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Magic Visions & First Impressions: Sylvester Manor in Photographs

'A Place in Pictures: Landscape, Memory and Magic' is on view through November.

I had a vision and the vision had a soundtrack.

A peculiar music begins it—the silent thunder of the ages.

Not an overbearing presence, a clarifying one.

That reverberating power is punctuated with birdsong and, every evening, with the calls of flocks of wild turkey.

Have you been to the Manor?

Sylvester Manor
Sylvester Manor, Photo: Barbara Lassen

I’d been to the Sylvester Manor property on Shelter Island a few times over the years—to photograph it and to buy organic vegetables from its farmstand. Until last month, I’d never been inside the Manor itself. It’s a beautiful, yellow Georgian house, circa 1737. The original dwelling was built by Nathaniel Sylvester nearby in 1652.

The bones of the 17th century house are hidden within, buried by the centuries, like the bones in the estate’s cemeteries; like the buttons, buckles and broken bits that are buried all over the grounds.

In a simplification that would give even hardcore reductivists palpitations, this is how a northern slave plantation became a nonprofit educational farm: Sylvester, an English trader’s surname, arriving by way of the Netherlands, continued to rule the Manor into the mid-18th century, when the family name became Dering, followed by, in the 19th century, L’Hommedieu, Gardiner and Horsford.

A Horsford daughter without issue passed the Manor to her nephew Andrew Fiske in 1944. Fiske’s wife Alice maintained the estate until her death in 2006. She passed the property to Andrew’s nephew Eben Fiske Otsby who, with his nephew Bennett Konesni, began to transform the family seat into the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, which opened in 2010.

Sylvester Manor grounds
Sylvester Manor grounds, Photo: Barbara Lassen

I went to the Manor with Dan’s Hamptons Media Photo Coordinator Barbara Lassen to attend the opening reception for the photographic exhibition, A Place in Pictures: Landscape, Memory and Magic, which is on display on the walls of the house through November.

We arrived from the mainland, and the 21st century, via minivan in synthetic blends and plastic sandals, eager to learn what lessons history was willing to share.

We drove through the white stucco walls of the main gate, down a rutted dirt road through the woods and into the grounds of a European-style country house.

Just as if we were traveling through the Land of Oz—white fluffy bits of arboreal down were wafting through the air in every direction. Like the aftermath of God’s own pillow fight.

We got out of the van and stepped onto the thick grass of the back lawn. The ground slopes down and ends at Gardiner’s Creek—here a beautiful, lazy affair of glittering channels, reeds and lost tree limbs.

Bodies of water have always been a portal to other worlds.

Barbara immediately started snapping photos and oohing and ahhing.

Huge, bent tree bearing an ancient swing—snap.

Proper white picket, but rotting, wooden gate supported by pieces of driftwood—snap.

Eighteenth century canon—snap.

Gate at Sylvester Manor
Gate at Sylvester Manor, Photo: Barbara Lassen

And then I saw them.

Some wore white eyelet dresses; some, fitted black taffeta gowns; some, homespun linen skirts; some, billowing blouses and fitted pants that we modern people associate with swashbuckling—whatever that is; some wore buckskins and some three-piece suits. There were many leather boots along the water’s edge, some bare feet.

They stood hand-in-hand all along the bank of the creek and then, as one, like a single rod of foosball players, they dove into the water and were gone from sight, still holding hands. Still.

It brought to mind an old song that my family’s band, Edna’s Kin, often performs:

As I went down in the river to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
And who shall wear the starry crown,
Good Lord, show me the way.

In one of those moments that proves it’s a small world—especially when it comes to Long Island, we happened on a low stage along the water. Turns out this is where the Manor’s summer music series Creekside Concerts are performed. They often broadcast old Americana tunes across the water.

The calls of turkeys drew us to the east. We came upon a rafter of ornery birds, regal in their deep, glistening blackness. They fussed and chomped on each other and thrust their beautiful tail feathers at us when we got too close. Snap, snap, snap.

Wild turkey at Sylvester Manor
Wild turkey at Sylvester Manor, Photo: Barbara Lassen

We bid the birds a fond farewell and headed back toward the water, and the manor house, through a tangle of intricately decrepit garden. Fences, pavers and trellises were being eaten by nature. Overgrown boxwoods nearly barred our way in many of the pathways, but we forged ahead, like the settlers of yore.

Barbara and I wiped our shoes on the porch mat and entered the house.

There’s a lot to take in. The interiors are eclectic, and dense by modern standards—paintings, furniture, dishes, antiques of every ilk and books, books, books.

I was too distracted by the setting to focus on the photographs at first. I wandered in and out of the public rooms and then down the central hallway.

Sylvester Manor steps
Sylvester Manor steps, Photo: Barbara Lassen

Near the end of the hall is the door to the vault I’d read about. Metal and heavy, ultra steam punk, like it held Jules Verne himself inside. It had actually held centuries’ worth of documents and artifacts until recently, when many were donated to New York University.

I reached out to touch it like people touch a casket at a funeral, not to say goodbye but to feel it, to feel something.

And then I saw them.

