Moran House Poised for Its Resurrection

This restoration of a nationally registered historic building is more challenging than any undertaken in East Hampton before
The temporary wooden buttresses in front of the Moran house, pushing up and back against the tilting structure, will give way soon to steel support beams. Durell Godfrey

   Any day now, with the scut work over and a vast pile of 1950s rubble trucked away, they’ll be bringing in a load of steel support beams, and the enormous task of turning the falling-down shell of Thomas Moran’s house back into the eccentric showplace it used to be will get under way for real.
    The renowned painter of the Western landscape, who once spent half a day on his front lawn with a gun across his lap, threatening to shoot the house-movers who were coming up Main Street if they disturbed one branch of the trees lining Town Pond opposite where he sat, would have had apoplexy upon seeing what’s happening at his beloved house today.
    It seems safe to say that this restoration of a nationally registered historic building, which will take no-one-is-willing-to-predict how many years, is more challenging than any undertaken in East Hampton before. That’s saying a lot in a village where rickety 18th and 19th-century houses jostle each other for elbow room, but this is more than a ground-to-attic rebirth (though it is certainly that), it’s a second coming. The people involved, all of them tops in their fields, speak about the project almost reverently.
    What makes reconstruction so formidable, apart from the front of the house’s having listed seven vertiginous inches toward Main Street since it was built in 1885 — even the temporary wooden buttresses you now see in the front yard, pushing back against the tilting structure, have slid down and out in the past five years — is that Moran, who was his own architect, put the whole thing together higgledy-piggledy, a door here, a window there, adding on and adding on. At a time when wealthy New Yorkers were just starting to put up their ambitious summer colony cottages at the south end of the village, the Moran house, built with a weather eye on the bottom line, probably stood out like a zircon on a platinum wedding band. An 1890 editor of this newspaper diplomatically called it “picturesque.”
    Resurrecting the Studio, as it is still known, is “much more difficult than Hook Mill,” said Robert Hefner last Thursday, stepping gingerly around a gaping hole in a back room. Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society and the Thomas Moran Trust, and Mr. Hefner, East Hampton Village’s director of historic services, together head the restoration team. They are racing the clock to get everything fragile or shaky or at all vulnerable — meaning everything that’s not nailed down and some that is, such as the original pine-board kitchen floor — marked, numbered, and taken away before Guy Davis arrives with his steel supports.
    Mr. Davis, head of a fourth-generation Southampton construction company whose motto is “We will travel anywhere for interesting projects” (he moved the historic de Menil-Carpenter houses, now the East Hampton Town Hall complex, from Further Lane in 2007), “will have complete control over the whole weight of the building,” said Mr. Hefner. “It will be like holding it in your hand.”
    That’s because the Studio, unlike most buildings, cannot be raised from underneath — there’s nothing there. Mr. Davis will be picking the house up by its timber-frame walls rather than its floors, walls and floors being nowhere attached to each other. The main staircase has been swathed in puffy padding and the exterior walls covered with waterproof material to protect them from his ministrations.
     Hubaldo Arellano, who works for John Hummel, was cutting holes in the front walls last week to fit the steel struts, which will pass halfway into the house. Once the beams are in place, Mr. Hummel, the contractor, will embark on the project’s structural phase, starting from the bottom up with a hand-dug foundation and new brick pilings (old brick, more likely) to support a reconstructed front porch.
    Details of the porch roof were mysterious, like much about the Studio’s infrastructure, until quite recently, when Mr. Hefner discovered a diagonal line of nail holes, hardly visible to the naked eye, and from them was able to deduce the roof’s location and pitch.
    A hole in the floor in the middle of the kitchen was another riddle, solved just last Thursday. What was it doing there? The answer hinged, improbably, on the location of a back stairway to the second floor. Once that was found, it led to the place where the kitchen sink must have stood, which in turn spilled the beans on the hole in the floor. It was a drainage hole, just where it would have had to be.
    Moran is believed to have rescued the Studio’s front doors, which were extra-tall and wide to accommodate the comings and goings of his oversized canvases, from a commercial building that was being torn down at Broadway and 22nd Street in Manhattan. The doors were taken off the house three years ago, as the front wall had settled on them and they couldn’t be opened, but they are in good condition and will be reinstalled after a minor facelift. The large studio window, originally a storefront display window, is thought to have come from the same place. The artist installed it upside down, with the transom on the bottom and the display window on top.
    That same painterly eye that could spot salvageable gold among the dross of demolished buildings helped give the Studio, inside as much as out, its unconventional character. Moran found a place for any number of mismatched windows, sashes, mantels, newel posts and hand­rails, fanlights, pillars, panels, pilasters, almost anything still functional, in his erector set of an atelier-cum-house. When workers removed the edging around a bay window they found he’d used cigar box lids as part of the trim.
    Some of the many windows have broken panes or missing sash weight cords, some need hardware repair or replacement, all of them need glazing and painting. Nathan Tuttle of Eastport will restore the windows. Adam Galecki, a craftsman who supervises the Hummel woodworking shop here, has charge of almost everything else. Mr. Galecki will do much of the pivotal carpentry work and structural repairs himself.
    The building’s every aspect, down to the size and shape of the nails, has been documented, sometimes in inscrutable architecturespeak, in anticipation of its levitation. Describing the 1885 front porch, for example, Mr. Hefner noted in the official historic structure report he prepared for the village board that “its pediment had a denticulated cornice and a cartouche in the tympanum.” (A cartouche is “a carved tablet used ornamentally”; a tympanum is “a vertical recessed triangular space forming the center of a pediment.” Denticulated means “having toothlike projections.”)
    The hay bales that can be seen from Main Street, at the foot of the lawn where Moran waited with his rifle, are there to protect Town Pond from soil runoff in heavy rains. The house stands on higher ground than the street, as Ruth Moran, Thomas’s younger daughter, wrote on the back of an old photograph: “The land is higher than the sidewalk by two steps.”
    The two-story-high front room where the artist worked had a thin plaster ceiling that presented problems almost from the time it was put in, and still does. The plaster started cracking about 20 years after the house was built, so Moran covered it with fiberboard, lest the particles drift down onto his freshly painted canvases (“The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” the painting that moved Congress to establish America’s first national park, may have been a potential victim). When the fiberboard covering was removed in 2008, much of the plaster came down with it. Barring structural issues, a new plaster ceiling will have to be installed.
    Another headache addressed that same year, before an on-and-off work hiatus that ended this winter, was a noxious, all-pervading odor, most evident in the service wing. “It really smelled,” said Mr. Hefner, wrinkling his nose at the memory. The stench was traced to an attic above the kitchen, where generations of small mammals had taken up residence. Workers cleared out dozens of dead squirrels and raccoons.
    It seems there were holes in the roof, shingled in 1885 with “dense, tight-grained, heartwood eastern white pine” that Mr. Hefner traced to a forest near Grand Rapids, Mich. The shingles are still there today, though they no longer provide adequate protection from the elements. Installing new ones will be the biggest single change to the exterior of the house and perhaps the last overall, with the exception of the final touch: a Victorian garden, to be designed by the garden historian Mac Griswold. Members of the Garden Club of East Hampton are already on board as caretakers.
    To date, the Moran Trust has raised about $4 million to fund the restoration, including $500,000 of community preservation money from East Hampton Village, and hopes to raise another $4 million, which will provide for an endowment. The plan upon completion is to use the Studio not only as the first 19th-century East Hampton summer cottage to be open to the public as a historic site, but also as a community resource, for concerts, lectures, plays and the like — all of which were held there when Thomas Moran was alive.