Chronicling a Historic Move From Dunes to Town

Zak Powers new book captures the journey of the new Town Hall buildings from their incarnation on an oceanfront estate on Further Lane in East Hampton, bottom, to their present location. Zak Powers


    It probably seemed so simple at the time. Take some very old buildings with no place to go and put them back into the center of East Hampton at a site visited by thousands of people a year, so visitors and full-time residents could be reminded of the area’s rich history and how the town has been able to incorporate it into modern life.

    This is not the article to rehash all of the complications that ensued when historic buildings from Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter’s Further Lane estate were moved to the East Hampton Town Hall property. Anyone who has lived in the town over the past few years has witnessed the buildings’ move and the much-documented saga of the financial and political issues involved in finally setting them in place and renovating them for municipal use.

    Instead, this is the story of the idea, and how it was chronicled from start to finish by a gifted, insightful, and even whimsical photographer, Zak Powers.

    Mr. Powers’s book, “Further Lane,” with a foreword by Paul Goldberger and an essay by the architect Robert A.M. Stern, who was the consultant on the placement and modifications of the buildings, will be published this summer. In it, he documents the original 18 buildings at the oceanfront property once owned by Ms. de Menil and Mr. Carpenter and their 18-month journey out of the ground and onto trucks, some to be transported to the East Hampton Town headquarters on Pantigo Road. In addition to his photography skills, Mr. Powers brought a background and experience that made him uniquely qualified to participate.

    Although he was born in Washington State, he spent most of his young life in Canada in a place with no roads. It was there his stepfather homesteaded by building his own house and putting it on cedar logs lashed together and moored to the shore while he waited for the land he chose to be granted to him. Once he was allowed to build, the house was rolled on the logs into a clearing and placed.

Zak Powers, on lift, captures the journey of  the new Town Hall buildingsDurell Godfrey
Zak Powers, on lift, captured the journey of the new Town Hall buildings

    The subsistence living extended to fishing for dinner and a barter system for wood, which was milled by hand into planks. As a young adult, Mr. Powers moved back to the United States and took a series of odd jobs including dishwasher, line cook, carpenter, ditch digger, and fish buyer in Alaska.

    For most people, the Further Lane buildings’ antique hardware and hand-hewn beams would seem extraordinary, but where he grew up, builders were still using mortise-and-tenon joinery. There was much that was familiar to him in the building style, even as he admired it anew in comparison to the concrete canyons he presently found himself living in in New York City.

    “When watching this process, I spent the entire day in silence watching other people work. It was then I realized I wasn’t working anymore,” he said.

    He had always envisioned an artistic life and wasn’t too popular on work sites when he walked around barefoot and singing. “I really wanted to stop doing 12 hours a day in the hot sun and making enough money just to fill my car. I felt so fortunate to have made it to the other side of physical labor.”

    While some people watching the buildings’ move and renovation unfold might have grown bored with the slow, seemingly unvaried process, Mr. Powers said he was happy to sit and watch the branches move back and forth in the wind. At some point, “the light would flash on the side of the houses and I’d get really excited and take pictures for two to three hours and when that passed, I felt spent. But I didn’t have to discuss it with anybody.”

    He would stay in East Hampton for a number of days and then return to the city to be with his family. His existence out east “was like going to a monastery, doing things in silence, but not alone.” When he was not photographing he would stare at the trees or the breaking waves. “It was like a meditative respite.”

    It wasn’t just the buildings that were uprooted, but a large foundation that was also destroyed. “Adelaide had a theater underground with seating for 100 people.” Occasionally, guests would be escorted down a hall to a coded special door and then another coded door, leading to a room full of Picasso and Monet paintings.

    Upstairs, the couple’s Shaker furniture collection and antiquities gave the classic lines of the buildings a further timeless elegance. “A priceless Egyptian artifact would be used to hold a cupboard door shut.” If someone touched or moved an object, Ms. de Menil “wouldn’t care, but a guest, most likely an expert, would say ‘be careful, that’s some fourth-century thing.’ ” All of her possessions were special, “but she liked to use her stuff. She bought the houses to save them, and she put them on the beach and used them.”

    The houses and barns were collected from properties all over the South Fork and “placed on the landscape with the precision and care of sculptures in a park,” Mr. Goldberger said in his book introduction. “They turned these small, exquisitely gentle houses into discreet pavilions, furnished with a minimalist sensibility, each connecting in its own way to the magnificent landscape beside the dunes. The houses bespoke simplicity, and precision, with a quiet strength that managed to make a vast oceanfront estate seem like a place of understatement.” The couple lived there for some 40 years.

    Initially, Ms. de Menil hired Mr. Powers to chronicle the process for her own use. They became acquainted when Mr. Powers and his wife were brought to dinner as guests of a guest. “We were invited back subsequently and stayed a few times at one of their 18 houses. They liked us and liked to have artists as guests.” He recalled hearing stories of Alan Lomax, the ethnomusicologist, singing at the fireplace and of visits by I.M. Pei and Chuck Close. “If you have a billion dollars, an artistic bent, and 18 houses, you can’t help having a busy social calendar,” he said.

    Gradually, he began to see the project as something more. He was concerned, however, that his change from black-and-white film to color digital photography would not work in a book. He consulted with Stuart Smith, a book designer whose work he respected, who said it could be done. With 500 images placed on the floor, “we came up with a flow . . . and when we found the flow, I wanted the book.” The concept still seemed like a long shot: “There were some houses and they moved at a quarter-mile an hour — not exciting.”

    Plus, he felt it was a dying form. “I love reading books, fiction, photography books, but I think it’s over.” This assumption, however, made him more determined, in that it was likely his last chance to do a photography book. “Something I could tell my grandchildren about or something I could pass to them.”

    Mr. Goldberger also found the change in mediums to be appropriate. The black-and-white photos signal that “the past life of the houses is now to be seen only in the softer, grayer tones of memory, and that it is the new, public life of the houses that is the real thing. Color in these photographs represents reality, and the future.”