He stands, hunched over his workbench, hammer in hand, the morning sunlight streaming though the 4-by-3-foot first-floor window of his East Hampton workshop.
His name is Nathaniel Dominy IV, it’s the late 1770s and, as the American Revolution rages on, he is repairing everything from pocket watches to musket triggers.
But wait — as if in time-lapse images, he is now Nathaniel Dominy V, circa 1800, standing on the verge of a new century, the scope of his work having extended from the intricate workings of a clock to the massive gears of the windmills being erected throughout the East End.
And then, in the blink of history’s eye, the figure at the same bench, with the same windows drinking in every beam of light, is Felix Dominy — son of Nathaniel V — helping to build a new nation in the early decades of the 1800 even as the forces of economic change are beginning to spell the end for his way of life.
The tools and techniques, maybe even the leather aprons they wear, change slightly, but the constant in our imagined, time-lapse history is the same — the Dominy "brand," which over three generations and nearly 80 years became synonymous with quality and craftsmanship. The Dominys and the work they produced, from roughly 1760 until the 1840s, in their woodworking and metal shops was trusted, not only by residents of Long Island, where the family was well known, but those in New York City and Connecticut.
Today, the Dominys still have customers. Collectors of Colonial furniture, watches and clocks prize the work of the East Hampton family of two centuries past.
"Collectors of American furniture look for design, history and superb craftsmanship," said Richard Barons, senior curator of the East Hampton Historical Society. "The Dominy family offers all three."
The range of things a Dominy craftsman could do was astonishing.
"Nathaniel Dominy IV functioned as a joiner, house and barn carpenter, millwright, coffin maker, clockmaker, and a repairer of guns, jewelry and watches," writes historian Charles Hummel, curator emeritus at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware, one of the country’s preeminent decorative arts museums. "His son, Nathaniel V was a cabinetmaker, joiner, millwright, wheelwright, coffin maker and repairer of small boats. His son, Felix, worked as a clockmaker, jewelry and watch repairer, and general metalworker."
Whatever their local community needed to pursue the labors and rhythms of life in an agrarian society, from clocks to coffins to carpentry, the Dominys provided — for nearly a century.
'They did everything'
"They made fine furniture that Gardiners and other wealthy people purchased; they made looms and spinning wheels, they made farm implements — wagons, rakes — they made window sashes," said Robert Hefner, longtime historic preservation consultant for the Village of East Hampton. "They even made bayonets for the militia. They did everything."
And now with the same meticulous attention to detail as the Dominy craftsmen, Hefner is leading the effort to rebuild and restore their workshop to the way it might have looked on an early October morning in, say, 1776, 1798 or 1812. The goal is to reopen The Dominy Shops as a museum and educational center.
"One-hundred-percent original," Hefner says proudly as he leads a visitor through the restoration on a summer morning — the sun’s rays beaming through the windows a reminder of the natural light that the Dominys depended on almost entirely to illuminate their workspaces as it was too dangerous to burn candles in a woodwork shop.
Hefner is talking specifically about the forge, part of the first-floor clock and metal workshops. It is, he says, "the best documented forge from 18th century America" (he notes that the blacksmith shop’s forge in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg is based on the Dominys').
But he might as well have been talking about the entire project.
The house, which is where the family lived and worked, was built in 1773 by Nathaniel IV, although the family had been living in East Hampton for nearly a century by then. A woodworking shop was added in 1791, and a clock shop, also adjoining the original house, in 1798.
In 1940, two architects — Daniel Hopping and Carl Stoye — visited the old, and largely unchanged house, which was still owned by the family at that point. The two were part of the Historic American Buildings Survey that had begun in 1933 to document the vanishing built environment of early America. They did extensive drawings and measurements, resulting in an exacting, detailed picture of the interior. Those records are in the Library of Congress. "We couldn’t have done the restoration without those," says Hefner.
Although the original house was demolished six years after the survey, the two workshops flanking the house were saved and moved elsewhere in East Hampton. For the restoration, they have been rejoined with an exact recreation of the timber frame and exterior of the house at 73 North St.
As part of the first phase of the four-year project, the house has been rebuilt, with Dominy-like precision and attention to detail, by John Hummel & Associates, an East Hampton firm that specializes in historic preservation (and no relation to Charles Hummel of the Winterthur). The New Jersey Barn Co. handled the frame.
"They pre-assembled the frame there, took it apart and then reassembled the whole house here in the parking lot," says Hefner, who is supervising the restoration of what will become a new Village of East Hampton museum, as he stands amid the skeletal interior of a structure built before the American Revolution. "A crane lifted it into place."
The next phase of the project, Hefner says, will involve restoring the shop interiors — reconstructing the forge in the clock and metal shop, rebuilding the fireplace in the woodworking shop, and installing a few modern necessities for 21st century visitors, who, if all goes well, may be welcomed to The Dominy Shops Museum in summer 2022. There they will see the restored workshops, as well as period furniture built by the Dominys, and informative signage. (The project is being funded by a $600,000 bond issued by East Hampton Village).
Fittingly, in a 1,500-square-foot space illuminated by more than 20 windows, the restored Dominy Shops Museum will offer a vista to something much larger: the world of the 18th century and 19th century, and the way people lived and worked in a rural Long Island community like East Hampton.
A shop hard at work
Indeed, one of the most striking things learned about the Dominys (who kept meticulous shop records, which survive), was that they and their customers didn’t use much money: Paper currency and coins were uncommon in Colonial Long Island.
