Hoping To Protect Mid-Century Gems

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The 1973 Harry Bates-designed house for interior designer Jay Spectre. Michael Heller photo

It started with a copy of a book by New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger found in a bargain bin in Palm Springs.

Sag Harbor interior designer Timothy Godbold received the 1990 edition of “The Houses of the Hamptons” as a gift, and when he flipped through the pages, what he saw amazed him. The Australia native who moved to the East End from New York City permanently in 2012 said that, even though he worked in design, he didn’t know about many of the extraordinary modern houses built on the South Fork.

The book features early works by renowned architects Charles Gwathmey, Richard Meier, Julian and Barbara Neski, Norman Jaffe, Alfredo de Vido and more. Their designs helped define the Long Island vernacular of modern residential architecture in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s: Function comes before form, but not at the expense of aesthetics. Rather than ornamentation, these minimalist homes derive their character and beauty from pleasing geometric shapes, how they take advantage of natural light, and how they interact with the outdoors. Structural elements are something to be highlighted rather than covered up, wood is often exposed rather than painted and the use of glass is generous.

“I started putting snaps from the book on Instagram,” Godbold said.

Commenters shared their appreciation for the houses as he posted more pictures, but then he saw a comment that shook him: A follower commented, very nonchalantly, “We tore that one last down year.”

“That kind of horrified me, you know, that these houses are just getting torn down,” Godbold said. “And the more I looked into it, the more I found out how these houses, there’s no one protecting them. There’s no laws. There’s nothing going on, and they’re just open targets.”

Many of the homes that had impressed him were built at a time when land was plentiful and could be bought for nothing, he noted, and they are sited on prime locations.

Unlike the captain’s houses of Sag Harbor or the historic summer cottages of Southampton Village, these modern masterpieces do not have laws standing in the way of a wrecking ball or prohibiting severe alterations. There are no nongovernmental groups focused on preserving the East End’s architecturally significant modern homes either — but Godbold is looking to change that.

Godbold said it was when COVID hit that he decided to bite the bullet and take up the task himself. However, he knows that it won’t be easy to combat development pressure: “I can’t compete with those big building companies. I can’t compete with their lawyers. I can’t compete with the big investment banker in the city who’s got a shitload of money, who will tear something down and just pay a fine.”

He added that he also doesn’t want dead animals left at his front door. Rather, his approach is to attract more flies with honey.

“The only way, I’m going to be able to do this is by making people aware of what’s out here, and the only way that I can save houses is by saying, ‘Hey, isn’t this cool? Bet you didn’t know that this ever existed,’” Godbold said.

He recalled speaking to Alastair Gordon, the architecture and design editor for the Wall Street Journal’s magazine about his idea. Gordon told him, “They’re tearing them all down,” so if he’s going to act, act now.

Godbold has styled his initiative as “hamptons20centurymodern” and launched an Instagram account by that name and a website that includes audio biographies of architects and designers as well as authors.

The slogan is “suie mos architecture,” which Godbold said is Latin for “architecture and morality” and a wink to the 1981 electronic music album “Architecture & Morality” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The album also fits his focus on 1980s homes, he added.

“Because of COVID, we’ve got a captive audience,” Godbold said. “It could be a great opportunity to start doing groundwork for what I would want to do.”

His aim is to plan a house tour and talks next spring or summer akin to Palm Springs Modernism Week to bring awareness of the homes many East End residents don’t realize are in their midst. The ultimate goal is to hand the baton to the next generation that will look after these homes, he said.

As things stand, with rare exceptions, the East End houses that Godbold is seeking to save have no covenants protecting them. However, many have successfully protected themselves until now by virtue of how beloved they are by the owners.

The “RE-Cover” house in Barnes Landing in Amagansett designed by Harry Bates in 1967.

Beloved Home, Lovingly Restored

Paul Masi is the principal architect of Bates Masi + Architects, an East Hampton based firm with New York roots founded by its other namesake, Harry Bates, who retired to Florida in 2017.

From time to time, the firm is approached to update and expand a house that Bates had designed decades earlier. Masi said it’s flattering: “It means that the house is timeless in some way — but we understand also that it has to be updated to current living standards.”

One example is the “Re-Cover House” in the Amagansett neighborhood of Barnes Landing. Bates designed the house on a narrow lot in 1967. The third owners, Joe Dolce and Jonathan Burnham, asked Bates Masi to update it 40 years later.

