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History of Walt Whitman house rewritten

A postcard seen at the Walt Whitman Birthplace,

A postcard seen at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, West Hills on Jan. 29, 2014. Credit: Ed Betz

A postcard purchased at a flea market has changed the history of the Walt Whitman Birthplace.

The staff at the state historic site in West Hills had long believed the kitchen wing -- one of three sections in the house where the famous poet was born in 1819 -- was destroyed in a 1910 fire. That was what the Huntington weekly newspaper, The Long-Islander, which was founded by Whitman, reported after the fire.

But Cynthia Shor, executive director of the state historic site, was at a flea market several years ago and bought a postcard of the house that had been mailed in 1908.

She never looked at the photograph closely.

The "eureka" moment came last year, when she showed it to Richard Ryan, curator at the Whitman birthplace. "Richard looked at it and thought about it and made sure of the date," she said. "Then he said, 'Do you know what this is?' "

The card debunked the long-accepted story that the 1910 fire destroyed the kitchen wing. The proof was in the photograph, which showed the 22-foot-long kitchen area was already gone. Ryan examined the other photographs in the collection at the birthplace museum and found one dated 1904. In that photograph the kitchen was intact.

So now he and Shor knew the kitchen was destroyed sometime between 1904 and 1908. Their next step: to determine the year the kitchen was lost and to find out why.

"We own a piece of history, and we want to do our best to portray it accurately," Shor said.

The Long-Islander, founded by Whitman in 1838, reported the fire in one paragraph on Sept. 23, 1910. It said "the kitchen of the house of Frank J. Rogers on the Walt Whitman farm on the Cross-Island Turnpike caught fire Sunday evening, and the destruction of the whole house was threatened. . . . The Fairground Fire Department also hurried their apparatus to the scene with an automobile. By prompt action the fire was kept from spreading to the whole house."

Rogers owned and farmed the property and other land nearby from 1901 until about 1915. The property was later subdivided and the Watson family bought 2 acres that included the birthplace house, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which runs the site, bought the birthplace from the Watsons in 1951. Georgia Mitchell Watson wrote a 1955 book, "We Bought a Poet's Shrine," in which she stated the kitchen wing burned in 1910, probably relying on the Long-Islander article, Ryan said.

"We knew that there was a fire on the property, and we assumed it was the kitchen wing that burned and what was left was taken down," Ryan said.

But he noted the newspaper article said the fire was in a kitchen "on the Walt Whitman farm," but Rogers lived in a newer house on the property. "So his new house kitchen burned, not the old house," Ryan said.

The poet was born there on May 31, 1819. Two wings were added later: a kitchen-dining room section and then the kitchen wing.

Ryan said the kitchen wing was not built on-site. It was a colonial structure older than the house. It was attached to and matches the gable end framing of a 17th century house on Lower Chichester Road that was an earlier Whitman home. Ryan said he thinks the kitchen wing was removed from the earlier house and transported to the birthplace property after the marriage and before Walt was born.

Shor and Ryan said they would love to re-create the missing wing, but it won't be easy. The state in the late 1950s built a caretaker's cottage where the kitchen wing had been located.

But they said they hope new information will be found to answer the question of what happened to the kitchen wing.

"You don't know what will come up," Ryan added.

Correction: Based on information provided by the Walt Whitman Birthplace, an earlier version of this story stated a year when Walter Whitman Sr. was thought to have purchased the house. It is unknown when he moved there or bought the land.


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