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Tour the bay houses for a look at Long Island's past

The bay house tours of Long Island resume

The bay house tours of Long Island resume this season after a 2020 hiatus. Credit: Michael Krassner

Having missed last year’s tours of bay houses in the town of Hempstead due to the pandemic, Long Islanders are ready for the upcoming tours this season.

"When I finally found out about the bay house tour, I signed right up. It was a long time curiosity for me," says Stephanie Clark, an art teacher who lives in Hicksville and has gone on tours of the bay houses each year. The experience, she says was "pretty magical." Adds Clark, "Being on the water, learning about the history, because I grew up here; my parents grew up here, it’s my favorite thing to do all year."

A history of bay houses

In their heyday, there were upward of 100 bay houses, but by the late '80s, there were only 40, says Nancy Solomon, director of Long Island Traditions, an organization that documents and preserves Long Island’s cultural heritage and runs the annual bay house tours.

With the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the town of Hempstead was put on notice that the bay houses were endangering the marshlands. Consequently, bay house owners could no longer pass on their leases to their kin and by the late '80s, about three-quarters of the houses were removed, Solomon explains.

Since then, Long Island Traditions worked out an agreement with New York State to allow transfers of ownership within families, ensuring the viability of many of these existing homes.

"It’s really exploring what Long Island used to be like," says Solomon of the tours. "We’re really trying to give people an understanding of that heritage legacy, because there aren’t too many places like that on Long Island."

The houses were built by fishermen, baymen and duck hunters, notes Solomon.

"They’re not designed by architects," Solomon says. "They’re done based on traditions, available materials and preparing for things like storms and hurricanes."

The houses were built with an awareness of climate change and the greater frequency of storms, says Solomon.

"There are adaptations, like having a hinged floorboard that opens during a storm or hurricane, because the water comes in and gets everything wet, but the house stays in place," says Solomon, adding, "Those are just some of the things people learn about on the tours."

A view from the bay

Jason McNeece, whose home will be on the tour, says his family has been on the marsh since 1898.

"My great grandfather built one of the first bay houses not far from where the current house is," says McNeece, adding that the marshland probably reminded him of his native Sweden, where there were lots of fishing shacks.

Each year, McNeece, 51, a teacher, who lives in Bridgewater, New Jersey, opens up the house in late March/early April, and spends weekends there, through November.

McNeece’s original two-story bay house was destroyed in Super Storm Sandy, but he rebuilt the home into a one-and-a-half story residence with an upstairs loft, from a foundation of reclaimed wood.

"We walked the marshes after Sandy and there were thousands of dollars of lumber just washed up in the marshes," he recalls.

When the McNeece family is out at their bay house, most of the time is spent outdoors on the deck that surrounds their home, sheltering from the direction of the wind.

"You can look around and forget the madness in the world that’s going on outside and just pretend that you’re back in time when things were simpler," he says.

Long Island Traditions’ Bay House Tours

Tours begin at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Aug. 28 (from Freeport) and Sept. 12 (from Long Beach); $55 per person or $100 per couple for a 90-minute tour. Minimum age: 10 years or older; maximum of 12 people per tour. Proof of vaccination is required. Tours will be canceled in the event of rain. To register: 516-767-8803 or go to longislandtraditions.org.

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