By Tessa Raebeck
Growing up, Eben Fiske Ostby visited his aunt Alice and uncle Andy on Shelter Island several times a year. Playing on the grounds of their family’s estate, Sylvester Manor, he had no idea that the hundreds of acres of woods, wetlands and farms would one day be his.
“When I learned of the inheritance,” Mr. Ostby said in an email Monday, June 30, “I started learning about ways we could preserve it and its lands. The Peconic Land Trust was very helpful in advising me about ways to do that. Eventually we set about forming a nonprofit to preserve it.”
On June 23, Mr. Ostby capitalized on all he had learned, donating the 1737 manor house, its grounds and barns, the 1810 windmill, farm fields and woodlands—a total of about 142 acres—to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, a nonprofit he and his nephew Bennett Konesni founded four years ago in hopes of putting their land to the best possible use.
The land gift, the largest in the history of Shelter Island and one of the most significant land transfers on Long Island, brings the family’s donation to Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to a total of 225 acres.
“Last week was a big one for Sylvester Manor,” said Cara Loriz, executive director of the nonprofit.
“By whatever measures you might come up with, it is among one of the very most significant outright gifts ever made anywhere,” said Sara Gordon, the nonprofit’s strategic director. “Now that it has been passed on by the family, we have just a blessed opportunity.”
Mr. Ostby, who upon his aunt and uncle’s passing became the 14th lord of the manor, is a direct descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester, who co-purchased Shelter Island in 1651 and was its first white settler.
Over its 363-year history, Sylvester Manor has given shelter to persecuted Quakers, operated as a slaveholding plantation with African and Native American laborers, and housed 11 generations of Sylvester descendants.
Throughout that history, the Sylvester family’s ownership of Shelter Island has shrunk from the entire island to several hundred acres, but the land continued to be passed from generation to generation, ultimately ending in Mr. Ostby’s hands.
Rather than let the manor fall into disuse or allow the Sylvester land to continue to be parceled up in order to maintain the manor grounds, Mr. Ostby, with some convincing from his nephew Mr. Konesni, decided on forming a nonprofit as the best means of preservation.
“The idea was to find a use for the manor that would fit in with the culture of Shelter Island,” said Mr. Ostby. “My nephew Bennett was and is passionate about food, so we chose that as a focal point.”
“Bennett at that point,” said Ms. Gordon, “had decided on this vision for this educational farm that would also revive the agrarian culture and agriculture and seek to create a working environment that was joyous and fair and really explore and celebrate the culture of food in all aspects.”
“And to upon up the gates at this place to the community—to make it a place that welcomes everyone,” she added.
Mr. Ostby first donated a 22-acre conservation easement to the Peconic Land Trust in 2009 and then gifted an additional 83 acres of historic fields and pastures, preserved indefinitely as farmland through town, country and federal conservation programs, in 2012. The total value of property gifts from Mr. Ostby is valued at approximately $22 million, with the most recent 142-acre gift appraised at $12.3 million. Of the nonprofit’s total 225 acres of land, 103 acres are now preserved.
In accordance with the wishes of his aunt Alice Fiske, Mr. Ostby also gave the manor’s longtime caretaker Gunnar Wissemann a small cottage he and his family have resided in for over 20 years.
In similar stories across the East End, family land is sold to developers and divvied up into subdivisions of Mcmansions, but the Sylvester descendants weren’t going to let that happen on Shelter Island.
Now, Mr. Konesni said, “The nonprofit organization owns its own land. It owns the land that it’s preserving, owns the land that it’s stewarding and sharing—and that’s a big deal.”
“It’s not just my family anymore,” he added. “It’s really a community organization now.”
Having ownership of the manor house, buildings and grounds enables the nonprofit to raise money for restoration of the buildings, which it couldn’t do before. They can now move forward on restoring the manor house, the windmill and the barns.
“It’s really a new beginning,” said Ms. Gordon. “That’s how it feels in a way, we feel now the work really starts.”
Mr. Konesni’s motivation to transfer the land came from three impulses: the precedent of other estates that were successfully turned into educational farms, such as the Rockefeller estate in the Hudson Valley and the Vanderbilt estate in Vermont; the notion that a nonprofit would share the burden and make sure professionals are at the helm; and stopping “the pattern of chopping up and selling off land in order to fund the place,” he said.
“We used to own the entire island,” he said, “and then we split it up and sold it off and that has helped fund the next generation of dwellers and to me, actually, that pattern can only go on so long before everything’s gone.”
“This place deserved to be around and to have the stories told for another 363 years and the only way that was going to happen was to really share the burden,” added Mr. Konesni.
Mr. Konesni and Mr. Ostby will continue to be involved in the management of the nonprofit. Mr. Ostby, who lives in California and works at Pixar, is acting as president of the board of directors. Mr. Konesni, a Maine native, is staying on as founder and special projects advisor.
“I focus on the long-term vision in making sure that our operations really fit with the original intention of the gift and the non-profit,” Mr. Konesni said of his role.
The family is retaining 11.7 acres of wetlands and woodland along the creek, which cannot be built upon without town approval of a formal subdivision.
“I also wanted to retain a family connection to the island, thus the retained lot,” said Mr. Ostby, who will give the parcel to his daughter Fiona.
“They’ve been here since the purchase of the whole island in 1651 and it’s important to all of us that the Sylvester descendants continue to have a role here—it’s a big part of the story,” Ms. Gordon said.
One of the nonprofit’s visions, she added, is that the day will come when kids who are biking home from school naturally turn their bikes into the Sylvester Manor driveway.
“It’s a rare thing to be in a place or to work in a place where you can feel that—when you know that what’s happening today is historic, in the sense that it’s going to be part of this long unbroken story here,” said Ms. Gordon.