About

The History of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association

In 1819, Walt Whitman, widely recognized as America's greatest poet, was born in a small farmhouse in the rural Long Island community of West Hills in the town of Huntington. Whitman’s writings are treasured for capturing the nation’s spirit during the nineteenth century and examining some of the era’s most significant events including westward expansion, immigration, slavery, and the Civil War.

Despite Whitman’s national prominence, during the twentieth century his family’s farmhouse in West Hills faced the continual threat of suburban encroachment. In 1949 the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association (WWBA) was established to preserve his birthplace. Poets, authors, professors, businesspeople, and concerned citizens were among its founding members. To help raise awareness and funds to protect the farmhouse and its one-acre site, the WWBA appealed to Alicia Patterson, then owner and publisher of Long Island’s newspaper Newsday. Patterson featured Whitman and the plight of his farmhouse on the cover of the newspaper and launched a fundraising campaign that inspired students across Long Island to collect pennies, nickels, and dimes for the cause. After three months and with widespread support, the Association purchased the property. Later, in 1957, the WWBA was successful in its petition to Governor W. Averell Harriman to designate the birthplace a New York State Historic Site. In 1985, the property was listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. Today, the site is operated by the WWBA in partnership with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP).

Up until 1986 the WWBA managed the site on a small scale with limited visitation and public programming. That year Barbara Mazor Bart, the WWBA’s new executive director, convinced the Association’s board to promote the site as a center of learning and to make it more accessible to the public. The site’s educational programs were inaugurated in 1987. Since then attendance has risen from 1,000 to more than 16,500 annually. Almost one-third of the site’s visitors are students in grades 3-12. Among its various offerings, one of the site’s most successful initiatives is the annual student poetry contest, which receives 5,000 entries each year. The contest culminates at the Walt Whitman Birthday Celebration which is held on the weekend closest to the poet’s May 31 birthday.

Each year the WWBA’s Board of Trustees selects a nationally recognized poet to be its Poet-in-Residence. From public readings of his or her own poetry to teaching master writing classes, these guest poets are helping to instruct and inspire the next generation of writers. The WWBA also holds monthly poetry readings, including a marathon reading of Whitman’s masterwork “Leaves of Grass.” The Association also collaborates with the Long Island Poetry Collective on expanding regional writing opportunities. The WWBA maintains a 600 volume library at the site that focuses on the poetry and life of Walt Whitman and includes an original edition of Leaves of Grass.

In the 1990s to help accommodate the site’s increased visitation and expanding programs, the Association in partnership with OPRHP, planned an Interpretive Center at the site. Through the auspices of the 5th Senate District, Senator Ralph J. Marino introduced a member item in the state budget to fund the construction project. The center opened in 1997 and provides much needed space for a classroom, library, offices, a gift shop, and collections storage as well as providing handicapped accessible bathrooms. With the relocation of site operations and exhibits to the new center, the WWBA was able to focus its attention of restoring and refurnishing the farmhouse. Through the initiative of WWBA and the leadership of OPRHP Commissioner Bernadette Castro, a comprehensive restoration of the birthplace was undertaken for the first time in forty-three years. With technical assistance provided by the Long Island State Park Region and the Peebles Island Resource Center (PIRC), the house’s exterior was re-sheathed with smooth-finished, face-nailed cedar shingles, based on a surviving original shingle, and its nineteenth-century porch and shutters were reconstructed based on a 1890 photograph. The restoration was completed in 2000.

In addition, PIRC staff developed a new furnishing plan for the house in collaboration with WWBA Curator Richard Ryan. The plan reflects the agrarian lifestyle of the Whitman family between 1816 and 1823. Almost half of the site’s collection (about 200 objects) is on display in the house. In 2005, the Barn was renovated and its original wood was used as floorboards for the new structure, named The Gathering Place. This structure was dedicated in November of 2005. It is utilized as an environmental education classroom, exhibit space, and as an area for small meetings. The second floor is being used for storage.

