Laid Back in Westhampton: The Beach Resort Has Returned to Its Family Roots

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The Beach Bakery Grand Cafe on Main Street in Westhampton Beach. Michael Heller photos

As the sun dipped below the horizon, an offhand comment quashed Allegra Dioguardi’s moment of peace.

“Oh, it’s so great to get out of the Hamptons,” a woman had remarked to her group of friends during a networking event at Dockers Waterside Marina & Restaurant in East Quogue. The locals glanced around at each other and rolled their eyes in unison.

The actual gateway to the Hamptons was another 5 miles west.

Incorporated in 1928 as a family-oriented resort community — and having survived a brief late-night summertime scene 50 years later — the Westhampton Beach Village of today has found its way back to its roots, catering to a more traditional and laid-back crowd.

Ocean and bay access, summer markets and festivals, mom-and-pop shops, and world-class entertainment have all fanned the village’s real estate flames, drawing more interested agencies and speculative buyers annually — calling for a long-overdue infrastructural overhaul through two large municipal projects, poised to enhance the face and operation of Main Street.

“Change is difficult for people, and I think we have to embrace it. We do need to grow,” said Dioguardi, a local businesswoman and Architectural Review Board member. “I will tell you, some people here in Westhampton Beach feel like the Hamptons’ stepchild. We’ve had people say, ‘This is not the Hamptons.’ We think it is.”

The exterior of the Westhampton Beach Historical Society in Westhampton Beach.

A History That Rivals Southampton

After settling Southampton in 1640, it didn’t take long for the English colonists to see the value in western real estate, too, and conflicting ownership claims ran rampant.

The land — which now includes Westhampton Beach Village and unincorporated Westhampton — was awarded to Southampton Town in 1666, with the Shinnecock Indians paid 70 British pounds, plus a few trinkets, for turning over the area, historians say.

The first church would come in 1742, followed by the first school in 1795, and the land remained a community of farmers, fishermen and craftspeople for nearly 150 years. In the 1870s, the railroad arrived — and with it, a tide of summer visitors, including Meredith Murray’s great-grandparents.

Her earliest memories of the East End begin in 1950, a quarter century after her grandfather, Judge Harold Medina, purchased a 48-acre hayfield on Apaucuck Point, where he built a family compound not far from the village. Their days were filled with playing on the beach, sailing and swimming, Murray, a licensed associate broker and author, said, their instructor shooing away the jellyfish.

“It was a nice country scene. It didn’t feel like a resort. It felt like a hometown,” she said. “And we used to say: the social register people and the Fords went to Southampton, and the artists and the bohemians went out to East Hampton, but Westhampton was the family place.”

Buzzing with foot traffic year-round, Westhampton Beach was home to Overton’s, and Schwartz’s and Brown’s, then Sexton’s, Department Stores, as well as Gloria’s, which is now the Beach Bakery Grand Café.

“That’s where everybody went for their newspapers, their candy and their cigarettes. You bought all your toys and jigsaw puzzles, and she had sodas,” Murray recalled. “She was a very grumpy-looking woman who had a golden heart underneath. Every child to her was a suspected shoplifter. She would not let you out of her sight. No, no, you could not go look for a birthday present back in the racks. She would find you something.”

Everybody knew everybody, she said. The community was ecumenical and amicable — socially, economically and professionally diverse — gathering for holidays and festivities, including the fireworks Medina hosted from 1951 to 1976.

“Everybody in the village came over to his property on Apaucuck Point and sat on their picnic blankets with their picnics and watched what my grandfather called ‘The Firemen,’ who put up two or three poles with standing firework displays, and then they’d shoot one thing up at a time,” Murray said. “It would go ‘Bang!’ with one little puff, and we’d all clap like mad. The Firemen turned out to be the Gruccis, but we didn’t know of the Gruccis at that time. They weren’t famous.”

She paused.

“The boats would gather in the cove and it was very much a little village thing, until the last couple of years when people from other towns came and there was garbage everywhere — where, for 23 years, there hadn’t been,” she continued. “And then the houses were broken into during the winter.”

The late 1970s marked a turning point, she explained, and one that saw the rise and fall of Club Marakesh.

