Shelter Island Heights Historical District
“A distinguished intact example of a late-19th century and early-2Oth century resort...
with outstanding specimens of exuberant folk architecture”
“A significant resource in the history of American planning”
From 1652, when Nathaniel Sylvester, a sugar merchant from Barbados, acquired sole title to Shelter Island and became its first white residents to 1730, when it became a town, the island developed slowly. By mid-century some 900 islanders farmed and made fertilizer from the mossbunker herring. The northwest corner of the island, eventually the Heights, was bought up in the early 19th century by Frederick Chase, who named his domain Prospect.
In 1871 a group of 24 Brooklyn clergymen and laymen, incorporated as the Shelter Island Grove and Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church, purchased the Chase acres on the condition that the two factories converting mossbunker herring to fertilizer—a most decidedly malodorous process—be removed. After 8 years the camp meetings were moved to Jamesport. Today the Shelter Island Heights Property Owners Association is committed to preserving the distinctive character of the community, its historic buildings and its physical environment.
Shelter Island Heights was listed on both the United States Register and the New York State Register of Historic Places in 1993 “in recognition of its significance in American history and culture.”
Designed about 1872 and essentially unchanged since then, the Heights is a beautiful example of the picturesque, naturalistic landscape and romantic rural residential areas created by the first generation of American landscape architects. Among these were Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City’s Central Park, and Robert Morris Copeland, who laid out the original plan for the Heights, prepared for a Methodist-affiliated organization from Brooklyn. The Heights is among the few preserved communities that combined facilities for religious camp meetings with summer resort living close to New York and Connecticut.
The visual and social center of Copeland’s plan was union Chapel (built 1875 and placed on the national register in 1984), the oldest public building on Shelter Island. It is set in a natural amphitheater, the Grove, which was also the site for an open-air preacher’s stand and tents that accommodated the people who attended the first camp meetings.
But from the beginning the Heights was conceived as a community with parks, open spaces, a hotel, and lots for private residences. Between 1872 and 1880 about 70 cottages were constructed; by the late 1880s another 30 were added; by 1890 the current layout was defined.
Today the Heights Historic District consists of 141 buildings, designed in several distinct styles. The original cottages built in the first decade are in the exuberant folk architecture found in camp meeting sites such as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard and Ocean Grove in New Jersey. The most striking feature of these steeply pitched gable roof structures is the elaborate and delicate wood trimming on verandas, gables, windows, and doors.
The second wave of development (after 1880) saw larger houses in a variety of styles: Stick, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival. They feature elaborate embellishments on porches and a sense of fantasy that is derived from a combination of clapboard siding, bands of scalloped shingles, and elaborate, cut-work balustrades and carved friezes.
Equally significant is the manner in which the planners exploited the natural configuration of the site. The 300 or so acres rise gradually from the shore to reach the impressive (for Long Island) height of 150 feet above sea level. The Heights is bounded by water on three sides, making a view of the sound and bays available from many vantage
points. All the original roads are laid out in a series of sweeping curves that descend in a broad scallop pattern to the water’s edge.
Although some erosion of the integrity of the Heights has taken place over time (the original hotel, Prospect House on Prospect Park, was destroyed by fire in 1942), no great changes or additions have been made since the Heights was originally designed and developed. The Shelter Island Heights Historic District remains a unique embodiment of sensitive community development, based on respect for the natural landscape, a 19th century American ideal and practice from which we have much to learn.