Safeguarding the Eternal Boxwood

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Joy Lewis shows clippings from a large Boxwood plant at the site of her former home on Hampton Street on Wednesday, 7/27/16
Mac Griswold looks on as Joy Lewis takes clippings from a large Boxwood plant at the site of her former home on Hampton Street. Michael Heller photos
Mac Griswold looks on as Joy Lewis takes clippings from a large Boxwood plant at the site of her former home on Hampton Street. Michael Heller photos

By Douglas Feiden

One of the earliest boxwoods to grace Sag Harbor arrived in 1816 from Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. Now, 200 years later, the progeny of that ancient strain may be going back across the water.

The saga of the Buxus sempervirens — or ever-living boxwood — begins with the marriage that year of a young whaling merchant, Charles Dering, who settled in the village with a novel wedding present bestowed upon him by his family: Cuttings from the great manor house that was his ancestral home.

Deploying ship carpenters, the fleet owner and partner of James Fenimore Cooper built a Greek Revival home at 67 Hampton Street in 1835, and there in his backyard, he transplanted the ornamental garden plant.

Generations passed. The Dering House became the William Wallace Tooker House after the photographer, pharmacist and Algonquinst who lived there from 1889 until his death in 1917. And in 1997, it became the home of preservationist Joy Lewis and her late husband, Bob, until she sold it earlier this year.

In all that time, the venerable “box,” as it is known, abided.

Of course, it helped that the Hampton Street specimen of mega-evergreen bushes had loving owners who kept them shaded and moist and brushed off snow and ice to protect brittle branches. In fact, when Sylvester Manor’s box was ravaged by the hurricane of 1938, leaving but a few stumpy bushes, the Manor’s then-owner came to Sag Harbor to replenish the stock.

“The boxwoods are symbols of the lives of all those people who have taken care of them, and simply caring for them is an act of preservation,” Ms. Lewis said. “They have survived as symbols of permanence and domesticity for centuries.”

New owners Joseph Evangelisti and Colin Heywood intend to carry on that tradition. They’ve pledged to preserve and maintain in place the principal stand of dwarf boxwood, and they want the village’s blessing on a project to relocate a more vulnerable stand. And that’s where the story comes full circle:

“The box went back to Shelter Island after the hurricane, and now, they’ll be going back again,” said Mac Griswold, a cultural landscape historian and the author in 2013 of “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island.”

Joy Lewis replants clippings from a large Boxwood plant into small flower pots.
Joy Lewis replants clippings from a large Boxwood plant into small flower pots.

On July 27, Ms. Lewis and Ms. Griswold, at the invitation of Mr. Evangelisti and Mr. Heywood and working with their contractor, Chris Gaynor, took 30 to 50 cuttings from the box as a kind of “insurance policy” in case a more ambitious transplant doesn’t succeed.

The cuttings will be tended for two years by Howard Street resident Mia Grosjean, Summerhill Landscapes’ Declan Blackmore, and Phil Bucking, who owns the Sag Harbor Garden Center.

“This is an all-Sag Harbor effort,” Ms. Griswold said. When they’re a foot tall, they’ll be donated to Sylvester Manor and gardens in Sag Harbor. Meanwhile, there are plans to relocate a full-grown box to the Manor in the fall.

“We’d love to have them back,” said Sara Gordon, who heads planning and conservation at the Manor. “It depends on logistics and finances. We’re also delighted to hear that insurance cuttings are being taken because it can be difficult to transplant them even in the best of times.”

How does Mr. Evangelisti — a new village resident who oversees art, history and global communications for JPMorgan Chase — feel about joining forces with preservationists, environmentalists and boxwood aficionados?

“I don’t consider this to be a hassle,” he said. “I love the fact that people care so much. It’s the reason we want to be in Sag Harbor.”

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