Historic Spaces Reimagined
By Michelle Trauring
When the vinyl came off, Paul Masi couldn’t believe his eyes. There, underneath the panels of plastic, was history.
He could see it, he could touch it and, oddly enough, he could smell it.
In places, and much to his dismay, the cedar exterior of the Sag Harbor Methodist Church was rotting. So, the architect and his team got to work.
With the help of a historian, they painstakingly documented every piece of wood, removing the damaged boards and measuring new ones, and drawing up schematics to include the newly discovered eaves and brackets — helping to ensure this deterioration never happens again, while transforming the sacred space into a residence.
“It was a discovery process — a little bit of architecture, and the other part was archeology,” said the Bates + Masi Architects partner. “What we were doing is taking this church and keeping its character and the influences that created it — meaning the character of Sag Harbor — but infusing a new life into it so it can keep on living and still be an active part of the community.”
The East End is steeped in a tradition of conservation and renovation, while simultaneously juxtaposed against a culture of teardowns and new builds. For the historic homes that do survive, they each have a legacy — one their homeowners are typically proud of, and crave.
“I think old houses have a lot of character and intrinsic charm,” said The Corcoran Group’s Mala Sander, who is representing a turn-of-the-century, $11-million home at 25 Quimby Lane in Bridgehampton, renovated in the 1990s by its current owners and listed for the first time in almost 50 years.
“I think there is a feeling of living in a space that, basically, you’re caretaking, that so many people have been the stewards of for so long, and now it’s your turn to have the stewardship of a beautiful old home and take care of it and restore it and pass it on to the next person as a little piece of history.”
That is what Bob Burns is doing with his own home at 108 Hampton Street in Sag Harbor, which has not left his family since it was built in 1893 by his great grandfather, who first worked for Joseph Fahys & Co, and then Bulova.
“When I go into the house with my kids, it’s the fifth generation of Burns,” he said. “It’s been Burns to Burns to Burns, until now. I have a lot of sentimental attachment to the house, to tell you the truth.”
It’s a modest three-bedroom home, he said, though he doesn’t know the exact square footage — he estimates around 1,700. The schematics aren’t particularly important to him. What matters are the memories he made there, and the ones that come next.
“It should just belong to somebody who will be happy in the house,” he said. “There are 118 years of pinochle games, Thanksgivings, Christmases with a tree up from the Northwest Woods, covered in tinsel. We used to go up there and search around for the best tree, back when we were allowed to do that.
“I would like to see somebody in there who likes living in it like that.”
The home is currently listed for $1.35 million with Simon Harrison, who pointed out that while the house doesn’t date back to the 1700s, the fact that it’s never hit the market is remarkable.
“I think it’s fair to say, a lot of the houses in Sag Harbor are sometimes scrubbed of their really tasty details, but not this one,” he said. “They take out the good stuff and put up paneling, or whatever the flavor of the day happens to be.”
This was certainly the case for the Methodist Church — built in 1835 at 48 Madison Street and, in the 182 years since, sold twice and recently relisted for just under $11 million, though the renovation is still under construction.
When complete, the re-imagined space will include six bedrooms, seven full and three half bathrooms, an indoor spa, gym, home office, media room, library, sleeping loft, pool and garage.
“It’s an exciting building and for us, you’ve got to find the balance because you are converting its use from a church to a residence,” Masi said. “And what makes it so special is it’s a church, but you have to acknowledge that it’s going to be a home. And so how do you keep the dynamics and the excitement of a church, but you also domesticate it so someone can live there?”
The answer lies in how to carve up the spaces. With sacred architecture in particular, volume, scale and quality of life are the top concerns, Masi explained.
“You really can’t have a bedroom with 30-, 40-foot ceilings. You never would really feel comfortable,” he said. “So it was a lot of fun, and when you work on buildings like that, there are a couple different ways you can go, and we asked ourselves that in the beginning. You can go back to a straight, 100-percent restoration, or you find some middle ground, or you can blow away the history.
“Obviously, I think blowing away the history is wrong and, in some ways, I think a straight restoration is wrong,” he continued. “You have to find that middle ground where it’s still relevant today, but you’re not losing what makes it so special and why it’s a historic building in Sag Harbor.”
The church’s most iconic feature is its steeple, and Masi said he was determined to incorporate it into the new design. When he entered the mezzanine to assess the area, he was flabbergasted, he said — and not just because he found signatures of old whaling captains etched into the beams.
“In 1938, because of the hurricane that came through, the steeple fell onto the roof and broke a truss,” he said. “What happened was, from 1938 until now, the Methodist Church closed up the whole mezzanine so you never saw the truss, and they just had some posts sticking underneath it, which was crazy!”
He laughed, and continued, “So what we did, we wanted to repair the truss so we could open up the mezzanine again. We made sure we left the broken wood and just sistered up a piece of steel on it. We were careful to identify what was new and what was old, but that we didn’t erase the history of the church. That was a big part of its history.”
With the truss up and running, Masi opened up the mezzanine, tucking away the bedrooms there. Now, it overlooks the former sanctuary and current living area like a courtyard.
“We cut a slot in the floor to open that up, so you can see into this great lower level that they used as their school, with these wonderful stone walls,” Masi said. “On the roof, we exposed all the trusses and the woodwork, and we cut this slot above it that would filter the light through a very low-profile skylight that you can’t see from the inside or the outside. We connected it all the way, from the ground up through the roof, bringing in the light through the building.”
The church’s transformation could serve as inspiration for the eventual buyer of 30635 Main Road in Cutchogue, which just so happens to be another Methodist church, circa 1927. It is the last of three to sell — this one listed for $899,000 — in an effort to consolidate Methodist congregations on the North Fork by building a new, centrally located church in Southold.