Arrested in the never-ending game were the people who’d called Sylvester Manor their summer home generations ago. Fascinating in their manners and dress and attitudes, the photographic subjects in the exhibition tell their own stories, but I asked Sylvester Manor Educational Farm’s Curator/Archivist Donnamarie Barnes to share her insights about them. Barnes has spent years in the house now, and she says that she often speaks to it. I have no doubt that it answers every time. Her written words appear in bold.

Lawn tennis on Sylvester Manor grounds, circa 1880s
1. Lawn tennis on Sylvester Manor grounds, circa 1880s, NYU Fales Library Sylvester Manor Archive

1. Lawn tennis court at Sylvester Manor. (clockwise from right) Professor Eben N. Horsford, Mamie Horsford, Cornelia Horsford, Phoebe Horsford, Lilian Horsford and unidentified young men.

The original image is a tintype about 5 x 6 inches, larger than tintypes were in general. The quality of the reproduction is amazingly sharp with wonderful detail of the setting with the pug dog and the way the two young men are lounging. It shows the Horsford family at their leisure and is an example of how they used the Manor as a summer place to have guests and to enjoy the outdoors.

Ca. 1880s Tintype, Courtesy NYU Fales Library, Sylvester Manor Archive

They don’t look like they’re having any fun. But back in the day subjects had to stay perfectly still for the time that their photo was being taken—or the image would be blurred.

2. Sylvester Manor house with Kate Horsford and an unidentified young girl on the front porch.
Illustrated at top of page

I used this image as the poster and catalogue image because it identifies the place as being Sylvester Manor and it portrays a time before the 1908 major renovation of the house’s interior and exterior. The original print has some foxing damage but is still quite beautiful. Kate Horsford and her sister Cornelia were both unmarried, and when their sister Mary died they took in Mary’s children. The young girl [pictured] may be one of those nieces.

Ca. 1900 – Paper print from negative

These two figures look lonely and yet secure here, on this solid structure’s porch, between home and the
outside world.

Cornelia Horsford, Sylvester Manor
3. Cornelia Horsford, Courtesy Sylvester Manor

3. Cornelia Horsford on the Manor grounds amongst the cedar trees circa 1912. The Horsford family bought and planted the trees with the belief made popular after the deadly influenza pandemic of 1889-1890 that pine trees purify the air and guard against the disease and other respiratory ailments.

This is an important example of the scope of techniques used for the photographs in the Manor’s collection. Paget Plate color images was an innovative process at the turn-of-the-century, an early color photography process which used two glass plates, one made of red, green, and blue filters and the other a black-and-white plate, which were exposed and then contact printed together to project a composite color image for a color print.

Paget images appeared diffused and impressionistic. For Cornelia Horsford to employ a photographer to come to the Manor to take photos using it is a reflection of her knowledge and her intent to portray the Manor and herself in a certain way.

I recognized this forest, though now the mature trees appear to be much closer together. Cornelia standing tall and straight among them seems, well, picture perfect.

Sylvester Manor farm worker
4. Sylvester Manor farm worker, Courtesy Sylvester Manor

4. Sylvester Manor farm worker with tractor.

The images in the collection of workers on the farm show us how the land was used, the crops that were grown and how the landscape has changed. The farm has always been so important to Sylvester Manor’s history from the very beginning when it was Nathaniel Sylvester’s provisioning plantation, growing crops to feed the enslaved Africans on the Sylvester’s sugar plantations in Barbados through the early Colonial era to today when we farm the land with our farm apprentices and WWOOFer [World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms] volunteers, who have come from around the world.

Ca. 1930; Paper Print from Negative

This gent looks so proper, sitting up straight in his starched shirt. I worry about him becoming entangled in that machinery, but he seems to have it under control.

Alice Fiske
5. Alice Fiske, Courtesy Sylvester Manor

5. Alice Fiske in her rose garden at the Manor.

Like Cornelia Horsford, Alice Fiske was devoted to the gardens at the Manor and was famous for her roses and daffodils. Her husband Andrew Fiske, the 11th heir of the Manor, photographed her often in the garden, as well as on the grounds and in the house.

(Fiske was the last full-time Sylvester Manor Lord in residence.) During their more than 50 years of living at the Manor they added to the photographic collection with color images, prints, slides and Polaroids.

1954; Print from Color Negative, Photo by Andrew Fiske

I’d never seen a photograph of Alice Fiske when she wasn’t the very old Lady of the Manor. I adore that her lipstick matches her roses.

Sylvester Manor Educational Farm’s Curator/Archivist Donnamarie Barnes
Donnamarie Barnes, Photo: B. Lassen

Of course, there were many living people at the opening reception as well, notably including Bennett Konesni, the 15th generation of the Sylvester family to steward the property.

It’s a credit to Barnes that all of these images look like they belong exactly where they’re hung, as if they have been right there all of this time. Happily they will remain in situ for the remainder of Sylvester Manor’s season and staff will be at the ready to introduce you to them.

Public guided house tours will be held Saturdays, July 7, September 8, and September 29 noon–3 p.m. Tickets are $25 per person. Online reservations are recommended and can be made at sylvestermanor.org.

Self-guided tours are available through August on Thursdays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., $10 per person, no reservation necessary. To book a private tour or find out more, you may contact Curator-Archivist Donnamarie Barnes at dbarnes@sylvestermanor.org.

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