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Gone but not forgotten

Dering Harbor “cottage” built in the 1890s by a magazine publisher and attributed to Stanford White was razed by a grocery-store heiress in 1963.

In the early ‘60s, Rachel Carpenter, a wealthy and civic-minded Shelter Island resident, bought the 80-year-old house across the street from hers, tore it down and replaced it with a guest house that didn’t interfere with her view of the water.

The house razed by the A&P heiress has become part of Shelter Island lore, in part because some Islanders still remember its beauty, and in part because it was said to have been designed by Stanford White, the celebrated architect responsible for the triumphal arch at Washington Square and several mansions on the South Fork.

No one could deny that the house was lovely, but its attribution to White was a myth that architect Carol Karasek and a retired archivist, Phyllis Wallace, have punctured.

For people who care about balancing historical preservation with the rights of owners to do what they want with their property, the story of the Schwarzmann/Carpenter house is one where preservation lost.

The house was built by Adolph Schwarzmann, who cofounded the popular magazine, Puck, in 1876. Between 1890 and 1895, Schwarzmann and four other families built homes on Sylvester, Nicoll and Havens Roads, in a section of Dering Harbor once called Germantown because most of the residents had German-sounding names. It is unlikely that McKim, Mead and White, Stanford White’s firm, had anything to do with the Schwarzmann cottage, as it does not appear in published catalogs of their commissions; one strong bit of evidence refuting the theory that White designed Schwarzmann’s house.

A second and even more compelling piece of evidence is the plan for the house that archivist Phyllis Wallace unearthed in the Historical Society collection, which clearly lists “Wait and Cutter Arch’s, Boston” as the firm responsible for the drawing and floor plan of “Residence for A. Schwarzmann Esq.”

The real mystery is why anyone thought the house was designed by Stanford White in the first place. Stewart Herman wrote The Smallest Village, a lively history of Dering Harbor. He wrote, “Adolph Schwarzmann, publisher of Puck magazine, commissioned the noted architect, Stanford White, to design a house on the bluff between Pickhardt’s house and the channel,” and then referred to Belle Schwarzmann in 1943 as “the daughter-in-law of the man who commissioned Stanford White to design him a house.” Herman repeated the story, but it was almost certainly not the source of the mistaken attribution. By the time Herman’s book was published in 1976, Schwarzmann’s house was long gone and the myth of its creator already firmly established.

Part of the explanation for the Stanford White myth may have been the house’s beauty. Built on a bluff overlooking Greenport Harbor and east to Orient, it had three verandahs. Carol Karasek said some features of the house could suggest Stanford White, such as the oversized columns, and the little oriel on the second floor. She has a plausible theory: “I wonder if someone saying ‘Wait’ might have been understood as ‘White’— especially with an accent?”

The Schwarzmann cottage, March 14, 1960, shortly after the property was purchased by Rachel Carpenter.

Phyllis Wallace is one of the few to have seen the interior of the house in all its splendor. Her memories of the home center on an enormous upstairs bathroom with a giant sunburst on the wall, made of tiny inlaid tiles in a rainbow of colors. “As a woman who grew up with seven of us using one bathroom, I was very impressed. That was a highlight.”

The Schwarzmann cottage was razed by “Claude Fuller and crew,” according to Historical Society records.

In 1963 there was no tide of public opinion to stop Rachel Carpenter from tearing down her own house. She was considered a benefactress, and most Islanders were grateful to her for building a new medical center. “Nobody thought about it at the time,” said Phyllis. “We weren’t thinking about preserving things.