Oh, If These Old Walls Could Talk

Congress Hall, once owned by Fishhooks Mulford, has many stories to tell
Congress Hall, once owned by Fishhooks Mulford, has many stories to tell
Congress Hall, a house on Main Street, East Hampton dating to 1680, has a whole lot of history within its walls. Russell Drumm

    You open the front door of the old house and are confronted by low ceilings. The wood floor gently rises and falls having settled into the lay of the land over the course of centuries. The hallway is narrow, and so is the main staircase to the second floor. The bedrooms are small. Nooks appear here and there, built in unexpected places for uses that disappeared long ago.
    In the basement and in the attic, where the original peg-fastened mortise-and-tenon construction is visible, and in other parts of the house where the lathe and plaster ceiling is revealed, sounds from outside, a truck going by, a siren, even the house’s electrical refinements, are incongruous.
    At first, its small scale seems to shrink from the bluster of the present, but soon one is drawn by its pleasant confinements into a time that in many ways seems bigger than now for the self-reliance of its scant population. The wind whistles through unseen places, or is it the walls whispering, “We were here first.”
    The house in question is known as Congress Hall, located at 177 Main Street in East Hampton Village across from the South End Burying Ground and the old Mulford farmhouse. It’s south of where it once stood, originally a sloping-roofed saltbox built in 1680 with what Robert Hefner, a historic preservation consultant, described as a plaster cove cornice where roof meets wall. The cornice is still there, “a hallmark of early Georgian design that caught on here,” Mr. Hefner said.
    In 1805, the saltbox lost its sloping roof and was converted to a two-story house. An extra room was added to accommodate “the slave girls,” according to Mulford family tradition.
    At about the same time, an apple orchard was planted between it and the house’s future location. The orchard supplied fruit to the South Fork via a Sag Harbor market, and later became the subject of etchings by Thomas Moran and Mary Nimmo Moran.
     At one time, the entire house lot from Buell Lane south to the 1650 Thomas Baker House, now an inn, was owned by the Mulford family. John Mulford had arrived in Southampton from England in 1643 and moved to East Hampton five years later, where he became one of its English founders. In 1902 the house was moved to its present location at the southern end of the lot.
    In the late 17th century the house lot was owned by William Mulford, John Mulford’s son. He, in turn, left it to his son Thomas, but none other than Samuel Mulford, a cousin, purchased it from him.
    Samuel (Fishhooks) Mulford became a fixture in local lore. It might have been in the original saltbox that he made plans to sail to London to complain about the tax on whale oil that the town’s near-shore whalers were being forced to pay contrary to the guarantees of their founding Dongan Patent.
    Forewarned of the pickpockets who plied the big city, Samuel Mulford sewed fishhooks into his pockets to catch them in the act, earning him his nickname. In 1724, he deeded the property to his son Timothy, a cabinetmaker.
    According to Jeannette Edwards Rattray in her “Up and Down Main Street,” a history of the older houses in East Hampton, a section of the old house that had been removed when Buell Lane was widened (they might have said “widdened” at the time) became the house’s garage after it was moved.
    Mrs. Courtland Mulford told Mrs. Rattray about the straw matting that had been packed around the window inside the casing for insulation. “Someone told me that in the early days ships brought tea in bags from China to Sag Harbor and these tea bags, which resembled matting, were used at the time for the purpose of insulation,” Mrs. Mulford had said.
    In 1855, the house was owned by David B. Mulford, who lived from 1800 to 1876. Around this time, the house got the name Congress Hall because it had become a general meeting place for the men of the community. They no doubt shared a glass and talked about the events of the day, most certainly the 1876 presidential election.
    Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican from Ohio, had defeated Samuel J. Tilden, a New York Democrat. It was the first time in U.S. history that a candidate had won an absolute majority of the popular vote, but was not elected by the Electoral College. In return for Democrats accepting the outcome, Republicans agreed to remove federal troops from the South, thus ending post-Civil War Reconstruction.
    Congress Hall is for sale and is listed with Devlin McNiff Halstead Property realty as “an antique home full of East Hampton’s rich history and lore,” which it surely is.
    From the street, the three-century-old, peaked-roof part of the structure is on the right side. A flat-roofed addition was added in 1902. It has four bedrooms with two baths and “is the perfect candidate for a loving restoration and renovation,” according to the real estate firm’s materials. The price is $1.25 million, a number that could have bought a good deal of Long Island three centuries ago.
    Mr. Hefner said Congress Hall was a “time capsule” whose heavy timber frame was original and still in good shape. The roof rafters were from the 1805 renovation, as were the interior woodwork, lathe, and stucco paneling. “It absolutely can be resurrected, he said.”
    Cornelia Dodge is the agent handling Devlin McNiff’s exclusive listing. “The Mulford Farm, Home, Sweet Home, and this are the Mulford triplets,” she said referring to Congress Hall and the two 17th-century houses on James Lane. “It wants to be a saltbox,” she said in announcing her preference for a restoration.
    “The old beams and pegs. There would be so many happy surprises if it were dissected. And, if you wanted to do things accurately, you could just look across the street,” Ms. Dodge said.
    “The staircase is the most worthy, remaining, clearly visible part of the old house,” she said. Unfortunately, the most recent owner, Janet Mae Arvold, died two years ago and the house has remained empty (except for thousands of books) and unattended since then. “The obsolescence it’s experiencing is not helping. It’s like Grey Gardens,” she said.