A Short History of Shelter Island

Shelter Island became a town in 1730 but grew very slowly because farming, and related to that, the production of fertilizer from mossbunker herring--a distinctly malodorous process--dominated the island! With that awful smell wafting out of the mossbunker fertilizer factories, its no wonder development lagged.

Then in 1871, a group of 24 clergymen and laymen from Brooklyn, incorporated as the Shelter Island Grove and Camp Meeting Association, bought the northwest corner of the island--Shelter Island Heights--on the condition that the fertilizer factories were shut down.

With the help of two men from the first generation of American landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of NYC's Central Park, and Robert Morris Copeland, the group set to work creating a picturesque, naturalistic landscape and romantic rural residential areas where they could combine religious camp meetings with summer resort living close to New York City and Connecticut. From the beginning, Shelter Island 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, and by 1890, the current layout was defined. Today, the historic Heights district consists of 141 buildings, designed in several distinct styles. The original cottages built in the first decade are in exuberant folk architecture found in camp meeting sites like those in Oak's Bluff 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.

The architects respected the natural landscape of the island and used it to design a truly spectacular community. For instance, the Union Chapel, now the oldest building on Shelter Island (and site of the nuptials), is set in a natural amphitheatre, the Grove. The beautiful stained windows were designed and made by Walter Cole Brigham, a listed artist and resident of Shelter Island. Many of the windows are made entirely out of shells and sea glass collected on the shores of the island. The architects also recognized that the 300-plus acres of the Heights is bounded by water on three sides and rises to an elevation of 150 feet above sea level. You can see the Long Island Sound and the Peconic Bay 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.

Today the Heights Historic District is listed on both the U.S. Register and the New York State Register of Historic Places. The next time you're in the Heights, have a closer look at this well-preserved, late 19th century, early 20th century resort area. You'll see why the Heights still appeals to travelers today.

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