Connections: Dominy Redux

The star-crossed story of the Dominys’ house and its attached clock and woodworking shops begins in 1941

We visited Winterthur, the Henry Francis du Pont estate in Delaware, last weekend at the invitation of Charles F. Hummel, the curator and scholar whose 1968 book, “With Hammer in Hand” (reprinted in 1973), describes three generations of Dominy craftsmen in East Hampton and the objects they made — clocks, chairs, case pieces, looking glasses, tables — as well as the conservative rural culture here from the early 18th century to the mid-19th. The book presents a meticulous look at more than 1,000 tools, which the Dominys used in making and repairing clocks and furniture and in building houses and an occasional windmill.

The star-crossed story of the Dominys’ house and its attached clock and woodworking shops, which stood on North Main Street not far from what is now the East Hampton Grill, begins in 1941. The Dominys were at that time known primarily for their clocks, but had moved on from their old family business. The property was owned by a neighbor.

In December of that year, he offered to sell the house and workshops to the Village of East Hampton for $6,000. The public, with other preoccupations, failed to respond to an appeal for funds by the mayor, Judson Banister. The house was eventually demolished, but the clock and woodworking shops were saved by a second-home owner, who merged them to serve as a guesthouse on his Further Lane estate. The most recent owner of the property has now given the buildings to the village.

The preservation of the Dominy tools, however, took an almost miraculous turn in 1957, when a large collection was spotted in a Southampton antiques shop; as interest grew, other objects were uncovered. They were purchased for Mr. du Pont and eventually found homes at Winterthur, where both shops were reconstructed and the woodworking tools laid out as they might have been in centuries past.

Winterthur is a 1,000-acre preserve known for American decorative arts, with 175 period rooms in Mr. du Pont’s mansion. Instead of taking a look at the period rooms, we spent most of our time there with Mr. Hummel and then took a tour of the grounds, which in sunny weather showed off thousands upon thousands of flowers: cherries, viburnums, azaleas, bluebells. . . . 

And now, in addition to the village’s owning the shops and nascent plans for a Dominy museum, there is other good news. Mr. Hummel has continued his research and prepared an expanded, digital version of “With Hammer in Hand,” which is expected to be released any day now. It will help guide the new museum. We hope to hear a further update when he comes to present a talk at a Ladies Village Improvement Society fund-raising lunch that will be held in November.

The Dominy legacy is nationally significant because no other similar collection of rural American craftsmanship over such a long period exists. Not only were three generations of tools preserved but account books, letters, bills, notes, receipts, templates, and machinery, all of which tell a cultural and historic story. The details of how this all came about, Mr. Hummel says in “With Hammer in Hand,” is “as fascinating as the objects themselves.”