Life along the canal in Westhampton Beach.

A Changing Scene

Joining a wave of burgeoning nightclubs across Long Island, Westhampton Beach was home to the crown jewel of them all: Club Marakesh. Partiers, playboys and sharehousers pushed out the families, transforming the relaxed beach town into an all-night rage.

Until the party stopped.

In May 1996, the near-fatal beating of Shane Daniels in a parking lot across from the nightclub abruptly ended its 20-year run as the heartbeat of downtown Westhampton Beach — a village divided by disgruntled partygoers and those who happily waved them goodbye, explained Ralph Urban, deputy mayor and village trustee.

“Now it’s evolved to a more quiet community,” explained Urban, who has lived in the village for over 50 years. “Those things have moved on to elsewhere, I guess. For some of us old folks, that’s a welcome thing. I think Montauk is receiving the brunt of that kind of activity now, especially in the summer.”

While the clubbers made their exit — or simply moved further east — the families promptly reclaimed the village as their own.

“It’s not a wild party town anymore, at all,” Dioguardi said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s no sharehouses anymore; they don’t allow that. And the fact that the school district is so great, it’s attracted families.”

Two decades ago, Westhampton Beach caught the eye of Maria Cunneen, a South Shore Long Island native who raised her children in a small bayside community and craved a similar environment further east, she said.  She became the first Compass real estate broker to travel west of the Shinnecock Canal, she said, helping the agency open its first Westhampton Beach office in October 2018.

“To me, it’s almost like the ‘Norman Rockwell Hampton.’ There’s no airs about it; it’s an escape, whereas there’s a showy part of the Hamptons — Southampton, East Hampton,” she said. “Even Sag Harbor is a lot like Westhampton Beach, especially with the village going through such a change right now, with the whole revival of Main Street.”

Dining at the Post Stop Cafe on Main Street.

Village Finds Its Way

With an extended season — starting well before Memorial Day with the weekly farmers market and reaching far into the fall with harvest festivals and Halloween festivities — the village real estate market is booming, drawing new real estate companies to set up shop on Main Street, and to mixed reactions.

“Well, they’ve got nice buildings,” said Robert Murray with a laugh. He is one-third of Corcoran’s Murray Team, which includes his wife, Meredith, and their daughter, Amanda. “I think that the fact there’s real estate stores up and down the village is an indication of the deterioration of the retail market.

“People don’t walk in off the street anymore like they used to and say, ‘Well, what’s for rent and what’s for sale?’ They go on the internet and find all that out. So I really don’t understand why any of them need the ground-floor storefront,” he continued. “And that’s talking as a realtor! And I’m an independent agent. My boss, corporate, would probably say, ‘What are you talking about?’ But I’m thinking of it as a resident of the area and saying, ‘I want my retail stores back, I want my bookstore back.’”

With Saunders & Associates setting up shop on Sunset Avenue, right on the heels of Compass, Cunneen points to a rapidly increasing recognition of value located west of the canal — similarly to the village’s first English settlers.

“You’re going to see a big change in Westhampton Beach within a five-year window,” she said. “There’s a lot of change going on now, setting the pace, and it will get a lot more popular. I do have buyers who are coming in from east of the canal that are selling east and coming into the west. It’s the same ocean, the same beaches, and you get a lot more bang for your buck.”

Though it is hard to find, the under $1 million market is hot and in demand, according to Aimee Fitzpatrick Martin, licensed associate real estate broker with Saunders & Associates, though her top-tier listings stretch into the $4 million to $6 million range.

“When I go to our office meetings in Bridgehampton, Southampton and East Hampton to talk up these listings, our ‘out east’ agents see these listings and say, ‘How much is it?’ Their ‘out east’ buyers are now wanting to explore Westhampton Beach, Quogue, Hampton Bays, East Quogue. Those brokers are now crossing the canal to show houses.”

The middle market — from $1 million to $2.5 million — is active, with a lot of lookers, Murray said, but the $3 million to $6 million upper echelons are borderline dead.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” he said. “The prices went up, I’d say, 10 years ago. You weren’t looking at houses that were overpriced and in the $3 million and up category. As the prices went up, the inventory grew and the selling, basically — I hate to say it — slowed down. You can only sell so many houses over $3 million.

