A House With Character Among The Potato Fields


The house looms out of the potatoscape like Grant Wood’s iconic painting, “American Gothic,” but without the farming couple and their pitchfork: a humble shingled reminder of Southampton’s simple agricultural and architectural past.

Real estate lawyer Ira Kornbluth moved into the house in 1981 at the urging of his then fiancée, Anita, who now shares it with him as his wife. When he almost purchased a generic contemporary dwelling, she suggested that he aim for character rather than bright light. So, despite a quirky layout that had housed generations of local families including one with nine children, and a dark interior, he heeded her advice.

The pastoral setting—the property is still surrounded in all directions by farmland—was also over-enclosed. Though now it is open to capture the vista, at the time there was a towering hedge to block winter winds. Having studied art history along with law, Mr. Kornbluth was familiar with the “dynamic” composition of a classical landscape. With canvases of Claude Lorrain in mind, he tore down hedges and planted vegetative “massings” on both sides of the property, with a clipped cedar tree in the center resembling a ball, and a bench closer in—all features working to “mark the recession into infinity, which would not be as dramatic without this setup.” On his annual garden party invitations he beckons guests to enjoy his “enchanted meadow.”

“People love the view,” he said. And of course, so does he, all year round. “If I’m not feeling well I’m suddenly in a good mood when I walk over the rise into the sunset,” Mr. Kornbluth said.

Upon their moving in, his next-door neighbor, John Maddock, whose family had occupied their homestead for generations, told Mr. Kornbluth that the tiny farmhouse had originally been built for farmhands and had been moved to its current location north of the highway in the 1920s. Sometimes former inhabitants drop by “to take a look at the changes.”

Mr. Kornbluth’s first order of business was to deal with the solar deficit, which he did by adding windows—and lots of them, including a bay with a window seat, where guests perch at the many dinner parties the couple is known to host.

Perhaps in homage to the simplicity of the dwelling, which they did not enlarge, the Kornbluths have kept the décor spare. The living room’s oak plank floors are adorned only with a single needlepoint rug made by Ms. Kornbluth, a copy of one at Charlestown Farm, the country house the Bloomsbury group frequented at the beginning of the last century. Many of her needlepoint pillows—with designs of flowers and shells—are scattered throughout their home.

“The living room looks like 1910,” said Mr. Kornbluth. Furniture that might have been found in that period include a faux bamboo settee, high-back chair and round pine table on which rests a small TV, the only one in the house. The roughly hewn dining table is surrounded by two pairs of chairs, and as with many of the couple’s furnishings, one set has a story attached.

An engraving on the chairs’ backs identify them as having been made for Lord and Lady Amherst to rest their bottoms upon during the coronation of Edward VII. An Anglophile, Mr. Kornbluth offered that Lady Amherst was the person who sent Howard Carter to Egypt, where he discovered King Tut’s tomb.

The only crowded areas are the walls, where a diverse assortment of artworks hang. As a lawyer, Mr. Kornbluth has often worked for friends who in turn have rewarded him with gifts of art. A beachscape and landscape of local fields by Casimir Rutkowski were a result of a house closing, and a third abstract was thrown into the bargain when Mr. Kornbluth happened to express a liking for it. “I was only supposed to get one,” he said. “He was very generous.”

Other artists represented include East Hampton’s Peter Dayton (collage of daisies); Larry Rivers (lithograph of Camel cigarettes); Southampton and Palm Beach painter Dora Frost (floral pastels) and Southampton painter Sheila Isham (of whose works he has “more than anyone else.”)

The couple also comes by art in the course of life on the South Fork. Ms. Kornbluth haunts yard sales, where she’s picked up the occasional treasure. She bought a watercolor of Rome for $8, which they had framed for $140.

One day on Jobs Lane, her husband passed the window of Ann Madonia Antiques and was struck by a watercolor of a French interior. “I wasn’t going to go in,” he said. “It was such a good painting. The only way it would be reasonably priced is if they didn’t know who painted it.” It turned out to be quite affordable, so he made the purchase. “I’m pretty sure it was painted by Jeremiah Goodman, most likely at the beginning of his career, because it’s unsigned.”

Is it valuable? “I don’t care what it’s worth because it’s mine,” Mr. Kornbluth said.

Besides art, the Kornbluths collect porcelain. A set of Rosenthal came with the house, which Mr. Kornbluth “didn’t like much.

“It’s funny how fashions change and we change along with them,” he continued. “I think they’re beautiful now.” He calls them his Adolf Hitler dishes, after noting in the film “Operation Valkyrie” that the Fuhrer owned the same set at his residence at Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. His pride and joy, however, are six Meissen soup bowls, which “were not very expensive because people don’t want that sort of thing these days.” He gets a vicarious thrill eating from them because “they were used in Newport by the richest people in the world in the 1890s.

“I can be part of that milieu in my own small way,” he explained.

The house is a continual work in progress. “Over the years things come together, you don’t make any mistakes—you keep buying things that make your life better,” said Mr. Kornbluth.

Facebook Comments