Habitat:Asymmetrical, Whimsical Masterpiece

Meticulously restored, a 19th-century house has retaken its place in architectural history.
“The project evolved from a simple renovation to really understanding what the house was,” said Marsha Soffer, who oversaw the restoration of the 1891 Charles H. Adams house. Durell Godfrey

    The Charles H. Adams house, a newly restored Queen Anne-style gem on Lee Avenue in East Hampton, is impressive at any distance, but up close the fine craftsmanship is jaw-dropping.
    “It’s what makes the house unique,” Marsha Soffer said. Ms. Soffer oversaw the two-year restoration on behalf of the Fine Greenwald Foundation, a private charitable organization that inherited the house from her  uncle, Martin Fine, in 2008. She is a member of its board.
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    The public will have a chance to visit the house during a cocktail party tomorrow and a house tour on Saturday to benefit the East Hampton Historical Society.
    Many large houses wow at first because of their size, and that’s true of the Adams house, too. Designed by the Carnegie Hall architect William B. Tuthill, it has 10-plus bedrooms and close to as many working fireplaces, an expansive wraparound front porch, a tower at each end, three stories, a porte cochere, and a big modernized kitchen.
    Yet even with all that, a visitor might first notice something more usually commonplace — the glass in the front windows. The double-hung windows in the tower rooms — both the glass and sashes — are actually curved, just as they were when the house was completed in 1891. In one second-story bedroom, triple-hung windows open to become doors onto a private deck. In the entry hall, the windows are leaded glass with round glass bull’s-eyes, the designs having been copied from original blueprints. Ms. Soffer tracked them down in the East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection.
    “I was insistent on restoring the glass,” Ms. Soffer said. “I had the windows shipped to Boston, where they took apart each one. They said not one window was the same size. . . . I did a huge amount of research. On that scale, it was difficult to find someone who could do it and handle it in the appropriate manner.”
    Such attention to detail is evident throughout the house, from the rich millwork of the wood-paneled entry hall to the gliding pocket doors between the hall and the living room on one side of the hall and a wood-paneled family room on the other. It is clear that no shortcuts were taken.
    Ms. Soffer “has done a tremendous job,” Robert Hefner, an East Hampton historic preservation consultant, said.    
    Ms. Soffer’s uncle, one of the first real estate developers in the NoHo section of Manhattan, made few changes to the house in the nearly 30 years he owned it. By the time of his death, it was in need of some serious care. He left no specific instructions about what the foundation was to do with the house, asking only that any proceeds from its sale or rental should support the foundation’s philanthropic efforts.
    The house could have been sold straightaway, Ms. Soffer said, “but the market collapsed in 2008. We could have Saran-wrapped it and just left it, but the decision was made to renovate it and bring it back to its former glory.”
    Charles H. Adams (not to be confused with the late cartoonist Charles Addams of Sagaponack) was a knitwear manufacturer who served as a United States representative and in the New York State Assembly and Senate. He died in 1902, and by 1916 the house was sold out of the Adams family.
    During a tour early this month, Richard Barons, director of the East Hampton Historical Society, said the Queen Anne style, a precursor to the more stripped-down Shingle Style architecture prevalent on the South Fork, developed in England, but got its name in America. It was becoming popular just as “people began to build these great summer cottages.”
    The style broke with the traditional architecture of the 1880s, which tended to be symmetrical, Mr. Barons, who taught architectural history, said. “It rambled and was asymmetrical. It had an interesting informality; it could look grand, but it wasn’t off-putting, it wasn’t a stone castle.” The style developed around the same time as central heating, he said. “Suddenly, you had the freedom to have all these open spaces.”
    Queen Anne houses “had a sense of whimsy — parts of them could look like lighthouses — which made them extremely popular with seaside communities,” Mr. Barons said. “It was a modernist house when it was built; it was a brand-new style.”
    “The project evolved from a simple renovation to really understanding what the house was,” Ms. Soffer said. The house had undergone a major renovation in the 1930s and 1940s, and a large rear addition was built. “They had created, over the years, a kind of rabbit warren of rooms, kind of Alice in Wonderland-like,” she said. There is still something of maze-like quality to the house. One walks in at one level, climbs a flight of stairs, and somehow seems to arrive at a lower level.
    Part of what Ms. Soffer and the foundation grappled with was whether to respect the earlier renovations or to take the house back to its 1891 character. “I originally went to the National Parks Service to get historic designation — it wasn’t completed — but I wanted to follow their guidelines,” she said. In the end, the decision was some of both.
    In the recent work, some of the smaller rooms were opened up and combined with others. Some became closet space for larger bedrooms; others were added to bathrooms. Now, for instance, the master bedroom not only has walk-in closets but spacious his-and-hers bathrooms. Hers is in gleaming white marble with a sleek free-standing tub.
    In almost every room, details of the original house or from its 1930s renovation have been recreated or restored. The fireplace in the master bedroom has a carved wooden mantelpiece decorated with griffons. In the dining room — with everyday seating for 12 — the hand-plastered 1930s molding was restored.
    Important spaces like the entry hall and wood-paneled family room were kept true to 1891 designs, but other rooms were modernized with a deft touch — the kitchen, for example. Its heft and size seem to fit the house’s 19th-century demands, but its openness and conveniences are 21st century.
    The porch, which was falling down in 2008, has been “taken back to what the 1891 drawing had for it,” Ms. Soffer said. “We totally copied off the original blueprints.” The goal was to keep as many of the main beams as possible “because the timber is beautiful.” In general, she said, the old-growth pine timber was more dense than anything that could be found now. 
    A room referred to in the 1890 plans as a smoking room is well worth the climb up three flights of stairs. At the top of one of the towers, it has a domed ceiling that seems to disappear, and amazing acoustics. Before all the trees that have grown up in the past 120 years, it would have been a fabulous place from which to watch the ocean in the distance.
    Back then, “The only way up was by a thin, rickety staircase,” Ms. Soffer said. “There were six to eight bedrooms, basically two girls in each room, eight or nine chambermaids, and the men of the house were going up after dinner to smoke.”
    As grand as the house is, it has a warm feeling. It was made and then remade for family living. “The house, it feels like it loves you back,” she said.