Home, Sweet Home — John Howard Payne May Have Slept Here, But Not for Very Long

Originally published December 30, 2005
John Howard Payne birthday celebration, 1935

Home, Sweet Home, the East Hampton historical museum named in honor of the writer John Howard Payne, was long presumed to be Payne's childhood home and perhaps even his birthplace, but a study of the property released earlier this month has put an end to that myth.
The report, prepared for the East Hampton Village Board by Robert Hefner, a historic preservation consultant, confirms once and for all that not only was Payne not born in the saltbox house on James Lane, but neither he nor his parents or grandparents ever lived there.

"It's not going to diminish what we do there, it's just that you need to tell that part, too," said Hugh King, a local historian who manages Home, Sweet Home and helped with Mr. Hefner's report. "These legends also are important, as long as they don't become the truth. It's certainly important to remember the legends, too."

The house, which serves as a shrine to Payne's life and work, is owned by East Hampton Village. Over the years, many people have claimed that it was the "humble" home the writer pined for in his famous song, "Home, Sweet Home."

Mr. Hefner has written what he called "a new history of Home, Sweet Home," which includes information never before known about the house and its previous owners. N. Sherrill Foster, another local historian, shared her research on the house and the family of Aaron Isaacs, John Howard Payne's maternal grandfather, who was an East Hampton merchant.

William Payne, the writer's father, did live in East Hampton, where he taught at the Clinton Academy on Main Street, which is now an East Hampton Historical Society property. John Howard Payne's mother, Sarah Isaacs Payne, came from East Hampton, and his aunts, Elizabeth Isaacs Jones and Mary Isaacs, lived in the house on James Lane. At most, however, John Howard was only a visitor there.

Mr. Hefner said he believes the house was built around 1720. It looked completely unlike the Home, Sweet Home we know today. It had clapboard siding and a different roof, entrance, and windows.

The first owner he could identify was Eliphalet Stratton, who probably inherited the property with a house on it. In 1746 Mr. Stratton sold it to the Rev. Jonathan Huntting, a merchant in poor health who may have kept a store in the unheated lean-to off the house. Shortly after Mr. Huntting's death in 1750, it was sold to Elisha Jones, a successful sea captain and merchant, who turned it into "one of the most fashionable Georgian-style houses in East Hampton."

Judging by the changes he made, Captain Jones was "a man of obvious taste and sophistication," Mr. Hefner said.

The captain replaced the clapboards with shingles, which, based on traces of paint found in the moldings, must have been painted a deep red. He reconstructed the roof to create a slight front overhang, redid the entire facade, adding pediments over the windows and front door, and renovated the parlor.

Captain Jones was married to Elizabeth Miller, the daughter of one of East Hampton's wealthiest proprietors. He died in 1764, but the house was to stay in the Jones family for another 88 years.

The property eventually passed on to his oldest son, Elisha Jones Jr., a shoemaker turned sea captain who was married to Elizabeth Isaacs, John Howard Payne's aunt. After Elisha's death, Elizabeth's sister, Mary, came to live with her and her children. The last of the Joneses to live in the house on James Lane was Sophia Jones, who died in 1852.

In 1853, the house was auctioned to settle a mortgage debt. Henry Mulford bought it for $300. He lived in and rented the house until his death in 1900. He shingled the house in red cedar, whitewashed it, removed the decorative elements from its facade, and put in a new doorway.

Before his death, he transferred ownership to his nephew Samuel M. Mulford, who sold it to St. Luke's Episcopal Church in 1906.

According to Mr. Hefner's report, Henry Mulford was the first to claim his house as the birthplace of John Howard Payne. Visitors to East Hampton in the late 1800s were eager to believe that Payne's "Home, Sweet Home," was in fact a real place.

"When the Tile Club visited East Hampton during the summer of 1878, they set out to find the actual 'thatched cottage' that Payne wrote about," Mr. Hefner wrote. An 1881 article in The Brooklyn Eagle seems to be the first that definitively refers to the James Lane house as Payne's birthplace and childhood home.

After abandoning plans to build a new church and rectory on the property, St. Luke's sold the house in 1907 to Gustav H. Buek, a New York publisher, for $6,000. Mr. Buek and his wife, Hannah, once again undertook major renovations. Unlike Capt. Elisha Jones, who was modernizing his house according to the latest styles, the Bueks, who collected American art and antiques, wanted a Colonial Revival look.

According to a 1907 article in The East Hampton Star, the Bueks told the community that the building would "be left in its present condition and will remain henceforth as the John Howard Payne house." Whether or not the house was ever home to the writer seemed not to matter.

"It was a good story that inspired him to create his vision of Home, Sweet Home," Mr. Hefner said. The Bueks built a new front door with rustic cedar casings and unpainted vertical boards, and hung a "Home, Sweet Home" door knocker, hanging lantern, and antique door chime at the entrance. They filled the house with antiques and Payne memorabilia and opened it to journalists, photographers, and other visitors.

Mr. Buek died in 1927 and the house was put on the market. "There was talk of tearing it down. There were rumors that millionaires, including Henry Ford, wanted to buy it and move it away," The Star reported in Hannah Buek's 1941 obituary. "A movement to buy it and preserve it as a community shrine to the memory of the writer. . . was started."

People knew Payne may not have lived there, yet embraced the myth on its own merits. In a 1927 article in The New York Times, Mrs. John W. Hand, past president of the Ladies Village Improvement Society, told a reporter, "It doesn't make any difference to us whether Mr. Payne lived in the house or not. . . . We know from letters he wrote that he was acquainted with East Hampton and loved it as we do. We know he was thinking of a house like this when he wrote 'Home, Sweet Home,' and anyway, it represents our ideal of home, sweet home, which is enough for us."

Later that year, the village bought the house and its contents. Given Home, Sweet Home's true story, the resulting museum is more of an homage to the Bueks' vision than it is to historic East Hampton.

"If Home, Sweet Home were being considered for its architecture, it would be known as the Capt. Elisha Jones House," Mr. Hefner wrote. He suggested that East Hampton Village consider adding an exhibit on the house as it looked under Captain Jones's ownership to the Home, Sweet Home gallery.