Baxter House will soon be part of history
Sometime in the coming months, the charred remains of the Baxter House will yield to the battering blows of a wrecker’s ball or the brute force of a caterpillar.
An early-morning fire this past February caused extensive damage to the structure, which had been unoccupied, and sealed its fate. It remains a blackened husk, and its final chapter will be written when the necessary paperwork makes its way through the bureaucracy.
In May, Village of Baxter Estates Building Inspector Joseph Saladino issued a formal order to property owner Sabrina Wu to demolish the house after determining that the structure posed a danger to public health and safety.
Physically, it lies at 15 Shore Road, at the corner of Central Drive. On the Nassau County Land and Tax Map, the property is marked as Section 5, Block 5, Lot 61. But the house is much more than a pile of timber and metal and glass and stone. It is, in a sense, the village’s emotional center.
This was made evident over the past decade, as the deteriorating condition and uncertain fate of the house had engendered controversy and concern, pitting preservationists against the owner and even the village. Residents decried what they perceived as the village’s laxity in enforcing the landmark status under which the house was placed in 2005, two years after Wu purchased it for $990,000.
A Facebook group, Save the Baxter House, was set up late in 2015 and attracted 784 members. A petition to preserve the house gathered more than 600 signatures this year.
In March, an overflow crowd attended a meeting of the village’s Landmark Preservation Committee. Many who spoke criticized Wu’s alleged negligence and plans. They brushed aside the statement of Wu’s attorney, A. Thomas Levin, that the house has “been at all times 100 percent privately owned property. Neither the village nor any member of the public has any say on what went on inside the house or modification to any interior feature.”
To its passionate supporters, the house belonged as much to the community as to whoever held the deed.
One of the speakers that night, Stephanie Hall, commented, “For over 300 years [the house] was the center of loving families that acted as caretakers and took stewardship seriously. A family breathes life and love into a house, making it a home.”
Even before the fire, some of the wood was rotting, the chimney was in disrepair, and blue tarps covered parts of the roof and some of the windows. Critics called it, “demolition by neglect.”
Hall introduced the next speaker, Colleen O’Neal, as a direct descendant of the Baxter family, namesake of the village and the house.
Citing her ancestors, O’Neal said, “I am bound to them. I honor their history. I cherish their lives. This is my history, but the Baxter House homestead is our town’s shared history.”
She added, “[the house] is part of the Port Washington landscape. It preserved the stories that give us place. The previous owners knew that. They became stewards of the property. They understood that they were part of a bigger story.”
By Way Of History
The oldest section of the house was reportedly erected in 1673 in the settlement then known as Cow Neck. According to the Village of Baxter Estates’ website, John Betts and Robert Hutchings established the homestead, which overlooks Manhasset Bay. Sometime in the early 1740s, the house was purchased by Oliver Baxter. His son Israel expanded the house and in one chronicle fought under the command of General Washington against the British at the Battle of Long Island.
The Baxters were forced—like many others—to billet soldiers as the colonies sought independence from England. Hessians, the hated and feared mercenaries hired by the empire to help put down the rebellion, were quartered in the house. Such abuse led the Founding Fathers to create the Third Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
The family owned the house until the end of the 19th century. According to the Cow Neck Historical Society, the Baxters “had been involved in many trades over the previous century, as whalers, shipbuilders, fullers, blacksmiths and other trades of the era. Ida Baxter had been the village’s third postmaster, working out of the nearby McKee’s General Store, at the Mill Pond…in 1892, the State of New York had chartered the town’s first library, where townspeople could meet, read, take out books, all in the parlor of the Baxter House.”
Later prominent owners included the architect Addison Mizner, whose series of residences established the dominant architectural style in Boca Raton and Palm Beach, FL.
A book on the architect, titled Mizner’s Florida, contained a short section on his time in Port Washington.
“Although the house had neither central heat nor indoor plumbing, and needed much work, it faced directly on Manhasset Bay with Baxter Pond to the south,” we read in the book. “Mizner leased the house, probably with the understanding that he might later purchase it, and added bathrooms and central heating. In the spring of 1914 he bought the house from Mrs. Elizabeth Perry and spent $5,000 for further renovations and the addition of a new kitchen wing.”
In 1917 the Architectural Record published an eight-page article on the remodeling of the house. Mizner made few changes to the exterior, retaining its colonial character. Moving the principal entrance to the rear allowed him to add an 18-foot-wide terrace, surrounded by a low stone wall, overlooking the bay. He left the columns and roof of the original porch, and the elaborate 1812 doorway with sidelights in place. Viewed from the street the facade appeared unaltered.
“It was really a great house,” Mike Scotto, who started the Facebook page, told the New York Times. “It’s something people think about when they think about Port Washington. It’s our heritage for the entire town. Back in the Revolution, most of Long Island was Tories, but this town seceded nine months before the Declaration of Independence. Those guys were out there fighting for our liberties and freedoms.”
“If you’re a village and the namesake of your village is a homestead with a very rich history going back to the founding of the country, that should be a house that is taken care of, that is looked after,” Chris Bain, president of the Cow Neck Historical Society told the Times. “It’s not just an old house. It’s a house with great importance.”
Scotto, in a letter to Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Peter Salins, asked, “Once the house is gone we lose not only our village’s namesake, but I believe our identity. What indeed is the Village of Baxter Estates without the Baxter House?”
What Comes Next?
According to village Clerk/Treasurer Chrissy Kiernan, Saladino’s “notice establishes a series of specific requirements for demolition that must be adhered to before, during, and after the demolition permit is issued. At this time, the property owner is supplying the necessary requirements for the demolition permit application.”
Wu’s lawyer, Levin, noted that the demolition permit “cannot be obtained until a number of other documents have been filed with the Village Building Department. Among them are water and sewer disconnection permits from the Water District and Sewer District. In turn, the two districts cannot issue their permits until the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has either approved that work, or waived jurisdiction. Ms. Wu has hired an engineering firm to obtain those DEC approvals. Once those are obtained, we believe that the remaining permit requirements can be completed within a matter of weeks. However, it is impossible to determine at this time how long it will take to get the DEC approvals.”
According to Kiernan, “After verifying that an application was in fact submitted to the DEC, the village agreed to extend a pending Order to Remedy Violation…until September 11, 2017, at which time the building inspector will re-evaluate the elements of the application.”
Levin said his client “has not submitted any plans for any new construction at this time, and seeks only to demolish the existing unsafe structure.”
Thanks to Vanessa Nastro of the Port Washington Public Library Local History Center Archives for research help.