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Saturday, September 30, 2017 -  Barnett Shepherd addresses PLSI Gala: Preservation Milestones in My Career (The Joy of Discovery and the People Who Made It Possible)

December 12, 2017

 

The Preservation League of Staten Island celebrated its 40th Anniversary at a Gala Dinner at Casa Belvedere.  The event was sold out.  Warren Mac Kenzie, President, far left, introduces our honored guest Barnett Shepherd  far right – historian, author and ardent preservationist – one of the founders of the Preservation League, and its first president (1977 to 1981).  Shepherd served as the League’s executive director (2012 to 2017).

 

Following is the complete text of Mr. Shepherd's comments to the assembled Gala guests:

Preservation Milestones in My Career

(The Joy of Discovery and the People Who Made It Possible)

 

A beautiful gathering like this is a bountiful reward for living and working on Staten Island for 45 years.  The beauty of this Island scene can be an excuse to reflect on my career as a preservationist.

 

The first milestone I would like to share came when I was working on the history of Sailors’ Snug Harbor.  The administration at Snug Harbor here on the island were embroiled in a battle with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and did not want me nosing around documenting the importance of the historic buildings, but I persevered. 

 

I went to the Snug Harbor Office on Green Street, Manhattan and was welcomed with open arms. George McCracken, the elderly Controller, usher me into the basement and opened the room-size vault for my perusal.  There lining the walls were 105 volumes of “Bills Paid” documenting all expenses of the institution from 1800 to 1905. 

 

Hand written receipts on small strips of paper had been organized by date and their edges affixed to binders.  After about a month of daily reading these receipts I found one dated Sept. 12, 1831  payingMinard Lafever $50 for designing the first three buildings.  No other historian had laid eyes of this receipt. The buildings had been attributed to architect Martin Thomson, due to a confusion of names with the contractor Samuel Thomson.

 

I rejoiced in my discovery and was able to complete a paper reattributing the buildings to Lafever.

 

My second milestone came when I was writing about Daniel D. Tompkins’ life on Staten Island. At the Frick Library I had found a portrait of DDT owned by Mrs. Bernard Wortis. With a phone call she invited me to her beautiful estate on the Northern Neck of Long Island. She opened her genealogical files to me and there I discovered an unidentified floor plan which I recognized immediately to be the Tompkins’s  Staten Island residence atop Fort Hill. 

 

This plan matched the unidentified drawing of the house in New York Historical Society.  Mrs. Wortis later gave the plan and the portrait of Tompkins to the Staten Island Historical Society.

With this new found information I completed papers about Tompkins and to staged an exhibition at the Staten Island Historical Society.

 

My third milestone came when I was working on the history of Sandy Ground.  Lois Mosley, a Sandy Ground native,  asked me to assist her with her memoir Sandy Ground Memories. She told me about her maternal great grandfather, Dawson Landin.  He was a successful oysterman and leader of the community.  His oyster sloop was named “The Fanny Fern.” 

 

I discovered that Fanny was a leading journalist in New York City.  Her book Fern Leaves from Fanny Fern was a best seller.  This opened my mind to realize Dawson was well-read and interested in current literature.  It was a sign to me that this African American community was enlightened and concerned with ideas and the education of their children.  This incident is only one in many which opened my eyes as a white man to the diversity of the black community and their quest for acceptance and success in American society.

 

These discoveries are mentioned today to remind us of the importance of recording our individual histories and the role played by heroic preservationists.  The first example brings to mind the Snug Harbor anonymous clerk who conserved all those thousands of receipts of Bills Paid. And the administrator who allowed that work to go forward.

 

The second discovery of Daniel Tompkins’s house plan brings to mind Mrs. Wortis who realized its importance to her family history and stored it safely away. Remember those enlightened members of your families who take an interest in preserving our family histories.

 

The third discovery in Sandy Ground history reminds me of Lois Mosley who pursued a life-long quest to conserve her community’s history .

 

These are preservation heroes I celebrate tonight!

 

 Those who love history and save its footprints will live long lives through their work.

 

Preservationists respond to the beauty of historic buildings, historic archives, and the ideas they represent.  They desire to share this love with others.

 

Preservation opens the door to the larger world of the past and present.  We gain strength through association with great ideas, but we cannot live in the past.

 

Through preservation we can understand those who have gone before us and the timeless human condition.  We desire to share that understanding with everyone.

 

Preservation efforts bring out the pulse of the community for good or for bad. We only occasionally win the battle the way we hoped, but the winning is not the only goal.  The goal is understanding and growth for our community and ourselves.

 

What is our legacy as preservationists? To be good citizens. To enrich our life through understanding and knowledge of the past.

 

The reward of living is what we learn about life, not our successes and honors. Our relationships and affection for one another provide the sweetness of life.

 

Our island home can be a refuse from the great city and the toil of modern life.  We can use our Island beauty to contemplate the significance of things.  To nurture and renew ourselves and one another. 

 

Here’s to us!! Keep on  going!!!

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