Mary Elizabeth Martin, 1771/ John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)/ oil on canvas/ Addison Gallery of American Art/ Phillips Academy

Mary Elizabeth Martin, 1771/ John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)/ oil on canvas/ Addison Gallery of American Art/ Phillips Academy

Historic Rock Hall, ca. 1767

Rock Hall is a fully- furnished Georgian colonial landmark house located on the south shore of Long Island in the Village of Lawrence.  It was once the home of Josiah Martin, an English sugar plantation owner who was born and raised on the West Indian island of Antigua.  At age 68, in lieu of retiring to the English countryside, Josiah chose this site with its proximity to the ocean and New York Harbor as his final home.  While living in New York, Martin managed his Antiguan plantation long- distance, purchased 600 acres and built Rock Hall.

The Martins move to the colonies was not without its difficulties.  They endured the anxieties of the Revolutionary War, including the occupation of their home by American patriots during the winter of 1776.  After this occupation, the Martin homestead was not directly affected by the war.

As the estate declined in the 1820s, a link was established with a solid Long Island farm family, the Hewletts, that lasted from 1824 to 1948.  During that time, Rock Hall served as a busy farm home, a summer guest house enjoyed by wealthy families seeking the pleasures of ocean bathing and finally as a summer home for Hewlett descendants.  By the 1930s the revered ancestral home was no longer occupied, even in the warm months.  This relic from the past of two very different families was the gift of the Hewletts to the Town of Hempstead, and to all of those who delighted in historic architecture.   

The Martins

Josiah Martin was born into one of the leading English planter families on the island of Antigua.  Anxieties of slave insurrections cast a shadow over his life as it did with all sugar planters.  As a result, Martin left his plantation in the care of a manager and brought his family to North America to live.

Josiah remained an English gentleman all of his life.  Josiah wanted Rock Hall to be "a good gentleman's house" and a visible symbol to the community of the status he had achieved in the world.  The house he built was formal, in the prevailing Georgian style, with high ceilings, large rooms, and many fireplaces.  The main hall ends at a double door facing south, set to catch the breezes off the bay.  The numerous outbuildings on his property included a separate kitchen house. 

 Photo Credit: Town of Hempstead

Photo Credit: Town of Hempstead

With the onset of the American Revolution, the house was occupied by rebel forces in 1776.  Josiah Martin's eldest son, Dr. Samuel Martin, was imprisoned briefly during this time in Philadelphia for his association with other loyalists, but was allowed to post bond and was set free.  After Josiah's death in 1778 at the age of 79, Rock Hall was inherited by Samuel, while most of Josiah's other descendants returned to England.

 

The Hewletts

Thomas Hewlett acquired Rock Hall and 125 acres from Samuel's heirs in 1824.  Hewlett was able to develop sources of revenue directly from Rock Hall itself, including rental of farm land, sale of firewood, salvage of wrecks which became stranded along the shore, and accommodation of summer guests.  Hewlett responded to the rising popularity of summer tourism in the Rockaway area during the 19th century, and remodeled Rock Hall and opened its doors to summer guests as early as 1830.

 Hewlett family at Rock Hall, 1904

Hewlett family at Rock Hall, 1904

Thomas Hewlett's son, James Augustus, was a successful importer of tea, coffee and sugar in New York City, and made his summer home at Rock Hall after 1868.  James enlarged the house with a service wing in 1881. 

As time passed and the structure of the family changed, fewer family members shared their summers at Rock Hall.  Eventually a second home on the property was preferred and Rock Hall was occupied only for such occasions as family weddings.  In 1948, the Town of Hempstead accepted the challenge of preserving Rock Hall on three acres of land and the Museum of the Town of Hempstead was born.