Pyrrhus Concer House To Be Demolished Once Historical Artifacts Are Removed

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The Pond Lane house where notable Southampton Village historical figure Pyrrhus Concer lived will be demolished later this summer, after a settlement between the village and the property owners late last month.

At the June Village Board meeting on Thursday night, June 12, Mayor Mark Epley explained that a stipulation of agreement has been signed by both parties involved in a $10 million lawsuit filed by the owners of 51 Pond Lane last year after the Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation denied a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the structure. Under the stipulation, the village is permitted to have an outside preservationist evaluate the interior of the home and has 60 days to remove anything believed to be historically significant.

After the two-month wait, the homeowners will be granted a demolition permit for the house to clear the way for a new two-story, single-family home.

On Friday morning, through talks with their attorney, David Gilmartin Jr., the homeowners verbally agreed that anything found during the excavation process will be set aside and donated to the village. A marker explaining the significance of the location will be placed on the property.

“My clients are thankful for the leadership of the mayor and the Board of Trustees,” Mr. Gilmartin said on Friday morning. “They are relieved this ordeal is over.”

The house has been the center of controversy since September, when the ARB hosted the first public hearing about the demolition, with opponents saying the house is an integral part of African-American history on the East End and others saying the house had been added to in the 1920s, leaving questions about in which part Mr. Concer actually lived.

Born a slave in 1814, Mr. Concer was freed and went on several whaling expeditions, most notably when he was part of a crew that saved stranded Japanese sailors and returned them home, becoming one of the first Americans, and black men, to see then-restricted Japan.

Opponents of the proposal say the property would not be in jeopardy if it had been included in past historical references—and noted that information related to African-American history, particularly where property ownership and residency are concerned, was often left out of such records.

According to the settlement, which was filed with the Supreme Court of the State of New York on May 21, the ARB must immediately grant a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the structure, which it has already done. As a condition of the certificate, the village or a designated party has 60 days to investigate the house and remove anything believed to have been created prior to 1890. Whoever enters the house must also sign waivers indemnifying the homeowners against liability.

The homeowners, David Hermer and Silvia Campo, cannot alter anything in the house before the historian enters it for the review, with the exception of a specific area of flooring that was recently installed.

“Upon the expiration of said 60-day inspection and removal period, the plaintiffs shall be entitled to take any action permitted by the Certificate of Appropriateness subject to the stipulation concerning coordination and assistance contained above,” the agreement reads.

On Thursday night, Georgette Grier-Key, the president of the Association of Suffolk County Historical Societies, expressed frustration about how the settlement played out, saying opponents of the demolition should have been notified that a settlement was reached, and that she wanted to know why talks were conducted behind closed doors.

Ms. Grier-Key was also angry with the preservation company hired by the village, Strada Baxter Design/Build LLC, saying that Robert Strada has no background in African-American history and may miss important artifacts.

Mr. Epley disagreed, saying that the village has used Mr. Strada, who is based in East Hampton, in the past and is confident in his ability to do the work. However, Mr. Epley agreed that Ms. Grier-Key can send a letter to the village outlining key things to look for, and said he will pass it along.

“Robert Strada is a historian and an architect who has done a lot of restoration projects in the past and has worked with the Southampton Historical Museum,” Mr. Epley said Friday morning. “I am very comfortable with him. It was a very emotionally charged meeting, and we all want the same thing—we want to preserve what we can and do something for Pyrrhus Concer.”

This week, Mr. Strada said he is going to remove anything from the house that he suspects was built prior to the 20th century, including items whose age he cannot verify. What he is looking for, he said, is the type of construction and cut of the wood used in the skeleton of the house. Everything that is removed, he said, will be carefully cataloged and identified in a report.

“We are bringing a very open-minded approach to keeping our ears, eyes and noses, all of our senses, open to whatever we can discover,” Mr. Strada said. “Everything will be photographed and labeled so that people can see what we are doing.”

Mr. Strada said he was in the house once on a tour and saw several areas he wants to investigate. As to questions of his qualifications to evaluate a house so important to the African-American community on the East End, Mr. Strada said there are specific procedures when it comes to investigating the significance of a historical home, and that he plans to follow each one to ensure nothing is overlooked.

“I honestly can’t imagine not being completely sensitive to every component, to every hint of the architectural integrity of the original building,” he said. “We are certainly sensitive to the nature of the house, and we are sensitive to everything that has happened leading up to this point, and we are very much aware of the significance of what we are doing.”

According to Mr. Epley, anything removed from the house will be safely stored by the Southampton Historical Museum, which has facilities to store historical artifacts, while the village decides what to do with it.

“We have 60 days to go into the space and identify pieces of the structure that may be from the time period of Concer’s life and might be part of the original structure,” Mr. Epley said.

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