The park gazebo off Main Street in Westhampton Beach.

“Waterfront, though, is obviously the driving force in Westhampton, and any town or village out here,” he added. “I’m not really talking about Dune Road, where all the higher-priced homes, waterfront homes, are selling, but also the bays. The waterfront is where the money is.”

Protecting those waters is a top priority among village officials, according to Urban, who helped spearhead two large projects prompted by septic system and stormwater runoff pollution in Moniebogue Bay and its associated watershed.

Last month, crews broke ground on the $1.2-million initial phase of the Main Street reconstruction project, which seeks to repair a crumbling stormwater drainage system. By Memorial Day weekend, they will finish the installation of two hydrodynamic separators underneath the parking lot behind 103 and 105 Main Street, and a new underground brick culvert to drain stormwater from the village to Moniebogue Bay, covered in full by the Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund.

Following a brief pause this summer, the primary portion of the project will move forward in September, which will involve the removal of asphalt and concrete roads, and 100-year-old clay stormwater drains cracked by tree roots and sheer age, Urban said.

Utilities and a new water line will run underground or behind the stores, and two traffic circles will be added. The sidewalks will be widened and re-installed with permeable pavers; parking will increase by 16 percent; and Main Street will be re-landscaped, with a projected completion by Memorial Day 2020.

“There’s no question it’s going to be a disruption and an inconvenience. But long term, it’s well worth it,” explained Urban, who estimates the final cost will be upwards of $9 million. “The Main Street project, I see as almost an emergency. We’re in danger of having collapses in the near future — not imminent, but it’s in the near future. To avoid that, we don’t have much choice, and because those are pretty significant disruptions by themselves, we might as well do it all and get it done the right way.”

Sometime next year, the second project will begin: the $16.7-million sewer district project, which will connect sewer lines in some areas of the village to an existing Suffolk County sewage treatment plant at Francis S. Gabreski Airport.

“This project is something that has been talked about for decades in the village,” Fitzpatrick Martin said. “It will enable more restaurants to come to the village, which is greatly needed.”

With a $5-million grant from the New York State DEC in place — and hopefully more grant money to come, Urban said — phase one will tie 68 commercial properties and 88 residences to the treatment plant 2.6 miles away, allowing 60,000 gallons of water to flow through the new pipe daily.

Phase two will connect the area surrounding Main Street, north to the roundabout at Hampton Arts Cinema, and phase three will connect a swath along Old Riverhead Road and Montauk Highway — totaling nearly 400 commercial and residential properties, with over 2,000 upgraded on-site septic systems installed during phase four.

Estimated completion is no earlier than 2022, Urban said, if the sewer district project starts on the heels of the Main Street project, to which some local residents and businesses are voicing short-term aesthetic concerns.

“Two years from now, it will be gorgeous — all of it,” Urban said. “And the bays will benefit tremendously. We need everybody to be patient and to work together, and it’s gonna be great in the end. If we work together, it will be a great improvement.”

At the annual Arts & Crafts Fair in Westhampton Beach lat summer.

Art in the Open Air

At first, the artists came slowly, meeting on Main Street in Westhampton Beach with their paints, easels and canvases in the late 1930s. Together, they set up shop, sharing their work and ideas for just one weekend in August.
Without knowing it, they had started a tradition, one that lives on today as the 47thannual Mary O. Fritchie Outdoor Juried Fine Art Show, to be held Saturday and Sunday, August 3 and 4, on the Westhampton Beach Village Green.

Every year, thousands of visitors come to view work by more than 65 artists, from oils, acrylics, pastels and watercolors to mixed media, sculpture and photography. Each collection has passed through a stringent, competitive jury process — increasingly escalating the caliber of the art show and cementing it as one of the most respected in the Northeast.

What began as an informal affair finally gained steam in the early 1950s, as more and more talent flocked to the beachfront village for the summertime ritual. Smock-clad painters smeared in acrylics and watercolors dotted Main Street, working alongside artists fervently etching in pencil and ink.

