Telling the stories of Sylvester Manor

Donnamarie Barnes at Sylvester Manor. (Credit: Charity Robey)

Donnamarie Barnes at Sylvester Manor. (Credit: Charity Robey)

Donnamarie Barnes unlocked the door of the 18th century house at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm and moved through rooms full of sheeted furniture, aged wallpaper and neat piles of very old books. She addressed the place as if she were visiting an old friend who has been shut-in. 

“Hello house!” she said, walking through the rooms, explaining that, “I like to greet the house when I’ve been away for a while.”

The recently-appointed curator and archivist at Sylvester Manor, Donnamarie’s obvious emotional connection to the place goes back to a day in 2014 when she arrived as a visitor. “I don’t have ancestral connections to the Manor, but at the burying ground that day I felt it deeply,” she said.

Donnamarie was raised and schooled in the Bronx and Riverdale, but when she was six months old she spent the first of 62-and-counting consecutive summers in Ninevah Beach near Sag Harbor where her parents had been summering since the 1950s. “Ninevah is the home of my heart,” she said.

She and her younger brother grew up in a house full of art objects, music and books. Her father’s amateur interest in photography was the fuel for her own love of the art. She studied photography at Cooper Union School of Art in the East Village in the 1970s, “A great place, gritty and dirty and very art-filled.”

Initially, her goal was to be a photographer, but when her parents asked how she was going to support herself she realized she had to find a way to make a living. “It’s the only career I’ve ever been interested in,” she said. She landed a job at the Village Voice but at a salary of $15 per published photo and realized she wasn’t going to make it.

A college internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a turning point. She catalogued a collection of work by James Van Der Zee, an African-American photographer of the Harlem Renaissance; 100,000 images including negatives, glass plates, and prints. It was hands-on training as an archivist and photo conservator. When the collection moved to the Studio Museum in Harlem, Donnamarie went with it to care for the objects and “learned about interpreting a people, time, and place through images.”

She joined Gamma Liaison, an international photo agency producing photo news stories in New York where she worked for 14 years, followed by a decade and a half at People Magazine, working as a photo editor.

One of the perks of working at People was a table in the office with books and beauty products sent to the magazine by publicists hoping for an article or review.

“I didn’t buy lipstick for years,” Donnamarie said. On the table one day, she found “The Manor,” by Mac Griswold, a book describing Sylvester Manor’s role in the history of Northern slavery. “I was intrigued by the story,” she said, “so I went on a house tour and was totally captivated by the sense of the house and the property.”

In June of 2014, Donnamarie decided to leave People and move to Sag Harbor to contemplate what to do next. She began to volunteer at the Manor as a docent and was able to spend time looking around the collection, finding many interesting photographs.

“I realized that the history of photography was found in the house,” she said, “From daguerreotypes to polaroids, tintypes, formal portraits, cabinet cards.” Her initial work organizing the photographs grew over time and this past fall she became a full-time curator and archivist. She also runs the tours and creates history programming.

Given her connection to the place it’s not surprising that the day after the momentous November election Donnamarie retreated into the vault at the Manor to go through some letters. She knew of correspondence between Aaron Burr and Ezra L’Hommedieu. Sure enough, that day she found a letter Burr wrote to L’Hommedieu dated December 1796. In it Burr described arguments in Congress over the contested election of Thomas Jefferson and lamented that no one in Washington could get anything done.

“This letter showed me,” she said, “that this was not the first time in our history an election had gone awry.”

In 2015 Donnamarie curated a well-received exhibit at the Eastville Community Historical Society (ECHS) in Sag Harbor of 19th century tintype portraits. Building on that relationship, she’s helped organize “At Our Table,” an event on Long Island immigrant and native food culture co-sponsored by Sylvester Manor and ECHS this Sunday at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.

Although the Manor has been owned by the same family for centuries, the property descended largely through the female line, part of the reason for a new exhibit of photographic portraits, “The Women of the Manor,” which will open June 10. The new exhibit tells the story of enslaved and indentured women of the Manor as well as owners. These stories are not easy to tell. The names of some of these women are known, but there are no images, except for a portrait of Julia Havens Johnson, a black woman who is believed to be the last person buried in the cemetery at the Manor.

On a wall of the attic in the Manor house are images of ships that were probably drawn by two Montaukett boys who were indentured servants long ago. An expert on these particular kinds of images, called ship graffiti, came to Shelter Island to examine them. As she led the researcher up the narrow stairs to see the etchings, Donnamarie remembers that he gave her a quizzical look when she spoke of the sense of presence in the attic that emanates from the work of the long-gone boys.

“I realized that the stories reveal themselves at the proper time,” she said. “My goal is to tell the stories.”