Sag Harbor resident Bryan Downey, who has been restoring old homes across the East End with his business, Bryan Downey Restorations, since he arrived in the area from England in 1986, said he was hired by clients in New Suffolk to restore a shed.
What he found on the property was a treasure from years' past: An observatory that Downey said might even have had ties to Albert Einstein, who spent summers at home on Nassau Point in Southold Town.
Downey said he decided to restore the original observatory, located on New Suffolk Road; the piece of history had once belonged to the Custer Observatory on Main Bayiew Road in Southold, he said.
"Einstein used it," Downey said. "There was writing on the wall inside, so I kept it. Could have been Einstein's — but probably not."
Downey said he believed Einstein used the observatory while summering out in Southold and spending time with David Rothman, grandfather of Ron Rothman, who owns Rothman's Department Store in Southold and recently ran for town board.
Rothman, who wrote the book "Albert Einstein and My Grandfather," said, however, that it was unlikely that the pair ever visited the observatory.
"No one at Custer can document that Einstein was ever there," he said.
But whether or not the famed scientist ever paid the observatory a visit, the structure, which Downey said went unnoticed until the property owners began landscaping, was "buried in 40 years of bramble brush" in New Suffolk, and has a rich history.
"It looks like the observatory was owned by Laurits C. Eichner, who was originally from Denmark, lived in Bloomfield, New Jersey then eventually moved to New Suffolk full-time," said Amy Folk, collections manager at the Southold Historical Society. "We do not believe Einstein" had a connection to the observatory, she said.
Eichner, she said, was a maker of scientific instruments who was also an active member of the Custer Observatory. Born in 1894, he died in 1967.
According to an article published in the Traveler-Watchman newspaper on Oct. 7, 1954, the New Suffolk observatory was built by Floyd Houston of New Suffolk.
The observatory, the article said, was built for amateur astronomers and had "unusual equipment," including a six-inch reflecting telescope, an 11-inch reflector, a seismograph for recording earthquakes, an aerograph for recording weather conditions, timekeepers and electronic equipment.
The article states that some of the equipment was loaned to the observatory by Custer; Eichner also made some of the equipment.
"The Eichner astrophometers, used for measuring star magnitudes, are standard equipment in the world's great observatories," the articles states.
Eichner and Houston worked together to build the observatory, the article added, with scientists from Brookhaven Laboratory and electricians from RCA in Riverhead lending expertise.
While Rothman said he doubts Einstein had ties to the New Suffolk observatory, he said there is no doubt that the scientist left his mark on Southold.
"It's a big part of our history," he said.
According to the SHS website, Einstein, who died in 1955, summered in Southold during the summers of 1937, 1938 and 1939.
During the summer of 1939, he wrote and mailed his "famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Fellow scientists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner came to visit Einstein on July 16, 1939 — a visit that would lead to the creation of the now infamous letter. The letter would set the United States on the path to the creation of the first Atomic weapons to ever be used in a military conflict."
The house Einstein rented was located on West Cove Road on Nassau Point, and still stands today, though it is privately owned and not open to the public.
"During Einstein's tenure there he was always wary of curiosity seekers and those trying to snap a photograph of him. Local resident and postman Albert Richmond noted 'You let Einstein come to you,' not the other way around," according to the SHS.
In addition, the SHS added, Rothman and Einstein enjoyed "musical interludes at the Rothman house in Southold."
The Southold Historical Society owns an original Einstein letter as well as copies of many others sent to friends here in Southold, as well as photos.
Once he'd discovered the observatory, Downey said he worked painstakingly to replace rotten studs with beams from a turn-of-the-century barn in Southold.
Downey was also involved with the restoration of the Vail Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead and dismantled the mezzanine there; he has kept pieces of wood from the project.
Restoring historical buildings is meaningful to Downey.
"I was in Nantucket and was fascinated with the treasures I would find in the walls and ceiling," he said. "Junk to most, but a story was there. Put there for me to find, hundreds of years before I was even born."
Today, Downey said, "People bulldoze and build new. It sickens me, throwing away history – what there is of it."
He added, "I could do what other carpenters and contractors do, but you learn nothing. Restoring is like school, every time, and I'm happy to do it."