Dolce called Re-Cover House a “modernist house in the treetops,” which takes advantage of the site and was designed with consideration of what occupants would see both when they are sitting and when they standing. He said that what attracted him to the house was its beauty and the pure simplicity of that beauty. From the get-go, he admired how much thought Bates had put into siting the house on the land.

“Geometrically, it’s satisfying because it’s a perfect rectangle,” Dolce continued. “And the front of the house has 16-foot ceilings and the back of the house is divided into halves so the ceilings are 8 feet. So you get this grand, sort of operatic sense of space in the front and then a cozy, warm sense of space in the bedroom. And it’s not a big house. It’s a small house — it’s 1,600 square feet max.”

Dolce said they hired Bates’s firm back because it was the right thing to do. He thought it was amazing that Bates — who is now 93 years old — was still alive and still loved that house. “He thought it was a great joy to be asked back,” Dolce recalled. “And how many architects get to reimagine the house they built?”

Dolce and his then-partner did not want to change the house in a substantial way, but they did want an update and additional stair access and storage and a more generous second bathroom.

“He came in, he looked at the original plans,” Dolce said of Bates. “He sort of said, ‘Oh what was I thinking when I did that?’ — which was funny. He had a good sense of humor about those things.”

Masi said it’s great when clients want to preserve a home’s character and the living experience.

“That Joe Dolce house is an excellent example of that, and it was a very successful project,” he said. “We dissected that home, went back to our drawings, and really kept the integrity of it but tailored it for him.”

The project posed a challenge in keeping the character and simplicity of the structure while modernizing it up to current standards and needs for mechanicals, insulation and electrical systems, Masi noted. That is the case for such houses from that era. “Frankly, when those were built, they didn’t have all these requirements, nor did they really intend to use those after the summer season.”

Dolce said the house is perfect for just one or two people, with just a few pieces of furniture — one sofa, two chairs, a dining table — and he appreciates the “lack of stuff.”

“If you can have one thing that does four functions, it’s really great,” he said. “That’s one of the things about modernism that I really like: Things double task, and everything in that house double tasks.”

The Brooklyn resident is a former Details and Star Magazine editor and an author; he wrote his book “Brave New Weed: Adventures Into the Uncharted World of Cannabis” at the house in 2016 over a cold and snowy winter.

“One of my favorite rituals was waking up in the morning, stoking the fire, and putting a log on it every few hours throughout the day,” Dolce said.

Dolce has no plans of ever letting the house go, and he said he’s glad someone is working to protect such homes.

“I think these are gems,” Dolce said. “Why would you destroy them? I’m so lucky because I happen to live on a very narrow lot so it would be very hard to build a McMansion where I live.”

 

Expanded, Not Altered

In the summer of 1988, New York art dealer Fred Dorfman and attorney Susan Spagna rented a Harry Bates house on Deerfield Road in Noyac and spent August there with their then 3-year-old son, Blake Dorfman.

“We fell in love with the house,” Fred Dorfman said.

The house is two floors and rectangular, with a double-height living room with slate floors and black walls. It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a small kitchen. The exterior walls are all glass, as are many of the interior walls, affording abundant light and unobstructed views. Only the dining room is a single story and it juts out toward the pool and expansive deck. There are no hallways, only pocket doors to divide the rooms.

“Everything is equally proportioned. Everything lines up,” Dorfman said. “That’s why I fell in love with the house: Everything makes absolute sense.”

It was also fun to run around the house with a little kid while being able to see him from both inside and outside, he added.

Dorfman explained that Bates created the house in 1973 for interior designer Jay Spectre, the original owner, who designed the furniture to fit the house, including couches that matched his Bentley Corniche. “The house is definitely a combination of the client and the architect,” he said.

The house was featured in Architectural Digest in 1975 and referred to as “a space ship that landed in the woods.”

“It was Jay Spectre’s party house, but it looked like a beautiful penthouse that would go on top of an apartment building in New York City,” Dorfman said. “It’s built on a platform — it’s built on a deck — and the pool is an important part of the house.”

Dorfman’s family had rented the house from the second owner, one of Dorfman’s clients, Richard Berger, who had bought 3 abutting acres to add to the originally 2-acre property.