Over the past decade the Association’s outreach efforts have been particularly effective in attracting national and international media attention. The site was featured in the December 1994 issue of National Geographic magazine, and its restoration was highlighted on a July 4, 2000 national television special hosted by Bob Vila. The birthplace has been a frequent subject on CSPAN, and also in The New York Times and Newsday which highlighted the poet and his birthplace in its publication, Long Island: Our Story. More recently, the site has been designated an “Official Project” under the national Save America’s Treasures program helping to further recognize the property’s significance as well as offer fundraising opportunities.

In 2007, Cynthia Shor was selected by the Board of Trustees as the new Executive Director. She initiated the first Walt Whitman Family Reunion on 2008 with the intention of locating descendants, making an Oral History video documentary of family members, and mounting an exhibit of family artifacts relating to Walt Whitman. Thanks to the commitment, hard work, and enthusiasm of the WWBA, the encouragement and support of New York State Senator Carl L. Marcellino, as well as a flourishing partnership with OPRHP, the preservation and interpretation of the birthplace are helping visitors, writers, scholars, and especially children better understand and appreciate the life and work of Walt Whitman.

We encourage everyone to visit his birthplace and learn about one of the nation’s literary giants. For more information, contact the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site, 246 Old Walt Whitman Road, South Huntington, NY 11746-4148. (631) 427-5240. E-mail - director@waltwhitman.org, or online: www.waltwhitman.org.

Cynthia Shor
Executive Director
Walt Whitman Birthplace Association

New York State Preservationist
Vol. 7 No. 1
Spring/Summer 2003
Postscript: The Barn (The Gathering Place) was dedicated in November of 2005. It is being utilized as an environmental education classroom, temporary exhibit space, and as an area for small meetings. The second floor is being used for storage.

 

History of the Birthplace

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same…
“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

The Whitman family roots on this part of Long Island date back to the early 17th century. Walt Whitman’s ancestors were farmers, served in the militia, and were active members of their community. Some time after Walt’s parents Walter and Louisa had married in 1816, they set up housekeeping in this simple, Federal style home. They had three children here. Their second son, Walter Jr., who was to establish a great literary career, was born here in 1819.

When the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn in 1823, Walter Sr. sold the property to Carlton Jarvis whose descendants retained it throughout the 19th century. After 1899 the house exchanged ownership several times. In 1910 it endured a fire that destroyed a kitchen wing. Recognizing the structure’s vulnerability, the Huntington Historical Society spearheaded local interest in protecting the property. Attracted by its historical associations, John D. and Georgia Watson purchased the house and lived there for over 30 years.

In the 1940s, plans were made to purchase the house and turn it into a historic site. In October, 1951 the newly chartered Walt Whitman Birthplace Association acquired the house and grounds. In April, 1957 Governor Harriman signed a bill for the state to assume ownership, and on September 28, 1957, it became New York’s 22nd state historic site.

Restoring the Birthplace

Stands the lilac-bush tall growing with heart shaped leaves of rich green,
With many of the pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love….
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman

In 1957-58 the New York State Education Department undertook the first efforts to restore and furnish the house to an early 19th century appearance. In 1998 acting on the initiative of the WWBA staff, State Parks Bureau of Historic Sites at the Peebles Island Resource Center (PIRC) conducted microscopic paint analysis. It was then discovered that the Prussian Blue color that you see on the trim today reflects the true 19th century color.

If you have visited the Birthplace before you will notice several significant changes to the building. On the exterior the rough shakes that once covered the house have been replaced with smooth wooden shingles to create a more historical accurate interpretation. The new shingles were nailed at the bottom edges as were the original. Based on photographs from the late 1890’s, a front porch and shutters have been reconstructed. The 1958 connector between the historic house and the caretaker’s cottage, constructed in 1958, has been removed as well as foundation plantings around the house that dated to the 1950’s. The lilac bushes were retained since photographs from the 1890’s show them in the same location.

It is remarkable that the interior of the house retains such a high degree on integrity. In fact, as part of the recent restoration work, a second floor bathroom installed by the Watson family in 1917 was removed to recreate the bedroom that was part of the house’s original floor plan. Aside from this early 20th-century modification, the floor plan has remained largely unaltered.

