Dominy Shops to Anchor New Museum

North Main site to highlight work of renowned craftsmen
Dominy shops at Mulford Farm property in 2017 Durell Godfrey

The groundwork is nearly finished on the North Main Street parcel where the historical Dominy shops will return later this year.

“We’ve removed the trees, but we have a little more grading to do to flatten out the land,” said Scott Fithian, the village’s superintendent of public works, whose department has been preparing the site, a 5,400-square-foot parcel adjacent to the municipal parking lot, for the homecoming.

The Dominy family, including Nathaniel Dominy IV, his son, Nathaniel Dominy V, and his grandson, Felix Dominy, were renowned for their woodworking and clock and watchmaking skills. The 1791 woodworking shop and 1798 clock shop, which have been sitting at the Mulford Farm, are the only Dominy buildings still in existence. The Dominy house and other structures were torn down in 1946, and replicas have been constructed at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

It was about a year ago, said Mr. Fithian, that he was walking around the North Main Street site when he stumbled upon a piece of Dominy history. “I kicked a stone by accident, and it turned out to be one of the millstones that made up the foundations of the clock shop and house,” he said. “It was pretty exciting.”

That millstone, or others that Mr. Fithian has subsequently dug up, will once again be used to undergird the clock shop. “It’s going to have a foundation of full stone, just as it did,” said Robert Hefner, the village’s director of historic services, who is supervising the project, which includes the restoration of the shops as well as the reconstruction of the Dominy’s timber-frame house, which will serve as the main exhibition space to which the shops will be connected.

 Mr. Hefner said he is being obsessive about having the buildings look as they did in their time. Fortunately, he has detailed specifications about every inch of the structures thanks to the work of two architects employed by the Historical American Buildings Survey, a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. In the 1940s, said Mr. Hefner, the architects arrived in East Hampton to document the Dominy compound for posterity.

“They filled four field books with measurements,” he said. Those notes are stored in the National Archives. 

In November, the East Hampton Village board accepted a bid from John Hummel and Associates to do the construction. The process of building the new timber-frame house, which will be visually consistent with the existing 18th-century structures, will begin with the New Jersey Barn Company, a firm with expertise in restoration that will use the measurements collected in the 1940s to manufacture a replica. “From the outside, the house will look authentic,” said Mr. Hefner. The frame will be built in New Jersey and later delivered by truck to East Hampton. 

The front door to the Dominy family’s Georgian-style house, Mr. Hefner said, was likely the widest for an East Hampton residence in its day. In June, the Ladies Village Improvement Society donated $9,000 to reconstruct it. When it’s in place this time, it will open into an exhibition space, not a residence, but the interior will still contain signs of the craftsmen’s original home. “Where you see the house’s frame on the inside, that will all be finished with hand tools as the Dominys would have done it,” said Mr. Hefner. “They would have started off with a log and axed it off to get to a flat surface. The New Jersey Barn Company won’t be starting with a log, but they’re ordering timbers an inch larger than needed so they can saw it down. They’ll finish it with a broad ax, so it will have that appearance.”

One aspect of the reconstruction that will not hew to history will lie within the walls. “Five inches of insulation is going to add some bulk, but that’s the only change,” said Mr. Hefner. “We did contemplate doing it with no insulation, but we decided that for the long term, and to be able to borrow Dominy furniture from Winterthur, and people who want to donate, we would need a museum-quality environment. That was the compromise.”

Ultimately, visitors will walk into a space filled with Dominy memorabilia including the East Hampton Historical Society’s collection of tools from the clock shop, about 50 pieces of Dominy furniture including a tall-case clock (the second that Felix Dominy had made), the original columns from the porch of Clinton Academy, which were made in the woodshop, and Nathaniel Dominy’s memorandum book, which was purchased by Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. and his wife, Jean, who recently donated it to the village.

The attached structures, which are tiny — the clock shop is 10.2 feet by 14.3 feet, and the carpenter shop is 15 feet by 22.4 feet — will provide a look at the exact environment in which the Dominys worked.

Those existing buildings are in varying degrees of disrepair. “The clock shop frame is in bad shape,” said Mr. Hefner. “It didn’t have shingles and sheathing, so a lot more water got into it than the carpenter shop.” A crew from John Hummel and Associates will have to begin working on the clock shop at Mulford Farm, he said, before it can be transported to North Main Street. The carpenter shop, however, will be restored after it arrives on site. The plan is to have a foundation for the buildings done by spring, have the timber frame of the new house finished and on site soon after, and the Dominy shops joined to it this summer. The remaining work will be done later in the year or in early 2020.

“We’re very lucky because there aren’t many places you could do a project like this,” said Mr. Hefner, who credited the village for making such historical preservation a priority. “The fact that it will be authentic makes all the difference.”