Before the surfers came to Montauk, the cowboys were there. Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, too.
Now, a $1.5 million Suffolk County capital project is underway to restore Montauk’s historic Third House and preserve its history as a 1940s-era dude ranch and its other past lives.
About 2.5 miles west of Montauk’s lighthouse and adjacent to Deep Hollow Ranch sits Third House, at the 1,150-acre Montauk County Park. East Hampton Town began raising cattle there more than 300 years ago. It’s home to Camp Wikoff, where Col. Roosevelt, his men and nearly 30,000 others recuperated for several weeks in 1898 after fighting in the Spanish-American War.
Nearby Big Reed Pond provided fresh water to the Montaukett Indians who spent the winters there. The ruins of their village are still visible.
“This is a wonderfully large and diverse piece of property with a very historic building that had lots of different histories and lots of different things going on,” said Ed Johann, president of Third House Nature Center, an environmental education group based in the building.
It is also biologically diverse.
Johann has led nature walks on the property for 30 years and said the park is home to more than 15 plant communities. Suffolk County has a partnership with Johann’s organization to reintroduce the native bobwhite quail population. As Johann gave a reporter a tour of the property, a volunteer stopped by to release about a dozen 8-week-old birds.
Duck blinds dot the pond’s perimeter, and the park is open to campers, rowers and fisherfolk, too.
Third House, so-named because it was the third house built in Montauk, was constructed in the 1700s. Then it burned down and was rebuilt in 1806, according to the Montauk Historical Society. Other wings and cabins were also added to the property, which was once a hunting lodge.
Montauk’s three houses, the oldest English buildings built after the Montauk Lighthouse, sheltered cattle herders and served as inns for people who then as today came for Montauk’s open seas, fresh air and beauty.
First House once stood near what is now Hither Hills State Park, but burned down in the early 20th century. Second House in downtown Montauk is undergoing a renovation.
The county legislature is poised to approve an additional $500,000 in funding for the Third House project at its Sept. 9 meeting, with the money going toward ADA-compliant bathrooms and new flooring, said Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac). Eventually the county plans to seek proposals from a private concessionaire to run the building as an event space.
Third House Nature Center will again host its events inside as well.
Other elements of the renovations, which began in 2018 and are expected be completed in spring 2021, include structural upgrades and the installation of a fire sprinkler system, said Richard Martin, director of historic services for Suffolk County parks.
“It has been in disrepair. It has been in disuse,” Fleming said. “And that’s what is so exciting about this project and that’s why this project has such broad support.”
A TRIO OF HOUSES
First House: Originally built in 1744, it was rebuilt in 1798 at what is now Hither Hills State Park. It burned down in 1909.
Second House: Built in 1746 near the downtown area on Fort Pond. East Hampton Town is undertaking a renovation.
Third House: Built in the 1700s, it burned down and was rebuilt in 1806.
Source: Montauk Historical Society, East Hampton Town