Refurnishing the Birthplace

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
“There Was A Child Went Forth” by Walt Whitman

In 1997, staff from the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association and the PIRC formed a team to conduct research and made recommendations regarding restoring the historic house and implementing a furnishing scheme that accurately reflected the lifestyle of a rural family of modest means. Walt Whitman’s parents were of humble origin and in the early stages of establishing their household in the 1820’s. Since primary sources related to the Whitmans are scarce, staff turned to census records and probate inventories to determine the appropriate furnishings for the young Whitman family. Curators selected furnishings that reflect the economic status of Walter and Louisa. In conducting research, staff noticed that the Long Island inventories of this period generally do not include floor or window coverings, carpets, sofas, settees, or decorative pictures. Therefore, the rooms are simply decorated and simply furnished and include pieces that would have been available to a couple with limited resources.

The Birthplace Setting and Residents

The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel…
The one-year wife is recovering and happy having a week ago borne her first child…
And peruse manifold objects no two alike and everyone good…
“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

Step back in time to a cold, mid-winter afternoon in February, 1821. You will discover that the Whitman household is in a pleasant disarray caused by the birth of baby Mary Elizabeth the previous week. Using the 1820 census, WWBA and PIRC staff were able to determine who was living at the house at that time. Based upon that information, interpretive scenarios were developed for each room in the Whitman house. In February, 1821, the most likely inhabitants were: Walter Whitman, age 31; Louisa Whitman, age 25; Jessie Whitman, age 35 months; Walt Whitman, age 21 months; Amy Van Velsor (Louisa’s mother), age 60; Hannah Brush Whitman (Walter’s mother), age 65; neighbor women between the ages of 16 and 25; and two male farmhands or boarders between the ages of 26 and 45.

Touring the Birthplace

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes…
“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

As you tour the Birthplace you will find the doors off the front hall closed “to conserve heat” on this cold winter day. The front parlor is neat and tidy in sharp contrast to the rest of the house. Here you will see the family’s best furnishings since this is where guests would have been received. The rear parlor, probably used as a ’family room” for sewing, card playing, tea, reading, etc., has been transformed temporarily for Louisa who is recovering from childbirth. There is evidence of children’s activities underfoot and signs of household tasks that the grandmothers might have performed when not tending to the recuperating new mother. In the other front room, which was used for food preparation, ironing, and dishwashing, you will discover that Walter Sr. has spread out his carpentry tools to take inventory. Here, there are more clues that children are at play and that a meal is being prepared, perhaps by the young woman identified in the census. You will notice that the doors to the second floor bedrooms are closed, again, to conserve heat. The front bedroom has been refurnished to reflect the living quarters of two hired hands noted in the census. The master bedroom is most likely where young Jesse and Walt slept with their parents. These rooms contain such effects as towels, clothes, and toys. The rear bedroom has been furnished as a space in which Hannah Whitman, Walter’s mother, spun wool on the great wheel. This room may have also served as a bedchamber for the two unidentified women listed in the 1820 census. The garret serves as a storage area for foodstuffs and items the Whitmans have discarded. It was once only accessible by the back stairs.

Enjoy your visit to the restored Walt Whitman Birthplace. The story that the historic house now reveals provides us with much insight into the poet’s early childhood years, years that had a profound influence on his later poetry.

Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site
246 Old Walt Whitman Road
West Hills, New York 11746-4148

631-427-5240

 

Walt Whitman Birthplace Chronology

1810 Opinions vary as to exactly when the house was built. Historians suggest the time span from 1810 to 1816. Walt’s sister Mary Elizabeth wrote a letter stating that her father, Walt, Sr., built the house in 1810. The house has 3 sections.

1816 Walter Whitman, Sr., marries Louisa Van Velsor

1819 Walter Whitman, Jr., is born May 31.

1824 The Whitmans move to Brooklyn. Carlton Jarvis (later called “one of the most enterprising farmers in the neighborhood”) moves in. After Mr. Jarvis dies in 1878, the farm is run by his eldest son, Henry, and his wife, Elizabeth Jarvis. It remains in Jarvis’ ownership until her passing in 1899. The Jarvis family also had an interest in the blacksmith shop that once stood near the North West corner of Old Country Road and Route 110.

