Those overseeing the intricate restoration of the Thomas and Mary Nimmo Moran Studio on East Hampton Village’s historic Main Street knew they had their work cut out for them.
Vines had penetrated and were climbing the interior plaster walls of the three-story Queen Anne-style building that was constructed in 1884 by Mr. Moran — the artist and conservationist whose paintings of the expansive American landscape helped spur the creation of the National Parks Service — to serve as his studio and East End home.
Water would gush through gaping holes in the roof every time it rained, and Hurricane Sandy’s intense winds actually pushed the building off its foundation in 2012, causing the structure’s signature turret to sink at least 5 inches, cracking all the plaster ceilings within.
“It was pretty clear that even though it was in a historic district, and a national historic landmark, a lawyer could have made a case to tear it down … not restore it so it could live on,” said Richard Barons, senior curator of the East Hampton Historical Society and director of the Thomas Moran Trust since 2013, recalling one of his first inspections of the long-neglected artist’s studio.
Unlike inexperienced restorers who are surprised when unforeseen issues threaten to derail a project, Mr. Barons and his fellow stewards prepared themselves for the worst, originally estimating that the massive undertaking could easily surpass $7 million. It turns out that their conservative budgeting, as well as the unexpected benefit of donated and discounted services courtesy of local contractors and companies, resulted in a pleasant surprise five years later: a nearly completely restored studio for less than $5 million.
That investment will be on full display during the opening celebration of the refurbished artist’s studio on the evening of Friday, July 6, which also marks the unveiling of the Moran Studio Exhibition.
The main studio that dominates the first floor of the house that Mr. Moran built will serve as the main exhibit space moving forward, first introducing attendees to the lives and artworks of both him and his wife, an internationally known etcher and artist in her own right. The exhibition will feature a mix of original artworks, including those on loan from other institutions, such as the East Hampton Library and Guild Hall, the latter of which had inherited the studio before handing over ownership to the Thomas Moran Trust, a newer non-profit entrusted to fund and oversee the restoration.
Family artifacts, photographs and other original creations will also be featured as part of the exhibit. Visitors will have access to touch-screen computer displays that will share the rich history of the Morans who, according to Mr. Barons, typically spent five to six months each year on the East End.
In fact, a significant portion of the exhibit will focus on the couple and their close relationship with East Hampton and its inhabitants; many view the Morans as the founders of the East End’s summer artist colony.
A special exhibit, titled “Acid & Ink: The Etchings of Thomas & Mary Nimmo Moran,” will adorn the walls of the interior balcony that overlooks the main studio as part of the opening display. That exhibit will feature more than 50 original prints of the places that inspired the Morans, from East Hampton’s Hook Pond to the Rocky Mountains, as well as printing plates.
An assortment of educational events, including tours of the Victorian gardens surrounding the restored studio and given by the Garden Club of East Hampton, will also be offered during the opening celebration. In addition to being a respected artist, Ms. Moran was an avid gardener.
“I think the whole experience is going to be immersive,” said Maria Vann, who came aboard as executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society in February. “The sense of place is so important for visitors going to a historic site.”
She explained that she is now laying the groundwork for a future National Parks exhibit that will feature an assortment of paintings created by Mr. Moran. She said the plan is to secure the loaning of several of his most famous creations—though nothing has been finalized yet. “Some of their things will be coming back [to East Hampton],” she added.
The studio itself is also quite the accomplishment. Mr. Barons estimates that 75 percent of the building’s roughly 60 window sashes are originals, noting that it took five months to restore them. Crews were able to save the original chimney after initially thinking it would need to come down. “It’s a spectacular chimney with a Victorian design,” Mr. Barons said, “so it would have been a costly thing to reconstruct.”
He estimated that the studio is about 85 percent complete, with certain tasks requiring more attention than others. For example, stewards had trouble finding the right person to reproduce the Indian fabric overprinted with copper paint that once lined the studio’s walls and would glisten when the sun sets. Mr. Barons said they only recently located a specialist in New Jersey who should be able to reproduce and install the fabric, possibly later this year.
“I think that next year people will see the house the way we pretty much intended it to look when we were finished,” said Mr. Barons, who served as director of the East Hampton Historical Society for a dozen years prior to retiring in 2017.
Even though she grew up in Port Jefferson Station and is familiar with Mr. Moran’s influences and paintings, Ms. Vann says she was unaware of the studio her group is now entrusted to care for until she accepted her current position.
“I think a lot of people don’t know either and they’ll be excited to come and visit,” she said. “It’s an exciting time.”
Tickets to the opening celebration on July 6 are $150 each and can be purchased by calling (631) 324-6850, ext. 1, or visiting the East Hampton Historical Society website, www.easthamptonhistory.org, and clicking on the Events section. All proceeds will support ongoing educational programming and exhibits.