Part II: A vision for saving Sylvester Manor

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Bennett Konesni at Sylvester Manor in 2008 with Ruth Holmes, a shepherd from New Hampshire who brought her sheep and goats to the manor to show how they can browse on invasive species.

It made perfect sense for Eben Ostby to turn to his nephew Bennett Konesni to help him find a way to preserve Sylvester Manor.

As reported in Part I of this story last week, Mr. Konesni, who grew up in Maine, was in his mid-20s when his uncle inherited the property but had more experience than anyone else in the family at the ancestral holding. He had lived at the manor — now a 241-acre remnant of a 17th-century plantation on the east bank of Gardiner’s Creek — with his aunt Alice Fiske. He was a college intern at the time, working on a University of Massachusetts architectural dig there. He also found jobs at organic farms in Amagansett and Water Mill.

The environmental studies and music double-major from Middlebury College had an affinity for the outdoor life and for working with the land. Along with “schooner captain,” “farmer” was one of the occupations that best captured his sense of himself, he wrote in a high school essay.

He talked about his vision in an interview in the family’s 18th-century manor house late in 2011. This is the concluding second part of a story based on that interview.

PRESERVE, CULTIVATE, SHARE

“First of all,” Mr. Konesni said when asked to explain his connections to the Sylvester clan, “Andy Fisk,” the 13th “Lord of the Manor,” is my grandmother’s brother. They grew up siblings,” with the story of Sylvester Manor family lore.

They grew up in Rhode Island, he said; their father was president of Rumford Chemical Works in Providence. The company was started by Eben Nortorn Horsford, a Sylvester descendant who kept the manor as a retreat. He taught chemistry at Harvard and developed a formula that made baking soda a household staple.

“Andy Fiske’s dad was my great-grandfather,” a son of Professor Horsford, Mr. Konesni noted. “He inherited the manor and died six months later in 1943.”

Andrew Fiske never had kids, he said. When his widow Alice died in 2006, “Eben and I got together and we kind of had that moment when Eben looked at me and said, ‘What are we going to do with this place?’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s preserve it, let’s cultivate it and let’s share it.’

“Those three ideas,” said Mr. Konesni, aren’t new when it comes to historic preservation. The model for turning Sylvester Manor into a working farm in order to save it was pioneered at Stone Barns, the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills in Westchester County, and Shelburne Farms, the Vanderbilt-Webb estate south of Burlington, Vermont, Mr. Konesni said.

“I think you should have this,” Mr. Konesni remembered his Uncle Eben saying in 2006. “And I said, ‘A: I can’t afford it, and B: I think it’s time that we think in really sort of the long-term future of this place.’”

MOST IMPORTANT THING

“Because the pattern — and this is the really important thing I want to communicate to the town, to everyone — the history of this place, our family has held onto it by selling off the rest of the Island. We used to own the entire island in the 1600s and, over the generations, they just kept selling off parts. And those parts became South Ferry, Dering Harbor, the Rams, the Heights. That kept the place, the core going.

“Now we’re down to 243 acres [the assessors office lists it as 241]. I could inherit this place and I’d have to sell off big chunks of it in order to just afford to keep it up, so why not take this moment in time … this amazing moment where Eben is willing to support this idea that we could keep the core, keep the history and the stories and the property going for another 360 years. But it does mean we have to give up ownership, I have to give up ownership and Eben has to give up ownership in order to do that.”

The plan is that the nonprofit set up in late 2010 to operate the farm, the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Inc., will acquire title to the property, which Mr. Ostby currently owns. The farm organization, which is overseen by a voluntary board of directors chaired by Mr. Ostby, will receive $7.2 million from him after he, the county and town close this year on the sale of development rights on two farm parcels totalling about 80 acres. Mr. Ostby has protected another 22 acres of waterfront on Gardiner’s Creek by granting a conservation easement over them to the Peconic Land Trust.

NO GENETIC LOTTERY

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Konesni said, “… We give [up] ownership and the ability to cash in on this real estate but what we get is the ability to ensure that we have experts taking care of it forever. Because we can bring in expert management. We don’t have to rely on the genetic lottery that there’s going to be somebody in the family who cares enough about it, or who’s smart enough about it, or dumb enough to inherit it. We can make sure that the people who love it the most are the ones who are here taking care of it forever.

“… It can be people on the Island who love it, people in the preservation world, historians, farmers who love this opportunity to farm in this climate with these amazing soils with the history of farming and food on this place. These are the people who should be inheriting this place for the next 360 years.”

