The Way We Were


I originally planned another topic for this week’s column, but a confluence of recent events brought into stark resolution how very differently we now live here than in 1974—the year I made my first visit to The East End, Labor Day weekend in fact.

I recently toured the enclave in North Sea where my introductory weekend here was spent. But which house was it?

I narrowed it down to a few possibilities, but suffice to say that while that neighborhood maintains a semblance of its former self, most of the shingled cottages dotting the neighborhood in 1974 are completely unrecognizable now. Most are two stories, some now have garages and almost all have maxed out their building envelopes, erasing most of the native vegetation.

When I moved to Bridgehampton full time in 1984, air conditioning was not considered essential. After all, couldn’t one just sleep with the windows open for the three-month season?

A garage? Why build a garage when no one puts their cars inside during the summer?

Shortly thereafter, “the season,” which was clearly defined as Memorial Day to Labor Day, stretched from Easter to Thanksgiving, then to Christmas and New Year’s. And, with newly added three-day weekend holidays in January and February, suddenly and without warning, by 1990 we were looking at a nine month season.

Forget for a moment that families had been living here comfortably and modestly for generations. With this longer season came larger weekend homes and basically more of everything. Houses had to have more bedrooms, bathrooms, walk-in-closets and family rooms. The kitchen became the fulcrum on which the entire house turned, even if it was rarely employed in the art of cooking.

A recently published book on the inventive architecture of Horace Gifford, “Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction,” brought much of this into focus. While homes in this same era being built in the Fire Island Pines might not seem applicable to life in Water Mill or Sagaponack, many of the same design forces and personages were at play here. In fact, my first commission for a house was in The Pines in 1977.

These homes largely represented the personalities of the inhabitants, not a generic, cookie-cutter, one-look-suits-all approach. Can we say the same today of the shingled, swooping-roofed, center-hall McMansions currently on parade? I think not.

In the early ’80s one came to “the beach,” or rarely “the country,” and life here was, in a word, simpler. Bedrooms shared baths, the kitchens were tiny, closets were minimal at best, and forget about TV rooms, playrooms, screening rooms, et al. They were unheard of. Swimming pools were rare. After all, wasn’t that what the beach was for?

The original owners of the first house I designed here in 1978 have determined that it is time to upgrade. Specifically, they want a larger kitchen, as they cook a great deal, (the kitchen is 8-by-12), and a master bedroom with its own bath, a slightly enlarged dining room so that 10 guests might be easily accommodated and a one-car garage.

They thought about these changes for many years. After much family discussion, and promises to frequent house guests that it would, at all costs, “remain a beach house,” they called me in.

Just looking at the drawings of this early work one block off the ocean in Bridgehampton, it is particularly telling of how things have changed.

It is a classic “upside-down” house, with clean lines, balconies off every room to catch the ocean breeze and light coming from all directions. Many of these details and concepts were lifted from that first house on Fire Island, honed, expanded and improved upon.

This era was also a time of great experimentation in architecture. I sometimes joke that when I moved to Bridgehampton, there were only five architects practicing out here—a slight exaggeration perhaps but not by much—and each of them carved wonderful niches into the East End landscape: Eugene Futterman, Harry Bates and Norman Jaffe among them.

While not every home built in this era made the cover of House & Garden, and many were far from memorable, many of these homes with “good bones” still ring true today.

One is the Horace Gifford two-bedroom pavilion (which is in the book) overlooking Mecox Bay on Jobs Lane in Bridgehampton. Barely touched in 46 years, it is currently on the market for $3.75 million.

Many others like it however are on life support as massive two story behemoths, maxing out the building and pyramid envelopes, loom next door. How much longer can these modernist jewels and discrete farmhouses from another era remain tenable, given that many are comfortably nestled into prime acreage?

The Village of Southampton is embroiled in a number of acrimonious debates over neighborhood character, and the nascent Village of Sagaponack is gingerly wading into the rapids of zoning restrictions. Let’s hope they both get it right before it’s too late.

Bigger, wider, taller (as tall as allowed) is now the clarion call. I doubt that we will look back at the last 20 years with the same nostalgia and winsome feelings of a simpler time, when the heat and humidity seemed tolerable, the term “SUV” had yet to be coined and the word “playroom” meant the backyard. We may well look back and ask, “What did people do in all those big houses?”

Next time: “Back to The Future”

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