History of the Birthplace

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 in 1819. 

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same…

“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

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 to its historical associations, John 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.

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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, 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 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 prior to this date, you may 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 historically 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 of 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.

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 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 Walter and Louisa’s economic status. 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 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.

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 as they often were on cold winter days. The front parlor is neat and tidy in 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., was transformed temporarily for Louisa when 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 beside 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 of this historic house provides us with much insight into the poet’s early childhood years, which had a profound influence on his poetry.

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. (aka Walt Whitman), 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 a historic preservation interest in the property. Unfortunately, his plans do not pan 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.”
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…”
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.
September 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.
October 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 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's 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.
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 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association? We would welcome you! There is a membership category for everyone. Click here to download a brochure. To request one by mail, write to the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, 246 Old Walt Whitman Road, Huntington Station, NY 11746-4148. Or, e-mail us at administrator@waltwhitman.org.