Needing a bit of structure, community members and business leaders formally organized the artists and promoted the gathering as a weeklong event, until Mary Ocame Fritchie stepped in. The first-ever art show director turned to the Greater Westhampton Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1960s and asked for assistance, as the outdoor show had grown to more than 40 artists.

After a decade of leading the way, she passed the torch in 1972 to the Chamber’s board of directors, which promptly renamed the summertime fixture “The Mary O. Fritchie Outdoor Juried Fine Art Show” in her honor. Although many recognize nearly 75 years of organized art in Westhampton Beach, the 1972 date stands in commemorating the annual event.

By the mid-1980s, the juried art show outgrew Main Street and moved to the Westhampton Beach Village Green and Gazebo with over 80 artists, where it remains today, as well as a portion of Mill Road between Main and Church Streets.

Soon after, the chamber directors developed an annual summer poster contest, inviting local artists to submit their work as a way to simultaneously promote themselves and commemorate the art show, which will be held this year from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and until 5 p.m. on Sunday, rain or shine.

This year’s summer posters will be available for $35 by Memorial Day weekend and nearly all past commemorative posters can be purchased at the Greater Westhampton Chamber of Commerce office, located at 7 Glovers Lane in Westhampton Beach.

Additionally, the executive board of directors established an annual $1,000 scholarship to a graduating senior of Westhampton Beach High School who excels in fine art and intends to major in art or art education at a four-year college or university. For more information, call (631) 288-3337 or visit westhamptonchamber.org.

The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Main Street.

The Lively Arts

Gram Slaton

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Gram Slaton was coming down from an adrenaline high, one most executives know well, made possible only by a near disaster.

In the case of Mr. Slaton — the newest executive director helming the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, by way of the Grand Opera House in Macon, Georgia — it was a scheduling snafu at the heart of the iconic venue’s summer season.

Despite its quick resolution, the mix-up was startling nonetheless, he said.

“I’m okay now,” he said with a laugh. “Had a little heart attack here, but it worked out. I’m trying to calm down.”

In between deep breaths, Mr. Slaton gave the The Expressa peek inside the inner-workings of the Memorial Day to Labor Day lineup, his vision for the performing arts center, and the acts he’s already eyeing for front-row seats.

Sag Harbor Express: Your one-year anniversary is coming up on July 16.

Gram Slaton: If I live that long.

Outside of this hiccup, how are you feeling about it?

I’m feeling pretty good about it. We’re dealing with changing an entire profile for the organization, and that is always a tough thing to navigate. It’s like trying to put a 747 in a slow roll. So you just have to do it slowly and carefully, and hope that you bring most of your passengers with you. We think we’ve got a pretty good season that embraces a lot of what made us a success in the first 20 years, as well as some new names and new directions that are going to help transition people to the next 20 years.

Before we get into the summer season, when did you first discover your passion for the arts?

I don’t know what age that was, but it was single digits. It may have been first grade, when I had to play Santa Claus sleeping on the corner of the stage. It was something about Santa Claus went into a coma and Mrs. Claus had to deliver all the Christmas presents. I had no lines. I was just in a coma on the side of the stage. But apparently it was enough! I was able to remember all my lines — that was the important part — and my blocking.

How did you move from sleeping Santa to where you are now?

I was always torn between writing and performing. I wished I’d had the talent to be a musician — I was a fairly decent vocalist, but I couldn’t play anything worth a hoot. So I was always torn between being a famous writer or being a famous performer. This allows me to do both, because I get to engage the creative side of my brain, in putting together a season, and the arts side of my brain, in actually presenting it and enjoying the performers that are here. And since my whole generation of musicians is dead by now — because they did way too many drugs — I came out on the right side of it.

What ultimately attracted you to the executive director position at the PAC?

I’ve been a New Yorker twice before. I lived in the city for three years, and I lived in the Capital Region for three and a half years. I ping-ponged around Pennsylvania, Colorado, back to my hometown in Virginia, and then down to Georgia. This came up and it was what I was familiar with. This is so similar to what I was doing in Aspen, except so much warmer. It’s a small venue in a very high-expectation resort community, and there’s not a lot of people who have that as an experience under their belt, so I felt like I had an edge.

Coming in, what was your vision for the PAC?

