Designed about 1872 and essentially unchanged since then, the Heights is a beautiful example of the picturesque, naturalistic landscape and romantic rural residential areas created by the first generation of American landscape architects. Among these were Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City’s Central Park, and Robert Morris Copeland, who laid out the original plan for the Heights, prepared for a Methodist-affiliated organization from Brooklyn. The Heights is among the few preserved communities that combined facilities for religious camp meetings with summer resort living close to New York and Connecticut.
The visual and social center of Copeland’s plan was union Chapel (built 1875 and placed on the national register in 1984), the oldest public building on Shelter Island. It is set in a natural amphitheater, the Grove, which was also the site for an open-air preacher’s stand and tents that accommodated the people who attended the first camp meetings.
Today the Heights Historic District consists of 141 buildings, designed in several distinct styles. The original cottages built in the first decade are in the exuberant folk architecture found in camp meeting sites such as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard and Ocean Grove in New Jersey. The most striking feature of these steeply pitched gable roof structures is the elaborate and delicate wood trimming on verandas, gables, windows, and doors.
The 300 or so acres rise gradually from the shore to reach the impressive (for Long Island) height of 150 feet above sea level. The Heights is bounded by water on three sides, making a view of the sound and bays available from many vantage points. All the original roads are laid out in a series of sweeping curves that descend in a broad scallop pattern to the water’s edge.
Although some erosion of the integrity of the Heights has taken place over time (the original hotel, Prospect House on Prospect Park, was destroyed by fire in 1942), no great changes or additions have been made since the Heights was originally designed and developed. The Shelter Island Heights Historic District remains a unique embodiment of sensitive community development, based on respect for the natural landscape, a 19th century American ideal and practice from which we have much to learn.