"It was a barter system," Hefner explains. "If the Dominys made or repaired something for someone, that person did something for them. People were plowing their fields, carting their firewood, sowing their seeds."
"To be a successful craftsman at that time, you not only had to have great skills," said Charles Hummel, "you had to be smart, and price your product correctly, which meant knowing what services or goods you could ask in return."
Other lessons of the Dominys' success in business, are timeless. While there were other skilled craftspeople on Long Island at the time, few offered the range of services that the Dominys did.
"They had to be versatile," said Barons, also a consultant on the project. "When you look at their day books," he said, referring to the detailed list of transactions the family kept, "you find out that if a mirror falls off a wall in a house in East Hampton, it goes to the Dominy’s to be repaired. If a clock in Sag Harbor stops ticking, same thing … it goes to the Dominy’s to be repaired."
"They filled a vacuum that was needed in an economy that was mostly based on agriculture and fishing," said Stephen Manheimer, of Southampton, a Dominy collector and expert. "They were a needed service, that was in the right place at the right time and for the right clients. That’s the key to success in any business, at any time."
That success, in the case of the Dominy’s, can be measured, at least in terms of the volume of work. According to Hummel, the three generations of craftsmen made 1,800 pieces of furniture of various kinds. And by the time he died in 1812, Nathaniel IV alone had repaired 7,200 pocket watches.
Their productivity is explained by another principle of business success: They worked hard. A typical schedule for the three or four men working in the Dominy workshop would have been 12 hours a day (including meal breaks), six days a week.
And what of the Dominy women? We know that the principal men in the dynasty — Nathaniel IV, Nathaniel V and Felix — were married and had large families. Were their wives, sisters and daughters involved in the business?
"Hard to tell," said Hummel, who at 89 still writes and lectures about the family that has been the focus of his work since the 1960s.
While there are a few entries in the shop records showing that a daughter of Nathaniel V helped measure some chairs they were building, he says it’s unlikely the women took an active role in the day-to-day work. But that certainly didn’t mean they weren’t working: Spinning, sewing, not to mention the daily labor involved simply in preparing meals from scratch and keeping house. "Women never get credit for what they added to Colonial households," said Hummel.
The Dominys did not own slaves; and during the period of their ascendancy as craftsmen, they recorded little interaction with the local Native Americans. But that didn’t mean they weren’t part of the wider world. When the American Revolution began, Nathaniel IV declared himself a Patriot and fought in the Battle of Brooklyn.
Unlike many prominent, local families that supported Independence, however, he didn’t flee to Connecticut after George Washington’s catastrophic defeat in that 1776 battle. He stayed at his bench — and displaying a practically that is likely also part business savvy — he did work for all paying customers, including one Banastre Tarleton. In 1779, the infamous British cavalry officer, who would later become known as "The Butcher" for allegedly massacring American prisoners during the Southern campaign of the conflict, was posted on Long Island. While on a foraging expedition to the East End, Col. Tarleton sent his own pocket watch to the Dominys for repair. Nathaniel fixed the British cavalry officer’s timepiece, but — either shrewdly to avoid being associated with the enemy, or (Hummel suspects) with a flash of humor — he lists the repair as having been done for "Transient Persons."
Winds of change
As the 19th century dawned, the scale of the Dominy projects was enlarged dramatically, with the family’s role in the construction of the new windmills that began to dot the East End — most prominently Hook Windmill, erected in 1806, which stands today at the point in East Hampton where the main road (now Route 27A) and North Main Street diverge. Although that windmill is not part of the restoration, Hefner hopes to be able to also show to visitors, as part of a tour, the inside of that nearby mill — used to grind grains and corn for area residents — which was turned by massive wooden gearing built in the Dominy shops.
The 35-foot-high windmill at the Hook, says East Hampton Village historian Hugh King, was significant in many ways. While there were existing mills, "the Dominys really helped complete the picture of what this place looked like in the early 1800s. And the Hook Mill is still a dominant feature of the landscape."
The windmill showed how the Dominys continued to adapt and refine their skills, as they expanded their work from the minuscule mechanisms of pocket watches to the massive gears of windmills — all apparently self-taught and passed along to the new generation, usually through a sort of family apprenticeship in which a promising young man would work under the father. (Over the years, the Dominys also had a few skilled craftsmen from outside the family working in the shop).
But even their many talents couldn’t offset America’s evolution in the first part of the 19th century. "The Industrial Revolution killed their business," Hefner says.
Mass-produced items could be built faster and cheaper than the bespoke work of individual shops like Dominys. By 1835, for example, clockmakers in Connecticut had developed mass assembly techniques that allowed them to sell mantel and shelf clocks for $10 — far less than the cost of a similar clock made in the Dominy workshop. At that point, Hummel said, "Felix knows he can no longer make a living as a craftsman."
In 21st century parlance, Felix knew he had to "reinvent" himself. He took a job as a lighthouse keeper on Fire Island. The Dominy's craft businesses staggered on into the 1840s before fading out.
It was the end of an era — for the Dominys and for the handcrafted economy that had dominated Colonial America. Yet, this period will soon be illuminated again, both by the light shining onto the Dominy’s former workshop and home from the newly restored windows and through the careful work of historians. While the figures who once labored over that bench are long vanished, their work and their legacy stands.
WHAT Open house at the Dominy Shops Museum — a work-in-progress, construction site.
WHEN | WHERE 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 9 at 73 N. Main St., East Hampton.
INFO Free; note that there are no restrooms or other amenities at the site.
Title photo: The newly constructed living quarters with a view of the restored woodworking shop. | Photo by AAQ / East End / Jeff Heatley