Last house owned by African-American farmer eyed for demolition
By Claire Walla
For such a modest-looking house, the property at 79 Parsonage Lane in Sagaponack is causing quite a stir.
In January, when an application to demolish the building was brought before the Sagaponack Village Architectural and Historic Review Board, Committee Chair Ann Sandford brought up an interesting point. The property in question could have been the last-standing building in Sagaponack to be owned by an African American.
Sandford, also a historian who wrote a history of the area called “Grandfather Lived Here,” tracked the home back to a man named Bevery Stewart, a farmer who purchased the home in 1912. It remained in the Stewart family until a few years ago when Stewart’s granddaughter sold the property to a local developer, Michael Davis.
Last Friday, February 18, when the application went before the Architectural Review Board once again, Lucius Ware of the East End chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) came out to object.
“Our number-one concern is the preservation of history,” he said.
“This particular house may be the last, or the only home owned by an African American in the Village of Sagaponack.” Though this figure may not be accurate, Census records show that this is at least true of the first half of the 21st Century.
(According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which gives five-year estimates of population demographics, there were no Black or African Americans living in Sagaponack from 2005 to 2010.)
Bridgehampton Historical Society Program Director Sally Spanburgh explained that whether or not a building in Sagaponack can be dubbed “historic” depends on two main criteria: whether or not a popular architect built it, and whether or not the architecture is associated with someone or something significant.
The law “leaves room for interpretation,” she added.
In an ideal world, Spanburgh said the property at 79 Parsonage Lane would be restored fully to the way it looked in the 1920s. However, in this case, she doesn’t see that happening.
“The board has to pick its battles,” she continued.
Part of what makes this case a moot point, as far as Spanburgh is concerned, is that the home is privately owned by Davis, who wants to tear-down the small, 1,339-square-foot building on the 3.6-acre property in order to erect a much larger home.
According to Spanburgh, should the board decide to prevent demolition, Davis would still have the authority to revamp the building, or even move it to another section of the property.
“He would be able to do whatever he wants with it, except tear it down,” she said. Which, in Spanburgh’s opinion, would defeat the purpose of preservation. “What’s the point if it’s out of public view?”
Still, Ware has hopes that the building will be preserved in some way to honor African American history in the area.
“Most everybody in the 20s and 30s were farmers,” he said. “African Americans played a very important role in farming in that area.”
Rather than demolish the structure, Ware called for the architectural review board to consider other options to preserve the building in some fashion, whether that means the village would acquire the property, private resources would put up the funds, or Community Preservation Funds would go to restoring the structure. But, whatever the case, this would ultimately require the cooperation from the current property owner.
Though Ware said he has not yet spoken with Davis, he hopes to do so soon.
“He might be open to [selling it],” Ware said. “I would guess that if the building were moved, he’d be just as satisfied.”