The William Cauldwell House
By Julie Penny
It was a rare pleasure for me to be off to a Southampton Town Board public hearing where I knew the board was about to do the right thing. In this case, impart landmark status on an architecturally and historically significant waterfront Victorian house built in 1892 in Noyac’s erstwhile “Northampton Cottage Association” now known as the Northampton Shores. Its original owner who had it built, William Cauldwell, had been a New York State senator.
On my way into Town Hall I ran into a woman in the vestibule who was unfamiliar with the building’s layout. She asked if I knew where the “Landmarks” board was having its meeting. I said, “Are you here to support the landmarking of the Cauldwell house?” She introduced herself as Shelby McChord, the daughter of its owner, Cyril Baldwin. I said I was so happy to meet her, that I was with the Noyac CAC and we were thrilled to support the landmarking of her property as it’s such a beautiful gem. I told her the town and we in Noyac owe her family a debt of gratitude in trying to preserve such a lovely and historic jewel. It would be great if other like-minded owners would step forward to guarantee future generations living links to their past heritage.
Seeing that I was a true believer in her cause we became fast friends on our way up to the second landing where the town board would be holding a pro-forma public hearing on the matter. We sat together during the hearing while members of the Landmarks and Historic Districts Board made their presentation to the town council as to the worthiness of providing landmark status to this particular house. Then, Ms. McChord spoke on behalf of her family. Alarmed by the demolition of other beautiful old Victorians on her street, over the last five years Shelby McChord began waging — in what turned out to be — a successful campaign in placing this remarkable bit of our history on both the State and the National Register of Historic Places.
Lastly, I spoke on behalf of the Noyac Citizen’s Advisory Committee and its support for landmarking it. Members of the town council spoke approvingly about the home’s museum quality features that have remained basically the same as when it was built in 1892. They enthusiastically passed the resolution imparting landmark status on the house. It now bestows some protection on a building that represents a singular and priceless bit of our town’s history.
Let me digress. As some of you may recall, the town launched a Hamlet Study for Noyac around 2003. I was the chair of the Noyac Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) at the time. While I retired from that role a few years ago, I still remain a member of the CAC. One of the many things I did as part of Southampton town’s Noyac Hamlet Study committee was to take an inventory of the places that give Noyac its unique sense of place. I did this with Marlene Haresign who was not only a member of Water Mill’s CAC, but of the town’s Landmarks and Historical Districts Board. Armed with my latest Hagstrom map and Marlene’s Suffolk County tax map and her binder full of notes, photos and copies of old maps that dated back throughout the 1900’s, 1800’s and 1700’s, we time-traveled our way around Noyac. For history buffs like ourselves it was a labor of love. Over the course of a few days I chauffeured us around locating and cataloguing historic homes, family plots, cemeteries, farmsteads, businesses, beachfront bungalow colonies from the Victorian era on down to the 1940’s. These were then mapped and incorporated into the final Noyac Hamlet Center Study.
One of the magical places I took Marlene Haresign to see was Northampton Shores just west of Jessup’s Neck. It began its life in 1888 as the “Noyac Cottage Association.” Thanks to the Long Island Railroad, wealthy urbanites discovered the undeveloped shores of Noyac where they then came to flee New York City’s stultifying summer heat. These “cottages” with their carriage houses, though seasonal, were, in fact, substantial Victorian homes—our own mini Great Gatsbyesque Gold Coast. Bayside, the piece de resistance of this private enclave, is Peconic Avenue which hugs Little Peconic Bay. Several of these Victorian beauties, set against the backdrop of wide green lawns kissing the bright blue waters of the bay have incredible panoramic views of the Peconics. In 2003, when we inventoried them and included them into the Hamlet Study they were all intact and glorious to behold, like a string of heirloom pearls set along the shore. When, after an absence of several years, I revisited the area again I noticed a change. One of the old dowagers, a stunning Victorian was gone. I grieved the passing. Between tear-downs, exterior renovations, and a new faux Victorian, the street was rapidly losing its charm and historical significance
Fast forward. During the town board hearing I sat with the final 2004 Noyac Hamlet Study booklet on my lap opened to the pages of the houses we inventoried on Peconic Avenue. I whispered to Shelby: “How many of these homes are gone now?”
“Three” she noted, pointing out on the list the ones gone to the wrecking ball. I was incredulous. And, therein lay her own impetus in wanting to get their house landmarked by the town, for although she had gotten the house on the State and National Register of Historic Places, the town’s landmark designation would afford it the most protection if it ever were to leave the family’s hands.
