Purchase of Third East Hampton Saltbox Home Reveals a Secret?

East Hampton’s Saltboxes (L to R): Mulford House, Home Sweet Home and the Gardiner House
East Hampton’s Saltboxes (L to R): Mulford House, Home Sweet Home and the Gardiner House, Photo: Dan Rattiner

East Hampton Village is now completing an extraordinary addition to its collection of original, fully restored 17th- and 18th-century saltbox homes on James Lane. Until now, there have been two of them, both set amidst gardens and lawns and open to the public. They face out onto James Lane, with Town Pond beyond. As Village treasures, they are “Home Sweet Home” and “Mulford Farm.” They stand side-by-side.

The newest addition is a third saltbox, the result of the village acquiring one of the Gardiner Estates, also on James Lane facing Town Pond. The house is to be called the “Gardiner House,” I believe. There is just one home between the “Gardiner House” and the other two homes—a larger and more recently built mansion, clearly not from that earlier era.

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Last week, Long Island celebrated the 70th anniversary of Levittown, the first “suburb” in America. In 1946, the company Levitt & Sons bought an enormous tract of farmland in Nassau County and in a very short time built 10,000 identical homes to sell to the GIs returning from World War II. William Levitt bragged that since everything was alike in each home, he could build 30 of them in a day, and did. The development was a big success. And the community was a wonder of the age.

I mention this because of what is being revealed here in East Hampton with what is so far three almost identical saltbox homes on James Lane. Maps made around 1690 show homes all in a line up and down both sides of Main Street in East Hampton, and its sister street, James Lane, where it splits for Town Pond and then comes back together a block further west. The names of the owners are prominently displayed next to each home. (There were no street numbers then. The map was how you found people, unless you knew everybody and didn’t have to ask.)

The maps show the houses as little boxes. They don’t show what the houses look like.

It has not been hard to notice that with the existing historic saltbox homes on lots just next to one another, the homes are almost identical. The long saltbox roof comes down on one side. On the other side is a short roof, under which is a loft on a small second floor. The houses are not only almost identical in size, but they are positioned almost the same number of feet from the lane with the same orientation, with the long roof on the east side and with the short roof on the west.

I hadn’t thought much about this until the town’s workmen began cutting away the subsequently added porches and additions of the new purchase to reveal the original saltbox of the Gardiner House.

As I mentioned, there is a newer mansion between the Gardiner House and the Home Sweet Home and Mulford House. Do you see where I am going with this?

If this newer mansion is purchased by the Village, and its additions and porches are stripped away to reveal a saltbox from the 17th century, we could have an alarming development. If these four are the same, it would now seem possible that all the saltboxes that once stood on Main Street and James Lane were the work of a long ago would-be Levitt, founding the town with hundreds of cookie cutter saltboxes built one at a time in the 17th century—the idea of which became the kernel for what William Levitt did in Levittown in 1947.

Oh my.

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