By Christine Sampson
As an interior phase of restoration work begins parallel to the exterior renovations, the progress at 6 Union Street in Sag Harbor, known as the “Morpurgo house,” is turning into a history lesson on its own accord.
In a third-floor bathroom, workers came upon a detail befitting the village’s own origins: A four-foot-long pencil drawing of a whale boat whose crew fights the waves to spear a whale, whose tail breaches the surface of the water just off the ship’s bow.
The unknown artist had sketched it with graceful lines and gentle shading directly onto the cracked, crumbling wallpaper just below a sloped joint connecting the wall to a moldy ceiling. Its very precarious condition prompted Max Breskin, founder of Breskin Development, which acquired the Morpurgo house this summer for just over $2.5 million, to document it in photographs and try enlisting the help of a local museum to somehow preserve it. As best they can tell, it looks to have been drawn around the 1920s — a relatively recent addition in the Federalist-style house’s more than 200-year history.
Then there was the August 25, 1943, copy of the Daily Mirror with the front-page headline “Allies Set for Attack on Japan,” which had been found stuffed into a wall cavity. It was among dozens of newspapers crammed into the walls surrounding the vast network of tiny copper gas pipes thought to be the source feeding the lamps installed in the house before the advent of electricity.
Those are the kinds of details the Breskin Development crew has been finding as it works to restore the house to its former glory.
“No treasure, though,” Rob Walford, the director of the project, joked in an interview. “For the most part, it’s all going according to the original plan. The measurements may be off by a couple of inches. Houses like these are not an exact science.”
The back of the house, which was caving in so severely that the developers could not save it, is currently being reframed, and the interior restoration work has begun — although not on site. Breskin Development has leased a 1,800-square-foot wood shop in Quogue to rescue and refinish, and in some cases recreate, the interior components such as beams, doors and corbels. The shop was formerly home to a cabinetmaker who sold many of his tools to Breskin Development so its crew could hit the ground running.
“The shop gives us the ability to do things in-house,” Mr. Breskin said. “Logistically, getting things on site will be easier. It’s really important to us. If we need to recreate a door, rather than outsourcing it, shipping it somewhere in New England and being subject to their scheduling, we can keep more control. We’re using local carpenters and local painters to get the job done.”
At any one time there are four or five workers in the shop, Mr. Walford said. Each corbel will take six to seven hours of work, and there are “well over 100 of them,” he said, although not all of them are salvageable. He estimated that as many as 30 of them will have to be recreated.
There are about 25 beams culled from the basement, many of which will be usable as decorative elements throughout the house, rather than structural elements, once they have been cleaned and refinished.
As far as the visible renovations go, passersby may have noticed the house spent the better part of the summer lifted several feet in the air as a new foundation was poured. It has now been set down onto that new foundation — “a milestone” in the process, the developers said.
Although Sag Harbor’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review at one point had somewhat mixed feelings over the lifting of the house, the foundation “was so far gone,” Mr. Walford said. “It’s hard to get excited about a bunch of cement, but that was key. It would have been great to leave it on its original foundation, but the new one will ensure the house will be there for another 250 years.”
The stones and boulders they rescued from the original foundation will be repurposed for a retaining wall in the backyard, Mr. Breskin said, noting some of them are quite impressive.
New windows, roofing and historically accurate replacement siding will be arriving soon, but first, the outside of the house will soon be covered in protective sheathing to defend it against the elements.
When completed, the house will be about 4,200 square feet, with an additional 1,500 square feet in the basement. The project also has approval for a pool.
“We’re moving along,” Mr. Walford said. “Ideally the framers will finish, the roofers will finish, and then you won’t see any progress on the exterior of the house until the spring.”