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South Shore bay houses to open to guided tours

Ryan Stenzel walks along the deck around his

Ryan Stenzel walks along the deck around his bay house on Scow Creek in Hempstead Bay on Monday, July 14, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

One of Long Island's most exclusive neighborhoods, sheltered not by hedgerows but marshland and located off the South Shore of Hempstead Town, will welcome visitors on tours this summer.

Hundreds of bay houses were built off Long Island's South Shore in the 1800s by hunters and fishermen who pulled their living from the bay and needed a place to store gear and take shelter from the elements.

Most were built in piecemeal fashion from borrowed or scavenged lumber, decorated by flotsam and rebuilt in similar fashion over the years, with few modern amenities save composting toilets.

In Hempstead, about 20 homes survive, privately owned but sitting on land leased from the town.

A few of the owners are commercial fishermen; others descend from the original baymen or belong to families whose ties to the area extend back generations.

"These are not party shacks on the marsh. They have historical value," said Ryan Stenzel, a Freeport butcher whose family house, built in the 1920s, is one of those to be featured in the tour.

For Stenzel, family and Long Island maritime history meet in the little wood shack that has been in his family since great-grandfather Abe Stenzel, a bayman and charter boat captain, first used it.

"Unless you're from here, or you've been educated on it, all you see is the shack. You wouldn't know any different," he said.

Superstorm Sandy badly damaged the Stenzel place, along with many of the other bay houses, said Nancy Solomon, a folklorist and executive director of Long Island Traditions who will lead the tours, on Aug. 16 and Sept. 13. The group works to preserve regional architecture and maritime and farming culture.

Some of the houses that fared best during the 2012 storm were built using techniques first employed centuries ago but kept alive by the small community of owners she calls "tradition bearers."

A hinged floorboard allows rising bay water to come in and keeps the house in place instead of floating away; mud fills, which rest the house on planks instead of poles sunk into the marshland, provide greater stability.

"There is a whole heritage of traditional building methods," Solomon said. "It's been passed down and shared with the community."

Some bay house owners lost their mainland homes during Sandy, slowing recovery on the bay, Stenzel said.

"Most people are still in the rebuilding phase, getting permits, gathering materials," he said. "Not everyone is physically there, but we still communicate. One guy has extra windows, one guy has extra lumber -- he'll see if the other one needs it."

Stenzel said he was about 75 percent done with his rebuilding, but quickly qualified that: "You're actually never done on the water. Seventy-five percent done could mean next year you start all over."

Tickets for the bay house tours are $50. Children under 10 are not allowed. For tickets, call Long Island Traditions at 516-767-8803 or visit for more information.

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