Dorfman called up Sotheby’s and asked a real estate agent to find his family an architecturally significant house on 5 acres with landscaped grounds that was equal to or better than the house they stayed in. “I said, I could buy Richard Berger’s house, what can you show me?’ And Sotheby’s said, ‘Just buy Richard Berger’s house.’”

And so they did, including the Spectre furniture that was custom-built for it.

At the time they rented the house, the interior walls had been painted white. A friend and prominent interior designer, Kevin McCabe, tipped off Dorfman that something wasn’t right.

“I went and I found the Architectural Digest book where this house was featured as the best modern house of the ’70s, and sure enough, the inside of the house was black,” Dorfman said.

It turned out that Berger had the tongue-and-groove wood walls painted white because a real estate agent had told him that he could never sell a house with a black interior. Dorfman corrected that mistake, hiring a painter to make the walls black again.

Dorfman later got to know Bates, and in 2003 he hired Bates Masi to update and expand on the house. In the original structure, the decades-old windows and sliding doors were replaced in-kind. The expansion — which has the sensibilities of the original but takes advantage of the larger glass windows and doors that have come on the market since the 1970s — includes a bedroom, an office, a pool-adjacent bathroom and a basement entertainment area.

This year, the family has spent more time in the house than ever before. Rather than the two months that they would typically stay there in summer, they have been there since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Blake Dorfman, who works for the international Faurschou Foundation’s Brooklyn art museum, said though he became accustomed to the house, having grown up with it, he was always reminded how special it was whenever his friends would visit and he would see their reactions.

“That’s the great thing about out here,” he said of the East End. “You can see great architecture in any form.”

When a house is done properly, it’s easy to see how it could be there in another 50 or 60 years, he said. “You don’t want to change it. You want to add on to it in as minuscule a way as possible, in keeping that beauty.”

The Antler House, designed by Andrew Weller in East Hampton in 1968. Ashok Sinha photo

Back To How It Was Envisioned

Clothing designer Blair Moritz and her husband, film director Chris Fisher, bought architect Andrew Geller’s Antler House in East Hampton in 2013.

Known as Geller’s most whimsical work, the 1968 residence is just 1,100 square feet on an acre. By the time Moritz and Fisher became the owners, it had been through three remodels, if not more.

“We spent a lot of time in that area and we loved it so much,” Moritz said. “Once we started researching more and more and learning the history about Springs and learning more about Andrew Geller, it seemed like it would be such an exciting project.”

They bought Antler House with no plans to immediately restore it, but just to live in it and enjoy it. “Once we were in the house, we really fell in love even more,” Moritiz said, calling the home a “magical place.”

It is an upside-down house — the kitchen and living areas are upstairs and the two bedrooms are downstairs — set in the woods and situated to maximize views of the sunrise and sunset.

“It just feels better being closer to the earth when you’re sleeping at night,” Moritz said.

While tearing down an unpermitted shed that came with the property, a handyman found the original plans for the house.

“We were so excited about it,” Moritz said. “We framed them right away.”

When they were ready to restore Antler House, they got in touch with Geller’s grandson Jake Gorst, a filmmaker. Gorst directed and produced the documentary “Modern Tide: Midcentury Architecture on Long Island” about the work of Geller and his contemporaries and also directed a PBS documentary on the Leisurama prefabricated houses that Geller designed.

“We really wanted to do right by Andrew Geller,” Moritz said.

They got Gorst’s approval on all of the ideas for the house in an effort to stay true to what the later Geller would have done, and worked with architect Forrest Frasier — a co-founder of Brooklyn firm Architecture AF and a huge fan of Geller — who won a Peconic AIA honor award for historic preservation for the project.

The wide-plank oak floors were refinished, a poorly made bathroom addition was removed, small windows were replaced with much larger panes of glass, and the wood siding was replaced with vertical boards. Drywall that had been added to the house over the decades was replaced with what Geller would have used: cedar.

Perhaps most significant, Geller’s “owl eyes” windows that a previous owner had removed were incorporated back into the design.

“We hope to own this house forever,” Moritz said. “We love it so much and will continue to take care of it and keep it as original as possible. But then I thought for a second, well what happens if we do sell this house? What if someone decides to tear it down? And why can’t this be marked as a historic home? I think it’s important. I think it’s part of history.”

Another Geller project on the East End is already protected by covenants. Located in Water Mill, it’s now known as Mothersill, and a conservation easement was brought on by a willing owner, according to Masi. Geller designed the tiny 1962 house and studio on the site, and Bates Masi + Architects restored the structures in 2014 and connected them via boardwalk with a pool and a new building.