1881 Whitman visits “Mrs. J.” (Mrs. Jarvis).

1899 Frank J. Rogers purchases the 20 acre property and uses the house to board farmhands. Rapid deterioration of the house occurs. Mr. Rogers expands the size of the farm, hoping to develop it into a produce supplier for New York City. He has an investment interest, but not an historic preservation interest, in the properly. Unfortunately, his plans do not work out.

1908 Postcard dated 1908 depicts only 2 sections of the house, with the “out kitchen” missing.

1909 Rogers tries to sell the house at auction. The Long Islander reports: “Friends of Whitman for a long while have talked of buying the homestead and preserving it for all time.”

Western view of the Whitman Birthplace and farm circa 1920s. Photographer unknown.

Western view of the Whitman Birthplace and farm circa 1920s. Photographer unknown.

1915 Rogers tries again to sell the house at auction. The Long Islander says, “This is an opportunity for the Huntington public to raise funds to buy and hold the property till it could be conveyed to the historical society.” The house is not sold.
1917 Title passes to Mrs. Sarah E. Hall, real estate broker, in February. The land is divided into 2-acre “little farms.” In November, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Watson of New York City buy the house. “They were not Whitmanites,” reported The Long Islander some years later, “but they chanced upon this old house and bought it together with a considerable plot of ground on which are the old red farm buildings and a small orchid of apple trees. The old house has been put in beautiful condition. Every good feature has been perfectly restored. Furniture of its period enhances its charm; shrubs and vines and trees have been planted about it, copies of the Alexander and Eakins portraits of Whitman are on its walls, and no lover of the poet is ever turned from its door without seeing the room where he was born. At the time of the centenary celebration (1919) of his birth, Mr. and Mrs. Watson graciously welcomed all to their grounds for the memorial exercises and permitted all who would go through the house.” (The Long Islander, 8/4/22)
Rev: 12/29/14

1921 Mrs. Watson’s sister, Bertha Mitchell, opens a tearoom for business in the main house, serving sandwiches, cinnamon toast, waffles and the “usual beverages” during the afternoon.

1922 The Long Islander reports that the tearoom will move to a cottage on the grounds and will re-open July 3rd. “Guests visiting the Whitman home will find there some interesting photographs and literature for sale, pertaining to Walt Whitman…”

 The Whitman Birthplace on Broadhollow Road (Old Route 110) during the 1920s. The road is now known as Old Walt Whitman Road. Photographer unknown.

The Whitman Birthplace on Broadhollow Road (Old Route 110) during the 1920s. The road is now known as Old Walt Whitman Road. Photographer unknown.

1936 The Roadhouse Controversy. The Watsons intend to sell. “Walt Whitman Birthplace, Huntington, L.I., for sale,” their broker’s ad reads. “Widely advertised, historic landmark; main highway; ideal inn, roadhouse.” Asking price is $30,000. Huntingtonians are up in arms. Attempts are made to have the town, or the federal government, take over the property. Nobody buys.

1940 One Sunday morning, a bolt of lightning passes through the house and out the open door, leaving a hole in the east wall near the peak roof, but no fire. The hole remains unrepaired…

1949 The final campaign to purchase the Birthplace begins. The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association (WWBA) forms and organizes to buy the house. $20,000 must be raised within two years.

Sept., 1951 With only a month until the option to buy expires, the fund to purchase the house is still $10,000 short. Newsday mounts a vigorous campaign to raise the money.

Oct., 1951 Pennies, nickels, dimes come pouring in. Schoolchildren save the day. The largest school group sum comes from Valley Stream Central Junior High School, where the Culluloo Club raises $1300 - - of which $1000 is won on the quiz show “Strike it Rich.” Walt Whitman Birthplace Association purchases the home.

1952 The house officially opens under the auspices of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. “This occasion,” says the keynote speaker “is not principally for celebrating a genius, but for the growth and spreading of the understanding of genius.”