“For the longtime members of the church and community, there are always grief issues surrounding the loss of what it used to be, and yet many of the people inside the church have reconciled that,” explained Rev. Tom McLeod. “Our biggest goal is to make sure the building goes onto an honorable use, whatever that looks like.”
For Masi and the Sag Harbor Methodist Church, it meant creating a hybrid of the old and the new, of traditional and modern, of its history and its future.
“I won’t comment on which ones, but there are several buildings out here that took the wrong path, where they completely eradicate the history of that building and don’t necessarily pay homage to it,” Masi said. “And then I think there are ones that completely restore it, but it just sits empty and is open a couple times a year for people to go into, and it’s just a dead building.
“It’s nice that, here, you have this building that really has strong roots within the community and is a pillar of the community,” he continued. “Like the movie theater sign in Sag Harbor, which is no longer there, it’s an identifiable feature of Sag Harbor, and it defines it, in a way. I think people like that. And I also think it can be really exciting to watch how they evolve.”
Buying a Piece of History
When buying a home that dates back centuries, there is more to it than beams and walls. There is a story, a legacy, a slice of history frozen in time and place.
But these are gems that are quickly fading away.
“On the East End — outside of Sag Harbor, because that’s a hot spot for older homes right now — there are very few homes that still have that existing charm from when they were built,” said Harald Grant of Sotheby’s International Realty. “That’s the unfortunate truth about these older homes today. You walk into some of them where George Washington slept or Benjamin Franklin had dinner, and buyers don’t care. If it doesn’t work, they knock it down.
“We need to hold onto the charming homes we have left,” he continued. “Because many homes that were similar are not here any longer.”
40 Hamilton Street, Sag Harbor — $1.1 million
With original details throughout this circa-1900 home, the two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom, 1,400-square-foot house also features a living room with a fireplace, formal dining room and country kitchen, and is just steps to village life and the local bay beach.
“It was probably built for one of the original Watchcase Factory workers, and it is one of ‘The Twins,’” said listing agent Mala Sander of The Corcoran Group. “There were twin houses built on Hamilton, they were identical twin houses and 36 has been bought and lovingly restored and re-imagined for today’s living. And 40 has the opportunity for somebody to do that.”
49 South Main Street, Southampton — $5.25 million
Harald Grant may have sold this 4,700-square-foot home to its current owner 20 years ago, but its original residents are far beyond his time.
This is artist Fairfield Porter’s family home, built in the 1840s and feels like a step into the past, with its covered wraparound porch to oversized windows that let plenty of light into this seven-bedroom house, Grant said.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the quaint old Southampton houses that still has the old-world feel, if you will. Most people who walk in love the ambiance of the house,” the listing agent said. “And the location is wonderful, you can walk right into the village. The only reason I haven’t sold this is because it needs to be somewhat updated, as much older homes usually do. It needs to have somewhat of a new freshening up, and that can go anywhere from a little to a complete overhaul, depending on who’s buying.”
1201 Noyac Road, Southampton — $1.8 million
For the first time in more than 30 years, this Revolutionary War-era home is back on the market.
Built in 1780 — before the end of the war — as the David Rose house, this six-bedroom, four-bathroom home sits on 1.5 acres on Wooley Pond and has access to two docks. Many of its interior details, including floors, doors, beams and an open hearth, are as original as they get, according to Sotheby’s International Realty listing agent Robert Florio.
“It is increasingly rare to find a home with such authentic historic features, and which incorporates most of what we value in the Hamptons: a timeless setting, waterfront living, large pool and boat docks, and access to local farm stands and restaurants,” he said. “Washington may not have slept here, but it is a fact that some of the Rolling Stones did.”
20 Union Street, Sag Harbor — $14.2 million
George Washington didn’t sleep in one of the six bedrooms at 20 Union Street, either, but President Chester A. Arthur sure did.
Once known as the “Summer White House,” this three-story Victorian mansion recently underwent a complete transformation, emerging as a 5,900-square-foot home that is equal parts modern and historic.
“This gorgeous home — which also has amazing gardens, a garage and private parking — has been beautifully renovated by Steven Gambrel,” according to Michaela Keszler of Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “It’s steeped in history, with significant details remaining, yet it’s also thoroughly modernized. It’s a perfect retreat whether you’re a busy Manhattanite, or a head of state.”
“La Dune” Gin Lane, Southampton — Price undisclosed
It was J.P. Morgan who once said, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” Well, if a buyer is interested in “La Dune” — a sprawling 22-bedroom, 21-bath, 22,000-square-foot manse built in the early 1900s — they’ll have to.
“Regarded by many as the finest oceanfront estate in all of the Hamptons, the iconic ‘La Dune,’ with links to architect Stanford White, offers two extraordinary residences on almost 4 acres, with over 400 feet of bulkhead beach front, gorgeous hedged lawns, two custom Gunite pools, and sunken all-weather tennis on Gin Lane,” according to the Sotheby’s International Realty listing with Harald Grant. “Constructed in the early 1900s, the classic shingle-sided presides over rosa rugosa dunes that slope down to the wide sandy beach.”
264 Main Street, Sag Harbor — $4 million
Sorry, shoppers, this classic Sag Harbor home is currently in contract, but it’s still worth taking a peek inside. The 3,800-square-foot, 6-bedroom Victorian is set to change hands for the first time in 30 years, according to listing agent Mala Sander, who has high hopes for the property.
“It’s going to be restored and become a beautiful Sag Harbor captain’s row mansion,” she said. “I think it’s going to play to the traditional and I think it’s going to be gorgeous. It will be brought up to today’s standard, and there will be renovations, but it will be historical and live on as one of Sag Harbor’s historic homes.”