Known as the Osofsky House, this home on Shelter Island was designed in 1969 by architect Norman Jaffe, one of three he built on the island at the same time. Craig Macnaughton photo

Houses That Sell Themselves

Mala Sander, an associate broker with The Corcoran Group, recently sold a Norman Jaffe house on Shelter Island. Designed in 1969 and known as the Osofsky House, it was one of three Shelter Island Jaffe houses built at the same time.

“It was just so amazingly original and fantastic,” Sander said of visiting the house. “It was like walking into a time capsule in a sense because they even have much of the original furniture that was installed when Jaffe designed it.”

The very first people to be given a showing bought the house shortly after it was formally listed.

“I believe that they are going to update the house, but the integrity of the house is going to be maintained going forward,” Sander said of the new owners and their plans.

There are certain types of houses in the Hamptons that are a dime a dozen and can be found just about anywhere, she observed. “It’s all the same, and it looks the same, and you can walk in basically blindfolded and know where everything is and where the kitchen’s going to be, and all of that. But things that have an architectural point of view …  they’re not a dime a dozen, and if that’s what you like, you know you have to jump on it because somebody else will.”

Protecting Modern Homes Into The Future

Not every owner who wants to update or expand on an architecturally significant home takes the same level of care.

“There are some homes that I have seen where there was an original Harry Bates home in there and then — through multiple owners and additions and renovations — it’s almost unrecognizable at this point,” Masi said.

He noted that he understands times are different than 50 or 60 years ago, and said he would prefer a home be upgraded and kept in use instead of becoming just a relic.

“I love the fact that they can still play a role in a family’s life in living on the East End of Long Island,” he said.

But covering up the woodwork or making some other change that loses the essence of the project — that, he doesn’t want to see.

Masi suggested incentives for owners in order to preserve important homes.

“In order for this to happen, the towns and villages need to come up with a plan for how this would work,” Masi said. “Because — say for example if you own one of these homes — you probably would be upset if the town came in and said, ‘Ok, I’m putting restrictions on it. You can never tear this down. You can’t significantly alter or add to it,’ and you would potentially lose a large portion of the value of that property because of that.”

He suggested a preservation method modeled after East Hampton Village’s timber-frame landmarks law. The law allows the owner of a historic timber-frame house to have two houses on one building lot. The caveat is that the original house must stay put with its historical integrity intact. Also, the two houses combined may not have more square footage than the maximum house size for the lot. If the maximum is 4,000 square feet, and the timber-frame house is 2,000 square feet, the second home can only be 2,000.

“I think that is a great solution because, on the one hand, the owners would not lose significant value on their property,” Masi said “… You could make the argument that they would gain value because there would be two separate residences instead of one.”

Bates, in an email, expressed his support for preservation as well: “I am all for saving important and significant works of architecture … everywhere. The loss of the Gordon Bunshaft house in East Hampton is a prime example of total disregard of history. I was personally involved with this house, and Mr. Bunshaft, throughout its creation and greatly mourned its untimely demise.”

Built in 1963 to be the architect’s own home, the Bunshaft house — a one-story glass and marble building also known as the Travertine House — overlooked Georgica Pond. Donald Maharam bought the property from Martha Stewart’s daughter, Alexis, in 2004 and had the house demolished the following year to make way for a new home, The New York Times reported at the time. However, when Maharam had bought the house, it was already gutted from a previous renovation Martha Stewart started but never completed.

Bates endorsed any attempt to save and call attention to significant pieces of architecture and pointed to NCModernist, a North Carolina educational nonprofit founded by George Smart to document, preserve and promote modernist architecture. “George has almost single handedly saved many modernist buildings in North Carolina, and elsewhere, and the organization is popular and well known throughout this country,” Bates wrote.

Such an organization on eastern Long Island may have saved the Bunshaft house, he added.

 

Man On A Mission

Godbold’s late father, David, was an architect and he started a conservancy to protect the history of Pickering Brook, a Perth, Australia, suburb.

“My father was always a big advocate for that type of giving back, so I guess it’s in the blood,” Godbold said.

He is filing for nonprofit status and plans to have a membership organization that anyone can join. He wants other designers to get involved, so his name will take a backseat in the effort, he said.

For more information on Timothy Godbold’s initiative, visit hamptons20centurymodern.org.

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