Ancestors Abide in a 19th-Century House

Tracing Heritage to Two Family Trees
This North Haven house, on “Sayre’s Lot,” is still in the family. Durell Godfrey Photos

    Ann Sutphen is either the sixth generation of her family to live on what was once known as “Sayre’s Lot,” or the eighth, depending on how you look at it. The property is on North Haven, just to the left when you cross the bridge from Sag Harbor, and it stretches down to a huge Sag Harbor cove.

    The white clapboard house was inherited by Ms. Sutphen’s great, great, great, great, great-grandmother, Maria, when her husband, Charles Watson Payne Jr., who had been on a long sea voyage, was killed by a whale. This puts Ms. Sutphen in the sixth generation. But the widowed Mrs. Payne married Jeremiah Wickham Sayre, the grandson of David Sayre, a sea caption who had owned the land and had an earlier house there. So, by marriage, Ms. Sutphen is in the eighth generation.

    Ms. Sutphen is a midwife, and her husband, David Rhoades, a civil engineer. They and their 9-year-old daughter, Kara, came to live in the 1830s house in September, three years after the death of the previous occupant, Martha Rusk Sutphen, Ms. Sutphen’s mother. It took that long for them to sail from Seattle via the Panama Canal to Sag Harbor, with various layovers along the way.

    Every nook and cranny of the house is filled with history, although like most old houses, it has been revamped and added to over the decades. A front porch and widow’s walk were removed at some point, and the first addition to the house, which is still intact, was a wing for a kitchen. It was built by Joseph Fahys, of Sag Harbor’s watchcase factory, who married Charles and Maria Payne Sayre’s daughter, another Maria, sometime around 1900. It is now the dining room.

      “We’ve always been told that ‘rich Aunt Bertha’ had the house in the 1920s and added the final addition, a kitchen, butler’s pantry, and laundry room,” Ms. Sutphen said. “And I’m pretty sure she’s the one who added plumbing.”

    By the time Ms. Sutphen’s mother inherited the house it had become a summer residence. She turned the laundry room and bathroom, which commanded splendid views of the water and a small dock, into what is now the winter sitting room. The bathroom was moved under the stairs in the dining room, and the butler’s pantry, no longer needed, became the laundry room.

    In 1989, when Martha Sutphen modernized the kitchen, it was found that the locust posts that held up the house had rotted. “We didn’t find anything solid till the second story,” Ms. Sutphen said. “The joke became: ‘Rich Aunt Bertha wasn’t as rich as we thought.’ ”

    Only half the house is heated in winter, and the formal living room and library, which Ms. Sutphen now calls the morning room, along with the second-floor bedrooms, are closed off. There are six bedrooms in all.

    The living and morning rooms open onto a center hall, which is home to a grandfather clock, an antique barometer, and a painting of a ship called Fanny, once owned by one of Ms. Sutphen’s progenitors, which ended life frozen in Alaska. The front door, with two leaded-glass sidelights, would open onto the hall, but it has not been used in years. In the morning room, where the sun streams in before noon, several pieces of furniture are original to the house, including a handsome writing desk with shelves behind glass doors, and a tall secretary frosted with thick crown molding.

    Portraits evoke family history. One is of Charles Payne, another of his wife, who looks dour in a stiff lace collar typical of the Federal period. This painting terrifies Kara, perhaps because the eyes seem to focus on whoever looks at her. Another, painted at the turn of the last century, is of a woman with gossamer wisps of hair, which seem to blend into the background. “I hated her when I was growing up. I thought she was bald,” said Ms. Sutphen, who is not sure of the woman’s identity.

    Wicker furniture on the extra-large back porch has been rescued from the elements and is stored off-season, swaddled in sheets in the living room. Both Ms. Sutphen and one of her three sisters used the porch for dancing during their wedding receptions. It had been enlarged in the 1880s when the living room windows facing it were, Ms. Sutphen said, “Victorianized,” by extending them from floor to ceiling. Ms. Sutphen shares ownership of the house now with her siblings, although she and her family are making it their year-round house.

    Though Mr. Rhoades grew up on the West Coast, where, he said, “they don’t have historical houses,” he does not flinch from the work required to keep the house in shape. And he feels right at home in Sag Harbor, which he said reminds him of Kodiak, Alaska, where his father was a fisherman.

    It’s understandable that Aunt Bertha was considered rich. She added a third floor to the house with a remarkably large bath and two bedrooms for servants. One of these rooms, Ms. Sutphen’s bedroom as a child, commands the best views in the house.

    Portraits in another bedroom are of Ms. Sutphen’s three sisters as children. They were done in the 1960s by Felix de Cossio, who also painted First Lady Betty Ford’s official White House portrait. But no portrait of Ms. Sutphen hangs on the walls. She is the youngest of the siblings, and it was never finished.

    Kara, who was home-schooled during the long voyage here, now goes to the Sag Harbor Elementary School. If she takes possession of the house some day, she will be the seventh generation to do so. Or would that be ninth?
 

This dour portrait is of the widowed Maria Payne,left, who married Jeremiah Sayre. Ann Sutphen’s grandmother, Gladys Houx Rusk, center, poses with Ann’s mother, Martha Rusk Sutphen, on her lap. And a portrait of an unidentified ancestor, right, dates from the turn of the last century.
Ann Sutphen, dressed for the cold in a room closed off for winter, poses with portraits of her three sisters.
A 19th century dresser, left, in what used to be the master bedroom is a coveted antique. The secretary in the morning room, right, is full of books ancestors handed down.
The view from a former maid’s room, left, is one of the best in the house. A ginger jar, right, has been in the house for generations.
A writing desk, left, with windowed shelves in the morning room. At right, hot-water bottles come in handy in old houses.