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Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island nominated for the National Register of Historic Places

Sylvester Manor in Shelter Island, the 1737 Maonr

Sylvester Manor in Shelter Island, the 1737 Maonr House believed to be the earliest Georgian on the East End. The side porches were an 1908 addition, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Sylvester Manor, the Shelter Island plantation where African-American slaves labored alongside American-Indian and European servants a century before the American Revolution, is a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week announced that the 225-acre estate, now a nonprofit organic farm, is among 22 properties the New York State Board for Historic Preservation recommended for the national list of 90,000 sites.

Modern-day Sylvester Manor -- a Georgian Colonial house overlooking a creek and surrounded by woods, meadows, vegetable fields, a windmill and barns -- is what remains of the plantation Nathaniel Sylvester founded after he and three partners bought all of Shelter Island in 1651, hoping to produce food and other provisions for their two sugar plantations in Barbados.

The Sylvester family held the estate for nine generations, selling it piece by piece, until 10th-generation descendant Eben Fiske Ostby and his nephew, Bennett Konesni, founded the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm in 2009. Ostby later gave almost all his family's remaining land to the nonprofit.

Historians have combed the grounds and reams of documents found in a vault in the estate's manor house, seeking insight into a place where people of different cultures -- whether brought by force, or seeking fortune -- lived and worked together.

Nathaniel Sylvester brought the first three slaves in what later became Suffolk County to the plantation in 1653. Manhansett Indians, stripped of their lands, and European immigrants, many of them from Ireland, also worked there as indentured servants, historians said.

"It's a place that has acted like a magnet for all these cultures," said Mac Griswold, a historian who last year published "The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island."

Griswold called the manor "a capsule of what America has represented, for good and for bad."

Members of African-American tour groups have wept while viewing slaves' attic quarters and prayed at the site of 200 unmarked graves where slaves and American Indians were buried, said Maura Doyle, historic preservation coordinator for the nonprofit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

"What we are finding is that this property is becoming a sort of place of reverence and reconciliation among some of the larger descendant communities here on Long Island," Doyle said.

Sylvester Manor Educational Farm also hosts aspiring farmers, who live on the estate growing vegetables, raising sheep and learning traditional work songs.

A National Register designation would open up grant opportunities that could help the nonprofit with a number of restoration projects, such as fixing up the manor house, built in 1737.But the nonprofit's directors already consider themselves lucky.

"The stars really aligned for this place," said Sara Gordon, the strategic director. "A whole lot of things could have happened to it. It could have been a lot of houses. Now it's this extraordinary project with the potential for joy and reconciliation and delicious food."

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