February 2020: Guest blogger Robert E. Lewis, president of the Setauket-based non-profit Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Associates, updates us on the Eato House restoration and discusses the site’s fascinating history. Read it here: Restoring Setauket’s Eato House.

In 2018, the Setauket Bethel AME Church received a $3,000 matching grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program to hire a consultant to conduct a conditions assessment at the Eato House. The completed assessment will provide important information to guide the restoration and adaptive reuse of this modest building with profound ties to the past and present community. Congratulations to the congregation, our local preservation partners, and members of the historic Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill neighborhood!

Eato House, pictured in 2017.
Eato House, circa 1980s. This photo was taken by Preservation Long Island (then known as SPLIA) while serving as a consultant for a Historic Resources Survey of the area sponsored by the Town of Brookhaven.
Rev. David Eato, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Port Washington Public Library Local History Center.

Built early 20th c.
Town of Brookhaven, Suffolk County

The Rev. David and Mary Baker Eato House is one of only five late 19th to mid-20th century structures within the core of the Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District (BCALH District), a historic Native American-African American community in Setauket. Settled by African Americans and Native Americans during the early 1800s, this historic district recognizes one of Long Island’s most deeply rooted and dynamic communities of color. Through the compelling stories of its namesakes, the Eato House powerfully reflects the experiences of people of color before and after the abolition of slavery in America, such as the influence of African Methodist Episcopal Churches and the struggle for African American homeownership on Long Island. 

Born in Roslyn in 1854, Rev. Eato was appointed pastor of the Setauket Bethel AME congregation in 1917. Mrs. Eato, who taught Sunday school at the church, was born in 1863 on a southern plantation. In 1901, Mary moved north to Long Island where she met and married Rev. Eato. Like most people of color during the Jim Crow era, the Eatos initially rented their house in Setauket. But remarkably, after her husband’s death, Mrs. Eato was able to purchase the property in 1928, making the Eato House an important example of early African American homeownership on Long Island.

Although the Eato House has suffered from past neglect and a series of inappropriate alterations, the significance of the property remains as profound as ever. Thanks to the Bethel AME Church, which now owns the property that once served as its parsonage, the building’s condition has recently improved. Critical repairs are still urgently needed to restore the building to use, but funding and administrative capacity are needed to support such a large-scale rehabilitation project.

Preservation Long Island continues to work with our local non-profit advocacy partners, Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Associates, towards the goal of rehabilitating the Eato House as a community center to promote historic preservation in the BCALH District. Although the area is a designated historic district of Brookhaven Town, the community continues to struggle with outside redevelopment pressure, which prompted the neighborhood’s listing as one of the Preservation League of New York State’s Seven to Save in 2014-15. With this listing, Preservation Long Island calls attention to the need for Long Islanders to support the advancement of preservation efforts at culturally significant sites with strong ties to our region’s historic communities of color.

Celebrating Organizational Excellence: Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Associates, Inc.

In 2018, Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Associates, Inc., received an Organizational Excellence Award from Preservation Long Island for their outstanding advocacy since 2004. Utilizing petitions and other strategies, Higher Ground launched a successful campaign to designate the area of Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill as a Brookhaven Town historic district in 2004. Higher Ground also organized people to speak in favor of the designation at town hearings, including Dr. Floris Barnett Cash (Stony Brook University Africana Studies Professor), Theodore A. Green (historian and trustee of the Three Village Historical Society), Reverend Gregory Leonard (Setauket Bethel AME Church), Charla Bolton (Preservation Long Island), Robert Lewis (Higher Ground), and former Brookhaven Town Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld. With enthusiastic support from residents, community members, elected officials, and experts in the fields of history and preservation, the neighborhood was officially recognized in June of 2005 as the Brookhaven Town-designated Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District (BCALH District).

During the past fifteen years since town designation, Higher Ground has continued working to enhance the preservation and protection of the BCALH District. These efforts include obtaining a Brookhaven Town Landmark Citation for the Bethel AME Church (founded 1848), nominating the district to the Preservation League of New York State’s 2014-2015 “Seven to Save” list, hosting the “A Long Time Coming” (ALTC) Archaeological Project, and sponsoring a comprehensive survey and subsequent nomination for 2017 listing as a National and State Historic District. The Old Bethel Cemetery at Setauket Bethel AME Church was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017 thanks to the remarkable efforts of Vivian Nicholson-Mueller and Simira Tobias.

For more details about the Eato House, the Eatos, and the Bethel-Christian Ave-Laurel Hill Historic District please see:

Cultural Resource Survey of Sites Relating to the Native American-African American Community in the Three Village Area (the Setaukets, Stony Brook, and Old Field), with a focus on Bethel- Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill, Town of Brookhaven Historic District. By Judith Wellman, Robert Lewis, Judith Burgess, Christopher Matthews, and Karen Martin (Setauket: Higher Ground Inter-cultural and Heritage Association, 2016).

National Register of Historic Places Nomination: Bethel Christian Avenue Historic District (16NR00132). Prepared by Judith Wellman, with Robert Lewis, Judith Burgess, Christopher Matthews, and Karen Martin (edited by Jennifer Betsworth and Kathleen LaFrank, NY SHPO) (Setauket: Higher Ground Inter-cultural and Heritage Association, 2017).