Like something out of a fairy tale, the distinctive studio/cottage of Thomas Moran and Mary Nimmo Moran sits on East Hampton’s Main Street vacant and worn—its cedar shingles cracked, its turret hanging precariously from the main structure and its base rotting away. Despite its appearance, the National Historic Landmark is closer to transformation—just last week the building was lifted and placed on supports by Davis Construction.
The Thomas Moran Trust, the nonprofit organization formed to preserve the house, is inching toward total renovation, which is slated to be completed in three years. According to the director of the trust, Richard Barons, who is also the director of the East Hampton Historical Society, the project is about $2.5 million away from its $8 million goal.
Occupied for 119 years, the house eventually fell into a state of disrepair, according to Robert Hefner, the village’s historic preservation consultant.
“Everyone who lived in this house was careful with their money as far as maintenance goes,” he said at the house on Thursday. “If it worked, they kept it.”
Mr. Barons said the building’s state has not gone unnoticed. When he was speaking with a family at the Home Sweet Home Museum, a little boy asked him about “the witch’s house” across the street.
Mr. Barons said one corner of the house had actually dropped 7 inches, causing the floor inside to become like a trampoline. In the chimney, birds have built not just a nest, but an “apartment complex,” according to Mr. Barons. The turret, Mr. Hefner said, was fastened on to the main house in the simplest way and built like a treehouse.
“It’s more like a castle built for a movie set,” Mr. Barons added.
Inside the house, sections of the flooring are warped and slope down like a skateboard half-pipe in some cases.
“The laws of physics need not apply,” quipped Liz Neill, Mr. Barons’s assistant. “Nothing in this house has gone through one phase. It’s like a big Jenga puzzle.”
The 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house was designed and built in 1884 by Thomas Moran, one of America’s premier landscape artists, who lived in East Hampton for 40 years. The home, styled in Queen Anne fashion, is essentially a conglomeration of different influences and needs. Inspired by a trip to England, the Moran family wanted an asymmetrical composition with many different types of windows, from oriel to bay windows, as well as a turret with a steep cap.
Over the years, a kitchen was added, a service wing was expanded and a new front porch was built. The Moran family would move their bath house to Main Beach each summer and stored a Venetian gondola the family used to take out on Hook Pond in a shed in the backyard.
The inside of the home was just as eclectic—by 1885 the Morans had already decorated the whole house with furniture, oriental rugs and art they had collected as well as artfully arranged objects from their travels. What would typically be considered the living room was Mr. Moran’s studio, where he completed many works of art. Mr. Moran was most noted for his “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” and “Chasm of the Colorado” canvases, which were sold to the U.S. Congress for display in the Capitol.
The studio itself was the center of family activity when Mr. Moran wasn’t working, and the location for many social events, including a costume ball in 1889. It is likely that the studio also served as a gathering place for Mr. Moran’s creative friends and relatives.
“It was a very lively house and a brilliantly documented art studio,” Mr. Barons said, adding that there are several photographs of the home.
The trust has been stabilizing the building, especially after noticing that it had shifted after Superstorm Sandy.
“We realized we didn’t have time if we had gotten the snows promised last year,” Mr. Barons said. “It might’ve collapsed.”
Currently, the chimney is the first permanent repair—and most stable fixture—in the home, having been finished two weeks ago.
The trust is planning on pouring a new foundation as well. The hope is to restore it completely to how it looked at the turn of the 20th century.
Mr. Moran spent every summer in East Hampton from 1885 until 1926, except for one year after his wife, Mary, died in 1899. Their daughter, Ruth B. Moran, lived in the house until she died in 1948. Condie Lamb, also an artist, and his wife, Elizabeth Lamb, then bought the Moran property and worked to get the home declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Upon Mr. Lamb’s death in 1990, the home was bequeathed. to Guild Hall, with a life tenancy for Mrs. Lamb. She died in 2004. In 2008 Guild Hall deeded the property to the Thomas Moran Trust so that it could be restored. Simultaneously, East Hampton village and town used the Community Preservation Fund to jointly purchase a historic preservation easement for $500,000 that was given to the trust to protect the house from future development and to help pay for the restoration. The trust has since been the recipient of many grants and donations from foundations and private individuals.
“During his period here, until 1900, he was a rock star,” Mr. Barons said of Mr. Moran. “He thought the two most beautiful areas on earth were East Hampton and the Grand Canyon.”