Next time you're traveling on 25A and reach the intersection of Split Rock Road, Town of Oyster Bay residents can feel pride in protecting a wonderful part of Long Island history. Beginning in 2009, you will be able to enjoy this 250-plus year-old house with its meadows and ponds just as the previous owners have. Thanks to Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor, JohnVenditto, Town Council members and, you, the voters, this historic site was purchased with proceeds from the Save Environmental Assets (S.E.A.) Fund II Bond program.
Current events have greater significance when we understand the past, the actions and sequences that make them what they are today. With that in mind, a history of the farm follows.
The Farm at Oyster Bay, formerly Hillside Farm, began life in the 1750s as a very modest farmstead. The original farmhouse can be found in what is now the library, part of the downstairs and the space above it. The wisteria adjacent to the swimming pool and closest to the house roughly dates from the farm's inception. At that time the farm comprised 50 acres on both sides of Split Rock Road.
Toward the end of the 19th-century, the Strongs, a wealthy New York family, purchased the property as a summer residence and began to transform Hillside Farm into a gentleman's farm. The Strongs would complete the barn-complex courtyard with the addition of a stable and a garage and add onto the house but did little to change what was very much a farming use of the land.
The subsequent owner, John Minturn, purchased Hillside Farm in the early 1920s. It was his civilized eye that understood the inherent possibilities of making Hillside Farm into a uniquely beautiful estate. John Minturn had 2,000 rhododendrons trucked up from North Carolina in the 1920s. He would buy Hillside Farm as a bachelor but when he married, he added the living room, everything above it and the boxwood garden as a wedding present to his wife. What had been a marshy pasture area would become the present gardens based on a 17th-century Dutch parterre design. But, perhaps, his most genial idea was to create a pond out of a spring-fed boggy area at the base of the hillside surrounded by woods. Unfortunately, Mrs. Minturn developed serious allergies, and it became clear that the Minturns would have to sell the estate on which they had devoted so much love, time and treasure.
In 1943, the Littauers purchased the Farm. They saw their role as largely that of custodians. They did, however, install the bookcases in the library and the 17th-century Dutch tiles around two of the fireplaces. A fire in 1956, that began in the wall that separates the front hall from the living room, did structural damage to the third floor. This event was used to reconfigure the west end of the third floor, to lay down the 18th century wide board flooring from old houses in Connecticut, and to put a bay window in the library.
The Littauers also made minor changes to the landscaping: introducing new hedges, planting trees in a variety of places and adding the marsh marigolds, skunk cabbage, the swaths of grape hyacinths, bluebells, lily of the valley and many apples down by the ponds. But the Littauers always obeyed John Minturn's code - only flora native to North America would be permitted. The large stand of evergreens on the north segment of the property were planted to buffer the noise and lights of Route 25A.
During this period there were always a couple of cows to be milked and several horses to be ridden. Hay was made in the hills and meadows that run between the ponds and Route 25A. The orchards were productive with apples, peaches, plums and cherries. The superintendent in the '40s and '50s, Gus Rausch, also kept bees, made cider from the apples, and milked the cows. The cook canned fruits and vegetables, made ice-cream and churned butter. The root cellar was used to store apples and various root vegetables during the winter months. This was in no way a self-sufficient farm, but it did produce much of what was consumed in the spring, summer and fall.
Although the lifestyle which the Littauer family enjoyed in the '40s and '50s was gradually scaled back over the years, Mrs. Littauer would continue to live out her days in a household that syill had a butler and a cook, chickens in the yard and horses in the pasture, and good friends dropping by for afternoon tea.
The North Shore Land Alliance began talking with Andrew Littauer in the summer of 2003 regarding preserving and protecting the land that his family and the families before him had loved so dearly. The Town of Oyster Bay purchased the 27-acre property in the fall of 2007.
On Thursday, April 24, 2008 Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto planted a beautiful pink dogwood in the front of the house at the Littauer's Hillside Farm. It was a bright sunny day and a perfect gesture to mark the beginning of a new life for this charming and historic site.
Upon completion of the transaction, the Town of Oyster Bay formed a steering committee of local citizens, employed an architect and engineer to review and assess all property issues.
The preliminary report contained the following plans:
• The Property will be named 'The Farm at Oyster Bay.'
• The Main House and surrounding buildings will be maintained and restored.
• The Barn complex will be converted to classrooms and art studios while maintaining the architectural integrity of the façade.
• Subtle, but necessary, arrangements will be made for temporary parking and restroom facilities.
• Site-appropriate programs will be developed with the goal of educating town residents about local heritage, environmental resources and promoting sustainable gardening practices.
• Initial funding will be provided through proceeds from SEA Fund III with the ongoing intent to establish a nonprofit organization, pursue grant opportunities, and engage partners and friends.
Andrew Littauer, when asked to comment about the transaction, said the following: "Without the invaluable assistance of the NSLA, the acquisition of Hillside Farm by the Town of Oyster Bay might never have taken place. It was through their good offices that I first contacted The Town of Oyster Bay, and it was through their role as a neutral, but determined, intermediary that the sale of Hillside Farm to the Town of Oyster Bay was eventually affected. The NSLA has continued to play an important role in terms of Hillside Farm's future: By placing a conservation easement on the entire property, this guarantees that the property will be preserved in perpetuity. In spite of all the other responsibilities and duties that NSLA carries, they have made a point of remaining involved in the planning for Hillside Farm's future as a public park and a museum."
'The Farm at Oyster Bay' has plans for a "soft" opening later this summer while minor structural and environmental matters are addressed before the official opening in 2009.
The North Shore Land Alliance is grateful to Andrew Littauer and Town Supervisor JohnVenditto for this gift of nature for all of us and for future generations.
(This article is comprised of excerpts from the notes of Andrew Littauer, a report prepared for the Town of Oyster Bay by Douglas A. Wilke, Architect and Engineer, and Lisa Ott of the North Shore Land Alliance.)