It’s been called the flagship of Ocean avenue. When it was originally built in 1891, it belonged to Philip Corbin, a manufacturer of household hardware and locks from New Britain. Conn., who got his start as a locksmith apprentice and grew his business until it employed 15,000 people.
His house was a Queen Anne man­sion, three stories tall and with eight bedrooms. It was a sign of the changes taking place, the transformation of a re­ligious retreat called Cottage City into a full-fledged resort called Oak Bluffs.
Not surprisingly. Mr. Corbin’s house was fitted out with the finest hardware made by the factory that bore Mr. Corbin’s name — fancy. silver-plated doorknobs, escutcheons and heavy brass hinges.
The house was built by Eli A. Leighton, a carpenter from Oak Bluffs whose descendants still live on the Is­land. Mr. Leighton did not then have a reputation for building such elaborate houses, leading some architectural his­torians to wonder how he did it. Is it pos­sible, as some historians have specu­lated, that the house was actually a prefab?
That remains a mystery, but the house was renowned for its detailing — its wraparound veranda, overhanging roof, carved wooden brackets, tall win­dows and octagonal turret. Inside, the reception parlor was entirely oak — floor, wainscoting and ceiling. Some floorboards were 24 feet in length. In the master bedroom, the boudoir and the best guest room, the wood was cy­press. Elsewhere in the house — kitchen, pantries and the remainder of the bedrooms — it was pine.
The house remained in the Corbin family for some 40 years, after which it changed hands a number of times. At one point, it housed a doctor’s office. But its darkest days would have to have been the late 1980s, when the owner made plans to convert the house into three condominiums.
By this time, its original shingles and clapboards had been stripped away and replaced by redwood clapboards. Also, the double-hung windows were long gone. Mass-produced Andersen case­ment units had been put in their place. Interior panel doors had been sold off, as had much of the historical hardware.
Luckily, the oak walls and chestnut paneling had remained intact. In 1991, when Peter Norton, the computer soft­ware magnate, and his wife, Eileen, de­cided to buy the old Corbin house for a reported $350,000, it was begging for someone with the resources to restore it. The restoration would take three years to complete, and Mr. Norton commissioned a team of consultants, ar­chitects and contractors to do the job.
They became historical detectives in the process, looking for any clues to help them bring it as close to its origi­nal state as possible. They consulted old photographs to see what balusters and moldings looked like. They placed ads offering to buy back salvage items that had been sold from the house — shut­ters, doors and fixtures.
Mr. Norton hired craftsmen in Cali­fornia to recreate much of the hardware to match the originals. At one point, a preservationist found an old piece of the porch column that offered them enough information to remill it accurately.
“Everyone put their heart and soul into that restoration,” said Neal Galli­gan, the contractor who led the job. “Most Victorians on this Island have just been butchered over the years. Our job was to bring it back to exactly the way it was before. There was an in­tensity to the whole process. It was something my partner and I had never encountered before.”
Mr. Norton plans to rebuild it, saying it means too much to the community.
Indeed, as Mr. Galligan put it, there’s something about the house. “It just stood out and drew you to it.”