If you're wondering what life your home lived before you moved into it, the Islip Town historian’s office offers a research program to help unlock the hidden stories of residences.
When Kim Skillen, 50, moved into her Oakdale home on Quality Lane in February, she knew it was a horse barn that had once belonged to the Vanderbilt estate. Eager to learn about the home's past, she turned to the Oakdale Historical Society president Maryann Almes, who connected her with town historian George Munkenbeck.
With their help, Skillen discovered that her circa-1877 building used to be a dance hall, performance space and a covert speakeasy after the barn was split into multiple residences. Her residence was part of the performance space, she said.
The town historian's office debuted the research program, which is free for town residents, three years ago, Munkenbeck said, adding he and his staff field approximately 120 requests annually from residents who want to learn about their homes. The office also gets requests from state officials; it recently completed research about the Fire Island Lighthouse for the state. Interest continues to grow, especially, in a hot real estate market with new buyers, he said. While history lovers flock to the program, residents also seek the services for renovation inspiration or when they need help nailing down details, such as the home's construction date.
Skillen’s residence, in Oakdale’s famed artist colony, became a beacon and creative haven for Manhattan artists, thespians and musicians vacationing on Long Island after the Vanderbilt estate sold in 1926. Even today, part of the artistic flair permeates the building, Skillen said.
Munkenbeck shared historical information about the neighborhood, and, on behalf of the historical society, Almes provided newspaper clippings and a map, Skillen said. The information she gleaned will guide her as she renovates her historic district home “to do justice to the space.” Skillen is drawing inspiration from Vanderbilt mansions as she revamps her bathroom and kitchen.
The town historian said he frequently holds presentations at Islip Town libraries about researching the history of residences. The endeavor can prove challenging for New Yorkers because of disorganized records, Munkenbeck said. Road name changes and the fact that many house numbers in Islip weren’t assigned until the 1950s create research barriers. There’s also the problem of houses that were moved from one location to another without documentation, he added.
“There may not be the history of that home, which may just be a tract home, but there’s some history of the ground,” he said of Islip residences.
Almes said she frequently receives research requests through the local historical society.
One of the more interesting requests she passed on to Munkenbeck’s staff was about a Tudor-style home on Vanderbilt Boulevard in Oakdale. The building wasn’t on any original maps of the Vanderbilt estate, but Munkenbeck’s sleuthing through property inventory records determined the home was the cottage of Vanderbilt's gamekeeper.
“What a great piece of history,” Almes said. “The community is really embracing the past, and they’re leading us to discoveries as well.”
How to participate
Islip Town residents who would like to learn historical information about their residences can contact George Munkenbeck's office at 631-595-3862 or email Historian@islipny.gov. Individual appointments are also offered for home research help.