Tucked in among the retail developments off Route 110 is the childhood home of the poet Walt Whitman, the “great gray poet” of democracy who popularized free verse.
The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association bought the property at 246 Old Walt Whitman Road in 1949 and has been safeguarding it since then. It once was part of the 60-acre Whitman farm.
An Interpretive Center was built in 1997, so the association’s offices could be moved out of the house. Expanded exhibits about Whitman were added, along with rotating exhibits. There’s a movie about the poet, an example of an old-fashioned printing press and a box of old hot-type letters, in remembrance of the days when the poet worked as a printer and, at age 19 in 1838, founded The Long Islander newspaper.
The house was restored in 2001 after the interpretive center opened, made to appear as it would have in 1823, the last year that Whitman lived in the house. The exterior was restored to its 1882 appearance, as it would have looked when he last saw it on a visit to the old farm.
Whitman was born in the house, in a downstairs bedroom used when needed as a birthing room. He lived there untill he was 4, when the family moved into Brooklyn, most likely in search of work for his father, Walter Sr., according to volunteer tour guide Diane Gisonny, since there was building going on in Brooklyn.
Whitman’s father added many extra carpentry touches to the house – 12-over-8 windows for a bit of elegance and increased light and ventilation, built-in cupboards in a time when that was rare, horizontal wainscoting on the stairwell, and stairs with a short top riser, convenient for a first step in the days of dim candlelight and with a houseful of small children – to show off his skills, Gisonny said.
The tour takes you through the first two floors of the house, and offers a peek into the attic, with its hand-hewn wooden beams.
One of the most impressive features, according to a visitor, is that the lilac bushes Whitman wrote about in his 1865 poem mourning the death of Abraham Lincoln,“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” actually exist. “I was particularly struck by the fact that there was a lilac bush in the dooryard where it was supposed to be,” said Bill Naufftus of Rock Hill, S.C. Bill and his wife, Ann, were visiting Long Island for the first time in many years – Bill grew up in Bay Shore.
The site is open year-round. Winter hours run through June 15 when it is open Wednesday – Friday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Summer hours go from June 15 to Labor Day when the site is open Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on major holidays. Cost is $6 for adults; $5 seniors/groups/veterans; and $4 students.
Stay tuned for No. 78 next week, same time same place, as Huntington Patch explores the places and activities in town.