Perhaps it was my being born and raised in Washington DC, or years of Sunday visits after Quaker meeting to the Smithsonian or having parents who read aloud Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne as bedtime stories – I have always been fascinated with American history. This interest extends to my work in real estate; there are so many stories that homes seem to yearn to tell us about their history.
One of my current listings, “Sunset Hill,” located at 22 Prospect Avenue in Shelter Island Heights, is one such home. It was built in 1884 by Rev. Richard Salter Storrs, founder of the Congregational Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn in 1846. He and the church are referred to as “probably the most underappreciated place and person in [Brooklyn Heights]” by Robert Furman, author of “Brooklyn Heights, the Rise, Fall and Rise of American’s First Suburb.”
Indeed, little is written about Rev. Storrs, who possessed distinctive connections to many historic events in American history. A piece of Plymouth Rock was owned by his church, and today it is housed at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. He descended from a long line of Puritan ministers, including Cotton Mather, who is most often remembered for his support for the Salem witch trials. His great grandfather, John Storrs, was a chaplain in the Continental Army, which was formed after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War and was lead by General George Washington, its commander-in-chief.
n 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the US Congress. One of its most controversial elements was the requirement that all escaped slaves were to be returned to their masters upon capture, and that Free states were required to cooperate. Rev. Storrs delivered a sermon in December, 1850 counseling to all who heard that no one had an obligation to obey an unjust law, and each person was in fact morally obligated to disobey it and actively aid fugitive slaves.
In 1889, Storrs recounted the one experience that changed him from being an observer on the sidelines to an active participant in the Abolitionist movement. In 1849, returning home from Richmond, VA, he was about to board a boat. He observed two men leading twenty to thirty African-American children ranging from approximately 8 to 18 years old, and behind them was a woman who, Storrs said, had “great tears rolling down her cheeks. A little child was clinging to her dress, in one hand she carried a bundle and with the other, [she] led along a sickly looking boy…As the woman came off the boat, she looked at me full in the face and I saw her grief, and then it came to me like a flash what the scene meant. Those children had been picked up by the dealers around Washington and were being taken to Richmond, there to be scattered over the south from the auction marts in that city. That woman was on her way to separation from her children. I was hastening home to the bedside of a sick child, and as I stood there I thought ‘Can anything make it right to sell wife and child? Could a whole book filled make it right?’ And I
thought that I would be burned alive before I would consent to such a thing in my own case, and then I will be burned alive before I will excuse or palliate the system which makes such a thing possible.”
Abraham Lincoln maintained a pew in his church. One wonders the conversations Storrs and Lincoln must have had. I located a copy of “Lincoln Memorial Addresses” which contains a lengthy speech Rev. Storrs gave for the President in which he said “…the entire public was his teacher. His nature drew…the wisdom of the nation into itself, and the roots of his matured opinions were as wide as the country. His policy was…legitimately progressive, as well as independent, because it represented in successive stages the popular mind…He carried their purpose and thought in himself…He was kept from becoming a mere sensitive exponent of the popular feeling, and became instead a noble chief magistrate, instructed by all, yet more instructing them in return.”
In 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, Rev. Storrs was immediately commissioned to visit Fort Sumter, the location of the first battle that started the American Civil War, to re-raise the stars and stripes over the fort.
On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened, which had much deeper significance than transportation; it bonded Manhattan and Brooklyn together, making New York City whole. Rev. Storrs delivered the blessing at the opening ceremonies, envisioning the bridge “as a monument to peace, a peace that was felt between these two cities willing to interlink their destinies.”
Here on Shelter Island at Sunset Hill, Rev. Storrs wrote that the winding path edged with rose bushes leading to the beach inspired him as he looked out onto the blue saltwater. While the rose bushes are no longer, the vistas remain virtually unchanged on “Divinity Hill” and continue to inspire today.