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Legacy List Transforms a Venerable Family House into a Place that Feels Like Home

Legacy List Rattray
Matt Paxton shows Bess Rattray an item from her legacy list on Legacy List with Matt Paxton.

“I don’t like the paintings in the house. They’re really creepy,” Nettie Rattray told Matt Paxton, of Legacy List with Matt Paxton. She and her brother, Teddy, recently moved with their mother, Bess, to her great-great-grandparents’ home in East Hampton, NY. 

Yet, even with the move, the house remained largely unchanged, looking very much the same as when Bess visited her grandparents as a little girl. Fourteen generations of Rattray artwork, furniture, and memorabilia lingered in their living space, attic, basement, and barn, leaving no room for the new family’s belongings.

While Bess felt a connection to her family when among their personal effects, her children were less enthused.

Rattray with Painting
Bess talks about one of the paintings in her house.


“It feels like the paintings are always staring at you,” added Teddy.

This week on Legacy List with Matt Paxton, the team must balance the Rattray’s connection to past generations while at the same time offer a path toward the future. However, they weren’t expecting those generations to span back to the early days of the American colonies.

Bess’ family has been a vital part of the East Hampton community since the 1640’s. Her great-grandfather, a whaler, purchased the house in the early 20th century, preserving it and centuries of family keepsakes for generations to come.

While Bess has fond memories of visiting her grandmother and seeing the heirlooms displayed throughout the house and stored in the barn, her children did not. 

“It’s dusty stuff in boxes. It doesn’t have any meaning to the kids at all,” Bess said. 

Matt with Documents
Matt examines old letters from Bess Rattray's ancestors.


Matt’s team set out to find the items on Bess’ legacy list, as well as discover family stories that connect Nettie and Teddy to their family’s history and values. But they also needed to downsize the significant items left by her grandparents so her new family could make the house feel as if it belonged to them.

“Having a lot of stuff is one thing,” said Legacy List team member Mike Kelleher, “But if you can’t live in your own house and your kids can’t have their own space, what’s the point?”

Matt with furniture
Matt and a local furniture expert examine Bess Rattray's antique beds stored in her barn.


But most importantly, Matt’s team discovered beautiful stories about Bess’ forebears from what they left behind. Among the finds were land deeds dating back to the 17th century, mahjong tiles brought from China by her grandmother, and an ancient link to the Native American tribes in the region. All the stories served to connect her children to a family they never had the opportunity to know.

“The history the team uncovered about our family's past was absolutely amazing. Priceless, really,” said Bess. “We feel so lucky and truly grateful, not just to Matt but to all the people who did such painstaking research, who waded into our mess and got their hands dirty and found treasures that mean a lot to us.

“It truly meant a lot to me, and to my kids, to be on the receiving end of such a gift.”

Tune in to Legacy List with Matt Paxton this Monday at 9:00 p.m. on VPM to discover more about how the Rattray’s family legacy, or stream it from the VPM website or through your PBS Passport.