1957 The Birthplace is sold to New York State for $1 and becomes a New York State Historic Site operating under a cooperative agreement between the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYS OPRHP) and the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. The State restores the house to its 1820 appearance. The old barn is torn down and a new one reconstructed with the timbers. For security, a caretaker house is built next to the Birthplace by New York State.

1997 The Interpretive Center is constructed and opened.  Although it is built entirely of native materials, it is an architectural contrast to the original farmhouse. The new facility brings Long Island’s only State Historic Site on a par with the other historic sites within New York State. It allows an expansion of the Birthplace Association efforts to perpetuate Walt Whitman’s legacy. The Birthplace becomes a rewarding tourist destination with state of the art exhibits and an educational facility offering unique interdisciplinary programs. Because of the Birthplace Association, there is a renewed awareness of Walt Whitman as our national poet.

2000 Restoration of the Birthplace. The transfer of the Office, Library, and Exhibit room from the second floor of the farmhouse to the new Interpretive Center allows a restoration and refurbishing of the entire house back to the year 1823. This was the last year in which the Whitmans lived in the building. The exterior of the Birthplace is also restored to its 1882 appearance, probably as first built, and is exactly as it looked when the poet last saw it.

The Birthplace ca. 2000. Photo by George Mallis.

The Birthplace ca. 2000. Photo by George Mallis.

2004 The Gathering House is built. The Carriage Shed (or Barn), built after Whitman’s time, becomes unusable, and is taken down and replaced with a new structure, the Gathering House.  It is a braced frame construction done in the old manner. The old floorboards from the Carriage Shed were reused in the new building.

Present Day - The house, birthplace of America's greatest poet, continues to attract visitors, thousands each year who come from across the country and around the world.

Why not become a member of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association? We would welcome you. There is a membership category for every pocket. Visit the Membership Page to download a brochure or to request one by mail, write to the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, 246 Old Walt Whitman Road, West Hills, NY 11746-4148 or e-mail us at wwba@optonline.net.

 

Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Mission Statement

Walt Whitman Birthplace Association is Walt Whitman’s voice today, celebrating the poet’s vision of democracy, diversity, and creativity. Our programs and exhibits educate the public on Whitman’s life and times, explore his contribution to our nation’s rich cultural heritage, and inspire young poets and writers.

The Birthplace ca. 2000. Photo by George Mallis.

The Birthplace ca. 2000. Photo by George Mallis.

 

Volunteer Opportunities at the Walt Whitman Birthplace

The Walt Whitman Birthplace is a NY State Historic Site on Long Island listed in the National Register of Historic Places. WWBA aims to create a greater passion for reading and writing through exhibits, tours, educational and cultural events. We are currently seeking volunteers in the positions listed below:

  • Tour Guides - part-time tour guides for one or two days a week, training and support provided. (Must be able to provide tour throughout a 2 story home.)
  • Curator Assistance – help with various projects.
  • Office/clerical assistance – Monday and/or Wednesday during the hours of 9 to 5 p.m.
  • Gardening assistance – Weekend gardening assistance is needed for site garden and lawn upkeep.
  • Tea Party Assistant - set up food and beverages. Assist with clean-up, including food, dishes and kitchen.

For information on how to volunteer at the Birthplace contact Diana Alvarez: administrator@waltwhitman.org or call 631-427-5240 ext 114.

Private Events at the Birthplace

The Walt Whitman Birthplace is available for private events. Space available includes:

Other services we offer to make your event more enjoyable:

  • Tables and chairs for indoor events
  • Picnic tables for events on the lawn
  • Garbage removal
  • All spaces, including restrooms, are handicapped accessible.
  • Event staff to assist with setup, breakdown and run of event (on request, additional fee may apply depending on duties)
  • Tour guides for tours of historic Birthplace house (On request, additional one time fee for tours to be done during event. Large group events may require two guides to accommodate all guests)

Rental fees are dependent on date, time, space used,  and other information. To discuss hosting an event at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, contact us at events@waltwhitman.org or 631-427-5240 x112.

Copyright ©2016 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. All Rights Reserved.