May 31, 2006

A Discovery At The Gardiner Estate

Independent / James J. Mackin Workers at the Gardiner Estate discovered a cache of old documents in the cellar of the homestead. Mildewed and damaged, they'll be restored and added to local historic collections. ON COVER: Last week, homeowner Shahab Karmely (second from left) donated documents found in the Gardiner House in East Hampton to the East Hampton Historical Society. With him showing off the find are (from left) Historical Society Executive Director Richard Barons, architect Eva Growney, and project manager Bruce Matters. (click for larger version)
It may not set the folks at Christie's atwitter, but Richard Barons, Executive Director of the East Hampton Historical Society, is pretty excited. Last Friday, he accepted the donation of items discovered cached in the wine cellar at the former Gardiner Estate in East Hampton Village. This week local historians are attempting to ascertain the value and historic significance of about a dozen, severely mildewed framed documents and pictures.

Last year, after Shahab Karmely and his wife Elizabeth purchased the Main Street manse, Bruce Matters was retained to supervise a renovation and rehabilitation of the stone house, which was built on the site of an earlier Gardiner homestead after the Hurricane of '38. Following the death of Robert David Lion Gardiner, the place was stripped and contents sold at auction. "Everything was gone, even the lamp fixtures and chandeliers," Matters recalled.

According to Barons, all the institutions on Long Island with any reverence for local history were shocked to learn of the Lord of the Manor's failure to remember them in his will. "It was odd and ironic," Barons said, that a person so dedicated to the family history, who "wore his history on his cuff," neglected to make provisions for the preservation of historic artifacts and heirlooms. In fact, Barons suspects Gardiner was even a member of a variety of organizations that work to preserve his family's legacy, both locally and at Sagtikos Manor in Islip town.

Consequently, society members scrambled to submit bids at the auctions. Some of the items in the house, like a chest crafted by a famed Rhode Island cabinetmaker, were so rare and valuable more well-heeled bidders, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were able to plunk down big bucks. Luckily, Barons said, surviving members of the Gardiner family purchased a significant number of treasures, particularly family portraits.

With the bulk of Gardiner's physical legacy scattered among collectors, Barons was happy to learn of a discovery last year. Working in the house, Matters came upon a cache of framed documents and artwork secreted in a wine cellar. "I don't know if they were overlooked by Christie's. Some of them are pretty interesting," Matters said. There are about a dozen extremely mildewed pieces. As of press time, Barons had yet to thoroughly examine the pieces, nor would he undertake the job of cleaning them without input from specialists. But so far, some look to date back to the late 18th Century.

Architect Eva Growney is the chair of the American Institute of Architects' Peconic Chapter's preservation committee. She's been working with the Karmely family on the restoration of the Gardiner Estate, and was one of the first people Matters contacted about the find. The pair spoke to Karmely about the discovery, noting it might make a worthwhile contribution to local historians. "He said, "Yes, go ahead,'" Matters recalled. Karmely said he thought it was "sad" that the historic organizations didn't receive bequests following Gardiner's death. When he learned of the find, he said he immediately felt it should be given to the historical society. "Preserving the local heritage is important and I think they do great work," he said. A friend and client of Growney's, Judy Teller, has offered to contribute money towards the restoration of the materials.

Along with the documents and pictures, last week Matters donated a book from the 1790s that includes David Gardiner's signature.

There are about a dozen framed items, Growney reported. Ten documents and framed pictures comprise the discovery. Some date from the 1800s with wax seals and embossed seals; the earliest carries a date of 1786. "They look original and official," she said. Some of the documents are "quite legible," Growney said. Composed in Latin, they could be diplomas or law degrees.

The pieces are in various stages of decay, some of them falling down inside the frames. Barons noted what appears to be a late 18th to early 19th Century portrait of a woman, a pastel. The frame's glass is completely covered with mildew, obscuring immediate identification. "It could just be a photograph," Barons said. A 1940 airplane view of Sagtikos Manor, he deemed "very interesting."

The plan is to examine the objects, identify them, and discuss how they will be preserved, Barons said. Some may be given to the East Hampton Library's Long Island Collection. The library received boxes of material from the estate and officials there are currently in the process of inventorying them.

Some of the documents may be returned to Sagtikos Manor and others could stay with the Historical Society. The artifacts could play an important role in next year's major summer exhibit, which focuses on the early life on Gardiner's Island. Barons admitted the find probably has "very little potency for the world. It relates to our cocoon here on the East End, and fills in the picture of the Gardiner family which was such an important part of our history."

Karmely said, "It's a great honor and privilege to be involved in the restoration of this historic mansion that is important to the community. I hope to spend many happy years here."

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