from his father, Henry, a master plumber, along with other friends and family members.

Iervolino warmed to the house as remnants of its past kept cropping up. While digging out the crawlspace, workers found wine, beer and apothecary bottles from the 1800s. Former owners told them someone long ago had left a vintage pair of underwear in one of the deep-set closets. The new owners dubbed the object "Long Johns," a token from the past.

"We fantasize they are the protector of this house and we make sure no one touches them," Rutigliano says.

Iervolino's original hesitation about the house has turned into exhausted affection.

"I don't want another kid," he says. "This house is my kid. I want to be buried here, maybe in the backyard."

Home has had 'meaningful life'

Two years ago, Beth Obergh decided to give up her modern-day home and search for a "quirky" dwelling in Wantagh.

"I wanted something where the floors weren't straight and the rooms weren't square," the 51-year-old physical therapist says.

The 1690 cedar-shingle home she finally bought -- which has a living and dining room, closed-in porch,  an office, four upstairs bedrooms and a music room big enough to hold an upright piano -- was certainly quirky enough.

After moving in, she replaced the roof and added gutters, but soon realized remodeling the kitchen was a challenge for the future since one side of the room was five inches lower than the other. Obergh says she has probably put out $50,000 in the two years she has been in the house.

So many additions had been built on to the home over the years that former exterior walls were enclosed and became interior walls. What was once the front door is now actually inside the house -- while its current front door is in a hard-to-spot position off to one side.

"I think it's funny," say Obergh. "The postman doesn't think it's funny.", along with her 23-year-old son, Andrew, a recent college graduate in journalism and history, and her 20-year-old daughter, Rachel, are in the process of sorting out the dwelling's extensive past. Among their discoveries so far is that the home had about 20 owners over the years, including a judge, a general and a state legislator. It once had seven fireplaces, but now is down to three. One is sealed inside a wall along with a rumored gun closet they have yet to locate. They have found corncobs stuffed in the walls for insulation and occasionally hear strange noises in the night that conjure up thoughts of ghosts.

Then, of course, there is the matter of that "nice murder" in her house, she says.

A history book she found recounts the tale, which occurred in 1781 when three Long Islanders who were British loyalist soldiers came to the house, killed the owner, Parmenas Jackson, and made off with $1,200 in cash. A neighbor saw them and reported it to their superior. According to a newspaper account, the "rascals" were tried and sentenced to be hanged. For some reason, they were jailed for only three weeks, paid a fee to the Keeper of the Provost and were discharged.


"I haven't a clue," Obergh says.

For now, she is continuing her research and is ready to find other surprises on the way.

"This home has had a meaningful life," she says.

Buyer beware

Old homes are like visiting relatives. They come with baggage. 

"If you buy one, you need to know what you're getting yourself into," says Neal Hoffman, whose Huntington-based firm, Hoffman Grayson Architects, specializes in renovations.

Age takes its toll on such structures, creating warped floors and unsound walls that can lead to costly repairs. They also may be situated in districts historically protected by local preservation organizations, which may mean only limited modifications are allowed.

Hoffman recalls one couple who were in tears after they found out they wouldn't be allowed to replace the drafty windows in their home in Huntington because of their historical significance.

"If things like sags and bumps and grinds and creaks are going to drive you crazy, you don't want to buy one of these homes," he says. "It's the history that makes them interesting."


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