Even if you can’t put a name to the Montauk Association houses, also known as the Seven Sisters, you have probably seen and admired them from afar while driving away from the Montauk Light. Look southwest from the highway and you see a collection of just-right-size Shingle Style cottages, each set on a little rise in the moorlands, surrounded by acres and acres of wild woods and tangled underbrush ending at the bluffs.
If the view of the houses is impressive, the view from them is staggering. Originally built in the early 1880s for the real estate developer Arthur Benson, who once owned most of Montauk, all seven were designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White and sited by Frederick Law Olmsted to take advantage of cooling summer breezes and fabulous ocean vistas. (Olmsted was the landscape architect responsible for Prospect Park and Central Park.)
From Roberta Gosman Donovan’s second-story porch, there is a near 300-degree view of the ocean, a panorama that seems somehow to defy geography, until you take a closer look at a map and notice how the land around the association houses bumps out a little into the sea.
“They knew how to place a house,” Ms. Gosman Donovan said earlier this month, while taking in the view with a visitor. Her description of the place the first time she saw it could almost have described it two weeks ago.
“It was a beautiful, sunny day. The water was glistening like diamonds. There was a two-masted schooner on the horizon.” It was 1981, and she had driven up the gravel road to see the house for herself after learning that it was for sale. John Keeshan, a Montauk real estate man, was there, showing it to someone else. When she told him she’d like to take a look sometime, too, “he said, ‘What’s wrong with right now?’ ”
The bones of the house were excellent, but it was covered in blue tar-paper shingles and painted blue and white, all the wonderful, original woodwork inside was painted dark brown, even the floors around the rugs were painted, and it had false beams on the living room ceiling. “I just saw underneath all the crap,” Ms. Gosman Donovan said. “I had to have it.”
She ended up the loser in a three-way bidding war. When the previous owner stopped in to Gosman’s, the family restaurant, to tell her he had sold it to the model Carol Alt, “I got a pain in my chest,” Ms. Gosman Donovan said.
A few days later, though, the deal fell through, and she bought it. “Then I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do with this house?’ I had to get it in shape to live in it.” She rented it to Bianca Jagger in the years before she began the restoration.
Ms. Gosman Donovan is the fourth owner of the house, which was built for William L. Andrews, an author, bibliophile, and founder of the Grolier Club in Manhattan. His neighbors, along with Benson, were Benson’s friends: the businessmen Henry Sanger and Alfred M. Hoyt, Alexander E. Orr, a merchant and financier whose house is now known as Tick Hall, the brothers Robert Weeks de Forest and Henry de Forest, who were lawyers, and Cornelius R. Agnew, an ophthalmologist.
Footpaths connected the houses to each other and to a clubhouse, which was a few hundred yards from the Andrews house. It had a dining room, ample kitchen facilities, and bedrooms for staff. It burned down in 1933 and was never rebuilt.
The Seven Sisters are on the National and State Registers of Historic Places and in East Hampton Town’s designated Montauk Historic District, which Ms. Gosman Donovan pushed for. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing for The New York Times in 1994, called them “one of the most remarkable architectural assemblages on the East Coast.” They are “almost modest,” Mr. Goldberger wrote — Ms. Gosman Donovan’s house has just four bedrooms — “but they are one of the few examples of planning, as opposed to pure architecture, in any American summer resort.”
The houses were hardly as grand as some of the Shingle Style cottages in East Hampton or those that McKim, Mead, and White were known for elsewhere. Alastair Gordon, an architecture critic writing for The Star in 1985, said they “seem to have been dry runs for the firm’s more developed structures — as if each were a thumbnail sketch of a grander theme.”
Ms. Gosman Donovan’s house has a wide porch that looks out toward the ocean and another smaller porch above it off the master bedroom. Curved arches with saw-tooth shingles frame entries to the downstairs veranda. The main floor includes the original dining room, with a newly added bow window, a sunken living room that has two extra-wide original doors leading to the veranda on the east and west sides, a powder room, and a kitchen, which was added during Ms. Gosman Donovan’s extensive restoration. It took over two years, with the East Hampton architect Francis Fleetwood and Men at Work Construction overseeing the project.
“I really wanted a good kitchen. All my life I had small kitchens,” she said. There was no indoor plumbing when the Montauk Association Houses were built, and because the owners took most of their meals at the clubhouse, the kitchens were tiny by modern standards. The new kitchen was added at the north side of the house, but it juts out just enough so that Ms. Donovan has a wide view of the Atlantic from the kitchen sinks. Added too was a guest suite below the kitchen and a north-facing entryway and porch.
“The northeast side of the house was very stressed,” Ms. Gosman Donovan recalled. As part of the restoration, a steel beam was put in to stabilize the whole structure. Before that, she said, sleeping in the third-story bedroom on a windy night was almost like sleeping in a ship, the house moved so much.
The original millwork throughout the house has all been stripped and refinished, and the windows were rebuilt using the original glass. Off the east side of the living room is a small library, also original to the house, where Andrews, the original owner, kept some of the books he loved. A painted portrait of Andrews’s son hangs on the living room wall. Another small painting shows the house as it looked from the east in the late 1800s, with the large clubhouse standing ghostlike in the background and another “Sister” off to the south.
All but one of the houses have been renovated or restored, although Tick Hall, which Ms. Gosman Donovan can see from her kitchen, burned down in 1997. Its owners Dick Cavett and the late Carrie Nye later reconstructed it to the exact detail, even replicating a creak in the stairs.
Among Ms. Gosman Donovan’s other association neighbors are the artist Julian Schnabel, Bruce Weber, the fashion photographer, and the Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss.
Although two other houses have been built closer to the bluffs, one of them in the Shingle Style, the view from the Seven Sisters is largely unchanged from the one previous owners enjoyed, a rare thing in Montauk or anywhere else on the South Fork.