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Island Profile: Sylvester Manor’s Maura Doyle

PETER BOODY PHOTO |  Maura Doyle in the parlor at Sylvester Manor.
Maura Doyle in the parlor at Sylvester Manor.

For Maura Doyle, a job has to inspire passion. She hit the jackpot when she became historic preservation coordinator at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.
“From the age of 9 or 10, I wanted to work someday in an historic house. My dream was Colonial Williamsburg,” she recalled during a talk in the sunny front parlor of the Manor House, where the white paint on the walls dates to the first half of the 19th century and the blue paint beneath it, visible where the white paint has chipped and cracked, dates from 100 years before, when the house was built.

“This is a living, breathing house,” Maura said, “one that was a private family home until well after 2006,” when the last resident, Alice Fiske, passed away, leaving it to the next-in-line Sylvester descendent, Eben Ostby, a founder of the Pixar animation studio.

Founded in the 17th century as a slave plantation with Caribbean sugar and rum connections, the manor has been preserved and revitalized as a working organic farm. The goal has been to celebrate agriculture as it was practiced before farming became an industrial process serving a mass market.

There was no such position as “historic preservation coordinator” when Maura first came to work at Sylvester Manor in April 2012.  She had recently left a job working in development for the Peconic Land Trust in Southampton. When a friend told her about a newspaper ad for a development job at Sylvester Manor, she jumped at it.

She lives in East Moriches but soon will be moving back to her family home on Shelter Island. She has been a part- or full-time resident here since childhood, when her parents built a place on Ram Island that’s still owned by Maura and her three brothers.

Her father Bud worked on Wall Street and her mother Mary Fran was into politics. “We had Peter, Paul and Mary in our living room” on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, said Maura, who was born in Manhattan in 1963.

For the kids’ sake, the family got a place in Forest Hills Gardens. But when Maura was about to enter her senior year at York Prep in Manhattan, her parents decided the long subway ride to school was a scary thing in Mayor Beame’s beleaguered city. They went to live full-time on Ram Island, with Bud staying in Forest Hills weekdays until he retired.

Maura is a member of the class of 1979 at Shelter Island High School. “It was so weird,” she said of having to find a place in a close-knit group of people she didn’t know well or at all.

She hated hunting and was outspoken about it. “I took it as a cross to bear,” she said, when some of the boys would leave dead ducks piled in the beds of their pickups when they parked at school after a morning in the blind. “I wasn’t very tactful about it,” Maura said. Her male locker-mate taught her a lesson by hanging duck heads and feet in their locker.

She found a comfortable fit after landing the role of the devil in the senior play, “The Devil in Daniel Webster,” because working closely as a team brings people together.

She went to Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, majoring in American history and historic preservation.

“When I was eight or nine, on a trip to Valley Forge,” she said, “I remember standing in the front of the house that served as Washington’s headquarters. I asked my family to please be quiet because I wanted to concentrate; I wanted to feel it. I wanted to do everything that I could to get rid of the present to feel what it had been like then.”

“That’s the first time I remember having that feeling about the power of place,” she said. She finally got to Williamsburg — which she’d heard about but never visited — only after getting her driver’s license and pestering a friend to go along with her.

“I wasn’t committed to Goucher or even being a student,” she said, so she headed to New York and worked “at a bunch of nondescript jobs.” In 1989, she came back to the Island. She’d been here a week when a stroke felled her mother. “That added a sorrowful dimension to my belated life search.”

After helping her retired father through that tough time, she decided to go to Washington, D.C., working for a company that raised money for real estate investments. She had an apartment in Alexandria’s Old Town and on weekends she’d drag visiting friends and family to Mt. Vernon or nearby Civil War sites.

In the 1990s, she decided to “find a way to make a living on Shelter Island.” After getting her bachelor’s degree in art history at Stony Brook, she took a part-time job at Guild Hall in East Hampton helping catalogue and track artwork in exhibits and collections. Eventually the job of assistant curator opened up and she took it, hoping it eventually would become full-time. During that time, she married Adam Penna, a master’s degree candidate in fine arts at Southampton College. After he got his degree and joined the faculty at Suffolk Community College, they rented a place on the Island for a while and later bought a house in East Moriches. When it became clear Maura needed to add a full-time job to help pay the bills, she went to the Land Trust.

When she took the job at Sylvester Manor looking for some passion in her work, it so happened that the manor began to attract international media attention — from the BBC to the New York Times — for its value as a unique, unspoiled relic from four centuries of American history. More visitors, including historians and other experts, wanted see the house and grounds.

Maura was recognized as a natural for conducting tours. Overhearing her give one last year, a member of the manor’s board decided it would be a good idea to put her talents to better use, meeting the rising demand — and so the post of historic preservation coordinator was created.

There’s a lot on her to-do list. “We’re now seriously addressing this house,” she said, determining what needs attention and how best to use it in the future. An application to enter the house into the National Register of Historic Places “is in the home stretch.”

The place is in pretty good shape. “Go kick the the fieldstone foundation in the basement sometime. It’s pretty solid. It’s solid hand-hewn timber frame construction,” she said.

The interior will never be a museum. A lot of people come in and ask how the rooms will be displayed and interpreted, as if they’ll all be given “assigned roles” as examples of 18th century and 19th century aesthetics, she said.

“It can never be that … When people lived here and the evidence of their lives is mixed over this 365-year history — who gets to say which is more valid than another?