When he presented this idea to his uncle, “He loved it,” Mr. Konesni said. “So the great news is it didn’t come out of thin air. We’ve got these analogs in Shelburne Farms and Stone Barns. They are doing amazing things with historic preservation that is merged with active cultivation. And community education. All of those things can come together. They are not at odds; they support each other. It’s a great alternative to the house museum model, which generally creates these dusty relics that lack relevance and lack traffic — not ‘traffic,’ [that’s the] wrong word. They struggle to attract an audience.”

CHALLENGES

“What are we preserving? A collection of structures, a piece of land, the ecology here,” Mr. Konesni explained, “but even more so we are preserving this history, 360 years of a culture of people making decisions about landscape, about structures, about community, economics; and mostly it traces its line through food. Decisions surrounding food: to me, that’s what’s really worth preserving.”

He said four eras “of food and culture, the evolution of America from native American, pre-European to the present day,” are encapsulated at Sylvester Manor. “The energy and innovation that came with all of those eras is what we want to preserve and encourage as we go forward.  It’s that very activity that’s worth preserving, especially because it has the context.

“It’s a challenge because everyone” on the board of directors “wants different things; everyone has agendas. One of my chief roles is to help people see we all want the same things for this place ultimately: [whether it’s] historic preservation or the right-to-farm guy or hunter or educator, all of those people ultimately are on the same team. We have to avoid the kind of thinking that gets us into divisive me-against-you thinking because that is the sort of thing that is going destroy the place.”

UNIFIED BOARD

“The board really is amazingly supportive and unified on this,” he said. There always will be the question: “what are the priorities, what do we do first? The great news is we’re seeing progress on all the fronts: historic preservation, farming, education; we just had the Shelter Island School here,” he noted, adding that an educational program “will come next year and Brian Dolger,” a teacher at the Shelter Island School, “is working on curriculum for a high school level elective focused on Sylvester Manor.”

If setting the priorities were entirely up to him, Mr. Konesni said, getting a working farm up and running has been his focus for the past four years “because I see it as A: a revenue stream for property as a whole, and B: a way to galvanize the Island community and help solve one of their problems, which is fresh local food that’s secure and you don’t have to drive an hour to get or take a ferry to get.”

“We have the land,” he said, and “I enjoy it and it has to be connected to that, especially on an old slave plantation. You have to find ways to make your work joyful because for so many years on slave plantations that’s not what work was; work was just the opposite. I think that’s one of the real antidotes, one way to start addressing the slave history here.

“Another one of my priorities has been the preservation side, trying to find what the steps are to preserving things. And land preservation is here.” Speaking of the sale of development rights to the town and county under their open space programs, he explained, “We started because it can also be a revenue stream for us.” If the town and county land preservation programs “didn’t exist, we would have to sell land, there are no two ways about it. We may still have to, depending on whether the county stays solvent.

OPTIMISTIC OUTLOOK

“I’m a real optimist and I think it probably drives some people mad,” Mr. Konesni said. Even if the pending development rights sales do not happen for some reason — there have been delays for a complex title search — he believes the manor will survive in one piece.

“The project to me is so important … We’ve got historians telling us this is the most intact plantation north of Virginia; the documents that were here [recording manor affairs from 1649 to 1944 and donated by Mr. Ostby to New York University’s Fales Library] is the most intact collection of documents describing early Atlantic world history. It’s revolutionizing our understanding of this area in the 1600s — the birth of America in the 1600s — [and] that’s really important stuff. I hope that even in the worst-case scenario … our ability to set up this non-profit and get great people on the board will float this project.”

The non-profit farm organization obtained IRS status as a charitable organization in late 2010. Currently, Mr. Ostby and Mr. Konesni are “moving beyond our founding board,” Mr. Konesni said, by adding two new members in January and “we hope before spring three to four [more] people” for a total of “10 to 11 by end of next year.”

“We started with a founding board that was small so we could be nimble and quick,” Mr. Konesni said of his and his uncle’s choices. “I wanted it to be a group Eben really trusted … people who had expressed interest and commitment to the place. “

Alfred Kilb. the former town supervisor, is one founding board member, as is Gunnar Wissemann, caretaker at the manor since the mid-1980s. Other members include Sara Gordon, conservation planning project manager with the Peconic Land Trust who is “crackerjack and she’s a fiddler,” said Mr. Konesni, a bluegrass musician himself; Scott Chaskey, farm manager at the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill preserve in Amagansett; historian and author Mac Griswold, “who pitched in the first year” and is now putting together an historic preservation and interpretation committee,” Mr. Konesni said; and architects Susan and Don Shillingburg, “who brought the designer’s side” and the “summer resident” perspective to the board.

For more information about Sylvester Manor, visits its website at sylvestermanor.wordpress.com and the manor archive at NYU’s Fales Library website at dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/fales/sylmanor.html.

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