Restoring Moran’s Home Studio
By Michelle Trauring
Thomas Moran was neither an architect nor an engineer. But that didn’t stop him from building his own house.
Admittedly, the final result isn’t for everybody, said Jill Malusky, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society. There are peaks and turrets, bay windows and small windows, all asymmetrical, accentuated by different types of shingles in a range of colors.
“It looks like you took a bunch of all these really fanciful details and shoved them all together on one building,” she said with a laugh. “The Queen Anne style is very unusual, and almost jarring, yet still beautiful. It’s unlike any other space in East Hampton.”
By the time it came under the stewardship the Thomas Moran Trust — which Malusky also heads — it looked like an old haunted house, she said. Lived in, still quirky, and decaying. It was 2008, and she knew it was very important to start the restoration process, before it was too late.
“Some things he chose to do, other more schooled engineers might not have done,” she said. “So over time, especially with the Hurricane of 1938, the house started to sag and fall apart. That’s why everyone jumped on board this project, so that the house wouldn’t become so badly damaged that it could never be saved.”
Now in its final stage of restoration, the Moran Studio will be open to the public on Saturday for a fundraiser that Malusky said she hopes will raise the remaining $800,000 needed to complete the interior. By that time, the property’s new border garden will be in full bloom, courtesy of the Garden Club of East Hampton and inspired by an 1884 oil painting by Mary Nimmo Moran — wife to Thomas Moran, an avid gardener, and an artist in her own right.
“The garden should be really full and lush for the party. It’s just really nice because it gives another dimension to the property,” Malusky said. “It’s not just an artist studio, it’s an artist studio and garden, and we want to talk about landscape, too. Thomas was a landscape painter and both of them really liked the landscape around East Hampton. It’s one of the reasons they wanted to live here.”
The Morans first came to the East End as members of the traditional summer colony, and would quickly become beloved residents of the community. They adored their neighbors, often throwing parties at their home and inviting everyone they knew, and even fundraised for village improvement.
“Back then, the roads were all dirt and it could get very dusty, making everything dirty and gritty — your clothes, the sidewalks, it would just go everywhere,” Malusky said. “So Moran raised money to buy this sprayer that would put water down on the street to prevent dust from happening. It sounds kind of strange to us, but back then, it was a great use of technology. It was very considerate of him.”
Thomas Moran was equal parts artist and conservationist. He is credited as one of the fathers of the National Parks Service — his paintings of landscapes, such as Yellowstone, were instrumental in preserving the land — and, locally, when improvements to Town Pond threatened a number of the trees there, he took matters into his own hands.
“There are different versions of the story, but he essentially sat out with his gun in his lap and was like, ‘If anybody touches these trees, I am gonna …,’” Malusky said. “He cared very much about the landscape and really wanted to help preserve it. And he loved being a part of this community.”
The artist would build his studio on Main Street in 1884 — which was truly a studio first and a home second, Malusky noted. It is considered one of the first of its kind and, today, stands as a national landmark.
Its first floor is almost entirely dominated by the studio itself. It was once dotted with treasures that Moran collected from all over the world — he was a big traveler, Malusky said — and was lined with his paintings. Massive windows flood the room with light, and oversized doors allowed him to move his giant canvases in and out with ease, she said. A second-story balcony looks down on the double-height space, and the third floor houses the bedrooms.
After Moran died in 1926 — a widower since 1899 — the house was privately owned until 2004, when it was left to Guild Hall. Worried that they didn’t have the funds to restore it, as it had fallen into considerable disrepair, they sold the building for $1 to the Thomas Moran Trust.
They immediately got to work.
Operating with a $4 million budget, the studio was first lifted and a new foundation installed, along with utilities that will keep the home climate controlled and stable, Malusky said.
“This is not at all sexy or something you can see, but it was one of the fundamental and important things that needed to be done,” she said. “This way, we can actually display their artwork in the future. The next step was shoring up the rest of the structure and working on the exterior. The house became this really beautiful shell, where all the siding, the finishes, the glazing, the windows, and the paint was put on the exterior, so it had the appearance of being fully completed — but it’s not.”
The final phase includes the final treatment on the interior — restoring the walls, doors, trim, plaster, flooring, and installing a new electrical system, Malusky said. When all is finished, the Thomas Moran studio will serve as a community art center, museum and exhibition space, she said. The first of which is tentatively slated for June 2018, and will feature loans from Yellowstone National Park, as well as Moran’s tools, sketches and watercolors that helped him create the large-scale paintings partly responsible for the park’s existence today.
“Once the project is complete and you can see their artwork in there, and you can get more of a sense of their lives, I think people will just fall in love with their story and be really proud that they lived here for as long as they did,” Malusky said of the Morans. “They really considered this one of their main homes. I think it’s something for East Hampton and people who live on the East End to be really proud of. It’s a really great part of their heritage that wasn’t being told before.”
The Thomas Moran Trust Garden Party, celebrating the final phase of the Moran Studio restoration and unveiling of the Mary Nimmo Moran 19th-century-inpired garden, will be held on Saturday, August 5, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Main Street property in East Hampton. Tickets start at $150. All proceeds will benefit the restoration. Free walking tours, starting at the Clinton Academy and ending at the Moran Studio, will be held on Friday, August 11 and 18, and Sunday, August 27, at 10 a.m. For more information, call (631) 324-0100, or visit thomasmorantrust.org.