Connections: A Downer

Tear-downs have been commonplace over the last few decades

    The talk of Montauk last week was that Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News political commentator and best-selling author, had come to town. Not only was it news that he had bought a spectacular property on the oceanfront, but that he had torn down two small houses that longtime Montaukers considered part of the community’s heritage.

    The first of the two houses was a summer bungalow built by James and Kathryn Abbe during World War II, using traditional materials — in amounts limited by wartime rationing — supplemented by beams and flooring scavenged from old East End buildings that were being taken down at the time, including the house of East Hampton’s famous early American craftsmen, the Dominys. (The second of the Abbes’ tiny houses was put up for their children in 1957.)

    Theresa Eurell of Town & Country Real Estate had the exclusive $8.5 million listing when the property, on a 42-foot-high bluff, was advertised for sale in the spring. Mr. O’Reilly was reported to have been looking only for a summer rental when it caught his eye. A Montauker herself, Ms. Eurell said she tried to enlist the Montauk Historical Society or another organization to save the houses when she learned they would be razed. It wasn’t to be.

    Tear-downs have been commonplace over the last few decades, often to the annoyance of near neighbors, but sometimes — when the building was of historic or sentimental interest, or a neighborhood landmark — they provoke deeper emotions, real sadness or anger, from the community at large. This was one of those times.

    The Abbes were well-known professional magazine photographers, and Mr. Abbe had started selling fine antiques when they decided to build in Montauk back in the 1940s. According to a feature in an East Hampton Star Home Book supplement in 2008, the materials in the 16-by-20-foot house cost $700. It had built-in bunks modeled after quarters in the Charles Morgan, a whaling ship preserved at Mystic Seaport. The furnishings (homespun coverlets, antique chairs, a highboy) were spare. Plumbing and electricity were put in after the war, and a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom added.

    Word of Mr. O’Reilly’s arrival on the scene put me in mind of Teddy Roosevelt. Is Mr. O’Reilly as famous an American today as Colonel Roosevelt was in 1898, when he brought his Spanish-American War troops to Montauk for rest and recovery? There is certainly rich irony in this whole affair, and also room for some amusing riffs on Rough Riders: Is Mr. O’Reilly in for a rough ride here? Is he riding rough­shod?

    It will be some time before Mr. O’Reilly’s new house is completed, but it is highly likely it will be shingled, it will be large, and materials will cost a lot more than $700: He has hired the Farrell Building Company to do the construction. Surely you recognize the name? It is the Bridgehampton firm that tore down the Elaine Benson Gallery and was the subject of a New York Times profile this summer with the memorable title “Hamptons McMansions Herald a Return of Excess.”


Bob Lenahan is Mr. O'Reilly's Architect