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Mason brothers restore pillars at village entrance

Brothers Michael and Anthony Butera restore columns at

Brothers Michael and Anthony Butera restore columns at the east entrance of Head of the Harbor on Nov. 16. Credit: James Carbone

The Thorntons, enriched by Arizonan mining and Californian sugar beet refining, summered in Head of the Harbor in a 74-room mansion whose grounds ran from North Country Road toward the Long Island Sound.

It was built in the early years of the 20th century and demolished in the mid-1950s after their heirs sold the estate to developers. Long Island historians Brad Harris, Geoffrey Fleming, Barbara Van Liew and Leighton Coleman III have recorded this much.

What remains, beyond outbuildings, are two concrete pillars and accompanying gates near the entrance to the village at the head of Gate Road. The pillars are 11 feet tall and topped by decorative pineapples, symbols of hospitality.

The pineapples were fine but the pillars were crumbling so this fall village residents hired stonemasons Anthony and Michael Butera, brothers who run a Port Jefferson company, ATM Butera, to restore them. Village Mayor Doug Dahlgard said the village would pay $7,000 for the project and that he was soliciting donations from residents to cover the cost.

The Buteras began by locating an intact portion of the capital, or top portion of the east pillar, and drawing a minutely detailed diagram on the back of a pizza box. The pillar was rectangular but not a simple cube; this portion was made of nine planes and two curves. Michael Butera, 60, bought wood from a lumber yard for a mold. It took an hour to find molding that matched the curves. "They probably thought I was crazy," he said.

The brothers cut the wood to the dimensions of their diagram and nailed together a mold into which they poured about 400 pounds of concrete. In a better world they could have used the same mold for the west pillar but measurements revealed that certain aspects of the west pillar were up to an eighth of an inch fatter than on the east. It took hours to build a second mold.

Michael and Anthony Butera started working for their father, an aeronautical engineer turned mason who was also named Anthony Butera, in the 1980s, before striking out on their own. The elder Butera died eight years ago.

Their other restoration projects include the chimneys of a house on the Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket, and the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket. Restoration is "more interesting and challenging" than some of a mason's day-to-day work, said Anthony Butera, 59. "But it’s a time-eater."

Except for diamond blade saws and compressors, the Buteras used tools their dad would have used: an assortment of trowels, a brush, a grinder. They placed the mold, then cut stainless steel rods for rebar to form a lattice around the damaged pillar.

On the ground Anthony Butera poured sand, Portland cement, water and a binding agent into a wheelbarrow and mixed the mess with a hoe until it had the consistency of peanut butter. He heaved it up in pails to his brother, who stood on a board on scaffolding raised near the top of the pillar and slathered concrete into the mold and over the lattice. He wanted a slight bevel on top so rainwater would run off.

The concrete would harden overnight, throwing off a faint heat. It would take weeks to fully cure. How long will it last? "Fifty years without blinking," Michael Butera said.

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