A tsunami of money and a stroke of a pen were able to fell a house that survived everything Mother Nature threw at it for 85 years. The story of how the recently demolished Bouwerie (1930), the former residence of Dr. Wesley and Gladys Bowers, met its end is one of greed, deceit, lack of oversight and carelessness.The Mediterranean-style villa, with its wooden Provençal balconies and handmade tiles, which was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1986, sat on the barrier beach at the western end of Meadow Lane in Southampton Village, and was built to look weather-beaten and antedated.The dunes influenced the design of the informal and asymmetrical fenestration, embellished with painted shutters resting against masonry walls lathered with buff-colored stucco. The villa’s original interiors, full of rough plaster walls and hewn beams along with a replica of a 200-year-old iron staircase, were complemented with Provençal furnishings. While opulent and elegant in its detailing, the Bouwerie was intriguingly intimate for a large-scale house, and part of this had to do with its relationship to the site.
On the ocean side the façade looked as if it had grown right out of the sand. The Meadow Lane façade, broken up by a series of cascading rooflines, established gentle rhythms and cadences, which allowed the sum of the parts to form an even greater whole. Designed by New York City architect LeRoy P. Ward, the Bouwerie was one of only four residences he created on Long Island. In the application for landmark designation the Bowers residence was cited as “a distinguished example of early 20th-century upper-income residential architecture” and also said to recall “Southampton’s extensive development as an affluent turn-of-the-century (1900) summer retreat with distinguished residential properties sited on or near the waterfront.”
The designation papers went on to say, ”The Bowers residence is a remarkably intact, representative example of this local architectural and social phenomenon as exhibited by its prominent size, stylish design and dramatic oceanfront setting.”
The granting of a demolition permit constituted the condition of purchase for this landmarked 6.2-acre property, bought in 2011 for $25 million by 1280 Meadow Lane LLC. The demolition permit was obtained easily and the village building inspector, Jonathan Foster, signed off on it despite the fact that the house was one of only four National Register village properties not in a landmarked district.
The National Register designation is purely honorary, and if a designated house is not in a national, state or local register district it is not necessarily afforded protection from demolition. In Southampton Village, the 1926 Sanborn map is used to determine the cut-off date for the protection of landmarked structures. Anything built after that date, even if it’s on the National Register, is not deemed a contributory structure outside of a historic district.
If it’s good enough to be on the National Register, then how on earth can it be characterized as “non-contributory”?
Why this particular 1926 Sanborn map is used for protected, contributory landmark validity simply defies comprehension, as there are so many buildings extending beyond this date that are worthy of landmark designation. They may well be landmarked in years to come, and should simply be protected because of their designation. It really would behoove the village to re-examine the use of this 1926 Sanborn map for the purpose of dating buildings, as there are other avenues available to determine this end. A building needs only to be 50 years of age to qualify for landmark designation in the U.S.A. According to Zack Studenroth, Lewis Street in the village has a National Register district containing 50 houses, but since none of them have local designation, they too, cannot be protected from demolition based on this loophole in village regulations.
Once the 1280 Meadow Lane LLC applicants received the demolition permit, they kept renewing it annually until this year, when they went before the ARB to present a design for a proposed new house on the site. Initially, the Southampton Village ARB questioned the issuance of the demolition permit for the Bouwerie based on procedural grounds, given the fact that this house was on the National Register. When it was explained to them that the building inspector had simply complied with the regulations in place, the ARB acquiesced and proceeded to review the proposed new house.
The applicants argued that it was impossible to expand the house on its site. With 350 feet of ocean frontage—the size of a football field—and over 600 feet in depth, this seems very difficult to believe. They also claimed the house needed substantial repairs despite the fact that significant renovation work had been made by the previous owner in 2005. Furthermore, they stated that it no longer conformed to current FEMA regulations and was seaward of the coastal erosion line.
While posited as an argument for the Bouwerie’s demolition, the reality is that most of the houses on Gin and Meadow lanes are pre-existing and nonconforming with respect to the new FEMA regulations and the coastal erosion line. Did these specious arguments really serve as justification to demolish a National Register landmarked structure in this particular coastal zone? Additionally, both the Mellon mansion and the Henry Francis duPont carriage house have been moved backed from the dune crest in the last 10 years. This begs the question as to why the Bouwerie could not have been moved back and added on to as well. The ARB didn’t ask, and the applicants didn’t mention if they had explored this possibility as part of their due diligence.
The FEMA regulations are simply based on computer models, which suggest, “Maybe your house will be washed out along this stretch of beach.” Hurricanes don’t always strike the same stretch of land every time they move up the coast, so these designations really have to be taken with a grain of salt. The bottom line was that this applicant wanted to knock the Bouwerie down to build a modernist 18,000-square-foot house—the maximum size allowed in the village—containing 17 bedrooms with an 11-car garage on the lower level. The purchase of the Bouwerie property was a pure and simple land grab.
As a colleague recently said to me, “This was really a great loss, but it seems like everyone who should have known what was going on didn’t.” Even at the two ARB hearings in the summer there were no public comments on this application.
If anything can be taken away from this sorry turn of events it is the fact that the Bouwerie’s end represents part of a cultural shift. The Bouwerie alluded to antiquity when it was built. In 2015 the revolving door of fashion has spirited in a new modernity whose raison d’être has to do with a pared-down aesthetic based on an economy of materials and easy maintenance. Much of this is cloaked under the guise of sustainability.
Is it really sustainable to knock down a massive house, built like the Rock of Gibraltar, where all of the embodied energy has already been expended?
How the new house will be viewed in the future remains to be seen. What it has in common with the houses of the Gilded Age is that it will simply represent a display of wealth.
What has been lost with the demolition of this iconic structure is another piece of Southampton’s character and identity. For those of us who have lived here long enough, houses like the Bouwerie are part of our collective memory, and we’ve always taken them for granted. Their images don’t need to exist in built form to validate our history, for we can see them in our mind’s eye. Who could forget, for example, how Woody Allen memorialized the architecture of New York in his film “Manhattan”? Likewise, when Henry James writes about the delights of the Villa Medici, the images described in his prose linger like a phantasmagoric dream. The issue in Southampton is whether or not reality in built form will remain, rather than becoming a memory.
The physical change of character in both the village and the township is moving at such an accelerated rate that it seems as if “there is no there, there,” anymore. What once was a community has simply become a commodity.
Investment in a community, however, involves energy and participation by the people who reside there. It’s time to take it back, to close the loopholes in the codes, and to put an end to business as usual. If buyers just want a land grab, then they should stop with the phony arguments to justify their goals. Local Native Americans always said that the ocean was not a friend to man. If people are foolish enough to build on the beachfront, FEMA or no FEMA, 100-foot dune crest setbacks or not, the big storm, worse than the ‘38 hurricane, will happen eventually. Tearing down historic houses in the name of greed and development will not stop the tide.