It was a great facility with a great staff that needed to enter the 21stcentury. We’d been doing business pretty much exactly as we had been when the venue opened in 1998, and the whole ethos was driven toward that initial audience, instead of growing and changing with the times.

My vision was, ‘Let’s find the things we have in our wheelhouse that we haven’t fully developed and see if we can broaden and deepen our appeal in the community.’ We’ve been working with the community a lot more over the winter. We’ve expanded our audience services, concentrating on making the venue available for rental, as well as expanding our bar service, and I really think the future of the organization is tied to expanding the Arts Academy and making it a real cradle-to-grave experience for people. You’re never too old to learn, you’re never too have fun and they do a tremendous job. It’s the best arts academy I’ve worked with in any of my stops, and they’re ready for the challenge.

That was my agenda coming in: Just get it to the next phase and then bring the next generation in.

How does that translate to this summer’s programming?

I have seen executive directors make the mistake of coming into a venue and saying, ‘I want to put my stamp on this immediately,’ and book an entire season of things that are completely different than have been there before. The audience you’re hoping is going to find it can’t find it because you’ve never been on their radar, and the audience you’ve faithfully had is alienated and goes away.

That’s why I’ve thought it’s been important to slowly mix in the new, while keeping a lot of what’s been tremendously successful in the past, and we’re just doing a lot more. We’re doing about 25 percent more shows this summer than we did last. There’s no point in not being busy. We’ve got about 14 weeks to make our entire year out here — just as Tracy [Mitchell] does at Bay Street and Andrea [Grover] does at Guild Hall. We’re all trying to make sure we can thrive together.

We’re really happy to be part of the whole East End arts community now. I think we were a world apart for a long time, but I feel like we’re very in sync and working collaboratively with Guild Hall and Bay Street, and that all feels really, really good. I think there’s a lot more strength in us working together than being these little separate fiefdoms out here on the island.

How would you describe the upcoming summer season?

It’s a really good mix of comedy, music, a few large splashy things in there. Busy is the word I would use to describe it. If you don’t like what’s on Friday, come on Saturday. It’ll be something completely different.

DIRECTOR’S PICKS: 

Friday, July 5: The Allman Betts Band, 8 p.m.

Original concoction of Southern Rock, descended from The Allman Brothers.

“I had them in my venue in Macon, Georgia, which was the home of The Allman Brothers, so I feel like these are all cousins of mine, anyway. You’ve got four kids from four of the six original members, all in one building at one time, it’s pretty cool. And it will be a great rocking night.”

Sunday, August 4: Postmodern Jukebox, 8 p.m.

Contemporary pop meets big-band swing meets sultry jazz.

“We did this last year in Georgia and I was completely blown away. This is big, splashy, 1940s big band, but doing contemporary music as very hot jazz. The audience was on their feet from the first number and 90 minutes later, everybody left the theater on a cloud. To try to fit them into this venue, with 425 people, is gonna be one of the biggest energy explosions ever.”

Sunday, August 11: Ms. Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton, 8 p.m.

“20 Feet From Stardom” standout blazes her own path. 

“She’s toured with the Rolling Stones for 25 years, she’s just an amazing performer and she’s finally gone out on her own after about 25 years. Personally, I cannot wait to see what she does as a solo act on stage, because if you saw that movie, you know how hungry she is for letting the world know what a fantastic vocal instrument she has.”

Saturday, August 17: The Sam Bush Band, 8 p.m.

Decorated Bluegrass performer leads rollicking quartet through Appalachian hollers to dizzied-up rock standards. 

“Sam’s actually an old friend of mine. Back in my Aspen days, I produced a songwriter festival with John Oates, and we did that for three years. And every year, Sam would come out and be our utility player. He and John played with everybody, and that’s what made that festival special. You were seeing something totally unique, and they were totally into it, and there’s no more fun than Sam Bush on stage. I always enjoy seeing Sam, personally and professionally.”

Friday, August 30: Christopher Titus, 8 p.m.

The inheritor to George Carlin’s throne.

