Shelter Island’s historic Smith-Taylor cabin gets a facelift

The Smith-Taylor cabin on Taylor's Island. (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

The Smith-Taylor cabin on Taylor’s Island. (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

There’s a piece of hidden history located on a small strip of land off Shelter Island.

On it lies the historic Smith-Taylor log cabin, which is accessible by boat and is undergoing a major restoration project that hit a significant milestone this past fall.

At the cabin, located on Taylor’s Island in the middle of Coecles Harbor, visitors can get a sense of what the building looked like in its heyday now that exterior renovations were completed in late November. The structure has a beach bungalow meets Adirondack cabin vibe — something that evokes its history as a summer retreat for its early 20th century inhabitants.

“It is a very magical place and [the improvement] continues to unfold,” said P.A.T. Hunt, a lifelong Shelter Island resident and co-chair and director of the Taylor’s Island Foundation. “Seeing it is one thing; I think you’ll feel it.”

With its exterior restoration finished, work is now focusing on the interior of the more than 100-year-old cabin. The entire project will cost an estimated $221,000.

“The outside is done,” Ms. Hunt said. “Inside, we are in total upheaval.”

Architect Andre Tchelistcheff and structural engineer Robert Murray designed the specifications for the cabin, but much of the restoration work was performed by local craftsmen who donated their time and services.

Updates began in 2009 with the replacement of two island bulkheads. Wood was replaced on the cabin’s deck and the porch’s leaking roof was patched to protect the structure from the elements. Meanwhile, the deteriorating log walls were improved and some windows were replaced.

In addition, Group for the East End and the Shelter Island Garden Club worked together to plant native vegetation, like beach grass, on the island.

Today, the cabin looks a bit mismatched, as some of its brand-new wood is juxtaposed with worn beams. That will eventually balance out as the newer wood ages.

The stone fireplace inside the main room of the cabin. (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

The stone fireplace inside the main room of the cabin. (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

“The newest addition to the cabin, made in the mid-1950s, was actually in the worst shape,” said Ms. Hunt. “Now it’s in the best shape.”

The cabin’s interior restoration will include work on its grand fireplace, bathroom and kitchen, but Ms. Hunt promises the cabin’s rustic aura will remain. Cold water will flow through the help of a generator in the bathroom and kitchen but electricity will not be available.

The question of who will be able to use the cabin once work is complete is one Ms. Hunt hears frequently. She said the foundation plans to create a rustic bed and breakfast for visitors. For now, the island itself is open to the public and can be accessed during high tide by boat or kayak. Ms. Hunt recommends launching boats from the town dock at end of Congdon Road and launching kayaks from 72 Burns Road, right off of Coecles Harbor (visit Shelter Island Kayak Tours for more info.)

“A lot of boats anchor offshore and come ashore by dinghy,” Ms. Hunt said. “This is a public park, a town park. The cabin is locked, but people come and enjoy sitting on the porch. When we have overnight guests, we’ll work something out where people will still have access to the island, but respect guests’ privacy.”

Originally called Cedar Island, Taylor’s Island was purchased by Francis Marion Smith in 1899. Smith, a wealthy Borax miner, built the simplistic cabin in 1900 as a retreat for his family.

After 1921, the title to the island passed through several development companies until it was purchased by S. Gregory Taylor in 1937. Taylor, born Soterios Gregorios Tavoulares, was a Greek immigrant and self-made man who became a hotel magnate, owning ventures like the former Hotel St. Moritz on Central Park South (now The Ritz-Carlton New York).

He changed the name to Taylor’s Island and added a bedroom, kitchen, heating system, running water and tower to the cabin.

When Taylor died in 1948, his will stipulated that his nephew Stephen Stephano could use the island during his lifetime. The title would then go to the Town of Shelter Island for “the use and enjoyment of the general public.”

In 2005, initial plans by the town to demolish the cabin were met with a large outcry from Shelter Island residents to save the structure for future generations.

“They have a lot of memories with the place,” Ms. Hunt said. “That’s why they showed up en masse.”

Taylor's Island Foundation Director P.A.T. Hunt outside the Smith-Taylor cabin (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Taylor’s Island Foundation Director P.A.T. Hunt outside the Smith-Taylor cabin (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Shelter Island Town created the Taylor’s Island Preservation and Management Committee and named Ms. Hunt as one of the directors. In 2006, The Taylor’s Island Foundation was created to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the cabin, which had begun to fall into disrepair.

In 2007, the cabin was listed on the National and New York State registers of historic places. The New York State Historic Preservation Office calls the cabin “historically and architecturally significant as a surviving example of a seasonal seaside bungalow residence.”

The foundation has since raised money from private contributions and benefits, including a yearly kettle clambake. A matching $110,600 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will also help fund the project.

If all goes according to plan, the property will be preserved for years to come.

“It really gives me joy when people are here enjoying Mr. Taylor’s gift,” Ms. Hunt said. “That was his intention and it’s nice to have that realized.”