The William Cauldwell house is a melding of architecture, craftsmanship, location, time and place, and history. Except for some plumbing and modern appliances, practically nothing has changed — inside or out — since it was built. It even contains some of Senator Cauldwell’s original furniture. It’s a well-kept, pristine and stately Queen Anne Victorian that has been in Shelby’s family for 80 years where they’ve enjoyed summer after summer. Family lore has it that her father, Cyril Baldwin, won it in a poker game. It’s been his fervent wish to protect it intact. As is noted in the narrative for the National Register of Historic Places, it’s virtually “one of the last of its kind on the Noyac shore.”
Besides being a senator, William Cauldwell, was a newspaperman. The year he built the house, “1892,” is carved into an outside chimney and into the front of the fireplace in the “Great Room.” As a politician, his signature piece of legislation brought a part of Westchester County into New York City’s orbit. When “Morrisania,” an area he represented as senator, became part of the Bronx, it was greeted with great fanfare. He also published and edited The Sunday Mercury, a New York City newspaper. He’s been “credited with introducing several famous writers such as Mark Twain (Samuel Clemons) to New York.” He published columns ranging from opera, the weather and baseball. On a roguish note, he also served a stint in jail for some dubious dealings when he acted as one of the trustees of an estate.
It was still early evening when the town board voted to grant landmark status to the Caudlwell house. As we were leaving Town Hall, Shelby extended an impromptu invite to come over to see the house on my way home. The prospect of a guided tour by the owner of a house I so admired was one I couldn’t refuse. Driving over the moraine dark clouds gathered; it started to rain lighty.
I pulled up to the left of the circular drive in my car where once horse-drawn carriages stopped under a “porte couchere” that’s connected to the front porch entrance. Here, safe from the elements, the occupants could alight. The four other times I’d been down this road were sunlit and during the day. This presented a whole different aspect: dusk on the cusp of a storm. For one thing, I wasn’t viewing it from the road in a slow-moving car, but standing right next to the house in all its Queen Anne majesty: all steeply gabled roof, porch couchered , with copper-hooded dormers and Palladian windows; sawtooth clapboarding.
My eyes could linger on the details. The sky took on a sulfurous yellow tinge, the wind picked up whipping the trees; it downpoured. We dashed up the stairs to the front porch. From there she pointed to the carriage house and the well house.
Years ago, I had the pleasure of being a tenant in a Queen Anne’s Victorian. Like the Cauldwell house, it had some block colored glass windows that I just loved. It also had corn husks in the walls as insulation; but the walls of the Cauldwell house walls, Shelby, pointed out, did not. It has no insulation, that’s why it’s only used seasonally. They’d found out when they tried to rewire the house, that all the walls — both interior and exterior, had no insulation and were all cross-braced “making new electrical work almost impossible.” But, structurally, the bracing has provided great strength allowing it to weather severe storms and hurricanes unscathed.
Walking into the house, I felt like I was aboard a great ship. Outside its northern and northeast windows, on all three stories, the bay spreads out expansively. Inside, you’re cradled by its rich wooden interior, wide planked floors, ceilings and walls that are made of beaded wainscotting. The wood, she noted, maintains its original varnish.
It was the small utilitarian details of 1892 that still existed that gave me great delight: like the wall mounted holder for the “buggy whips” that was hung by the front door exactly where Senator Cauldwell had placed it; the double push-button light switches of the type that I remember in my grandmother’s pre-World War apartment. And, when we went out onto the glorious rear wrap-around porch with an unstoppable view of the bay, I was enthralled because, on this stormy evening, Shelby busily took the rocking chairs and placed each of their backs up against the porch wall with the rear part of their rocker blades propped up on a band of wood running along its base. This keeps them stationary. It prevents them from moving about in high wind, and, with it, the annoying sounds of the rockers slapping the floor in dissonance.
On the 3rd floor she pointed to an original ladder that gave access to a small hatch in the roof known as a “scuttle hole.” It was used to climb out to get a good view of approaching boats. I wondered if this feature, probably commonplace, was the derivation for the name of Bridgehampton’s “Scuttlehole Road.”
Except for the commodes, the bathrooms, some of them tiny, had original fixtures. In the larger ones, only the claw-footed tubs had been re-glazed.
One of my favorite spots was the sleeping porch balcony on the third story with its undulating decorative fretwork. From this cozy aerie the view is stupendous. Standing there I could imagine Senator Cauldwell, whose portrait hangs inside, looking off to the eastern boundary of the Northampton Cottage Association preparing to walk over to its 500 foot dock, now long gone, where boats trafficked to Sag Harbor and Greenport. Perhaps to greet friends arriving by ferry to stay at the hotle at the east end of Peconic Avenue…when it was a hotel. I salute the town board for voting to landmark one of the treasure’s of Noyac’s past for Noyac’s future.