“He puts together the smartest, most savage comedy. He leaves nobody standing by the end, just like Carlin did. He’s just an absolute genius. He’s not out there doing airport jokes and eighth-grade locker room humor jokes. He’s gonna be out there really saying, ‘Look at the mess we’ve made of the world and I’m gonna tell you about it from my personal experience,’ and then you go on this ride with him. You walk out of there thinking, for the next week, about everything he just put on the stage.”

Kids Style: It’s All About Tie-Dye

What’s old is new again — and in the case of summer fashion, it’s all about tie-dye.

While the trend has long prevailed on the East End, Westhampton Beach retailer Elyse Richman says the colorful swirls have reached a new level, and plans to stock both her Main Street shops — Shock and Baby Shock — with tie-dye for the family.

“Tie-dye is big for women and kids. I see the trend. They’re showing a lot of tie-dye in t-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants and casual wear,” she said. “It’s a beachy look. We’ve always carried tie-dye, but it’s more in-fashion this summer.”

A symbol of individualism — no one piece is ever the same twice — tie-dye actually began as early as the sixth century, within various cultures across Africa, Asia and the Americas that primitively dyed textiles.

Thousands of years later, musicians defined 1960s counterculture style with tie-dye, the bold statement pieces spilling over into 1970s flower power and living on the fringes of disco, before rising up again in the 1980s and ’90s as a teenage fashion icon.

But up until quite recently, tie-dye was dead, reserved for souvenir sweatshirts and the occasional bandana. Then, Beyoncé wore an $860 MSGM tie-dye and floral dress in Lake Como, Italy, this past summer — three months after Justin Bieber wore a tie-dye hoodie to church.

New York Fashion Week cemented tie-dye’s color-packed resurgence, with top designers Prada, Proenza Schouler, Stella McCartney and R13 unleashing it on the catwalk — R13 founder Chris Leba paying homage to his childhood summers spent in Montauk with his new, heavily tie-dyed collection.

That said, haute couture tie-dye barely resembles the DIY look of elementary school arts and crafts. But there is an in-between, according to Ms. Richman. For mom and daughter, she recommends a jumpsuit or romper from So Nikki, a clothing line that specializes in tie-dye and garment dying. Each runs $48, she said.

“For the mom, a jumpsuit could take you all day, any day,” she said. “Pull it on and run out to the beach, or throw on a cute belt and a different pair of shoes, and you go out to dinner. And for the kids, you’re keeping it easy with one-piece dressing. We have really cute rompers, from dressy to casual. Things are just now coming in for summer.”

Shock and Baby Shock/Shock Kids are located at 115 and 99 Main Street, respectively, in Westhampton Beach.

A Brewery for Westhampton To Call Its Own

The motto at Westhampton Beach Brewing Co. is “Every day’s a beach a day.” The relatively-new brewery was founded in 2016 but opened its new tasting room just last summer in the in the business park near Francis S. Gabreski Airport with a handful of beers on tap. This spring the company is offering eight different beers including everything from an IPA to an Irish cream stout. Here are a few favorites for summer.

Irish Eyes Cream Stout8.86% ABV (alcohol by volume)                            

A sweet “milk” stout, black in color, made with lactose (an un-fermentable sugar) that adds both body and sweetness. The chocolate malt (named so for color, not flavor) gives a roasted texture that helps balance the sweetness. Inspired by the “Irish Car Bomb shot” without the mess, it is a delicious blend of classic stout and the flavor of Irish cream.

Hurricane IPA7.06% ABV

Sunset in color, full bodied and generously hopped with Simcoe, Amarillo, Eskaton and El Dorado hops. This blend will hit your taste buds like a storm making landfall. Citrus, tropical fruit, melon and stone fruit notes are all to be found. Each sip will be a whirlwind. 

Westhampton Beach Blonde4.46% ABV                                                      

Gold in color, this beer has citrusy finish due to the sweet orange peel added during the brewing process. This brew contains about 15% wheat, which imparts a smoothness to the mouth feel. Great for a hot summer day.

Jetty 4 Lager 5.8% ABV                                                                                       

A hybrid of sorts, Jetty 4 is a Vienna style lager derived from German malt and hopped with American cascade hops (Pacific Northwest). Slightly hazy, and medium-amber in color, this “pale lager” is smooth with a slightly dry finish.

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