The house and studios of the late James Brooks and his wife, Charlotte Park, both artists associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, were designated as historic landmarks by the East Hampton Town Board last week.
The town purchased the artists’ 11-acre property on Neck Path in Springs last March for $1.1 million, intending to take the buildings down and preserve the parcel as open space, but the efforts of a grassroots group that was formed after neighborhood residents happened upon the site resulted in reconsideration of that plan.
Members of the Brooks Park Heritage Project, organized specifically to preserve the legacy of the two artists and raise money for and oversee future public use of the site, advocated for the landmark designation. It will allow the town to use money from the community preservation fund, which paid for the land purchase, to restore the studios and house.
Helen Harrison, an art historian and director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center on Accabonac Harbor not far away from the Brooks-Park property, presented a brief history at a town board hearing last Thursday.
Both Mr. Brooks and Ms. Park were “major members of the Abstract Expressionist group,” she said. They had a house and cottage on Fort Pond Bay in Montauk. After the house was washed away by Hurricane Carol in 1954, the couple had the late Jeffrey Potter move the studio to Springs by barge, then trucked it to the Neck Path site.
The old Wainscott post office building was later moved there for Ms. Park’s studio, and Mr. Brooks had a custom-designed studio built.
Scott Wilson, the town’s director of land acquisition, said at last week’s hearing that the town code’s criteria for landmark designation are that buildings or a property possess “special character or historic or aesthetic interest or value as part of the cultural, political, economic, or social history of the town.” They are “identified with historic personages,” embody the “distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style, building type, period or method of construction,” are “the work of an architect, designer or builder of local or regional importance,” or “because of a unique location or singular physical characteristic, represent an established and familiar visual feature” of its neighborhood.
“It has become clear this property and its story” meet all the benchmarks, Mr. Wilson said.
Besides being notable members of a major American art movement, the two “were artists of the Springs,” said Zachary Cohen, a member of the Brooks Park Heritage group.
The site portrays “how they lived and worked, especially their dedication to the environment, and how simply they lived their lives,” he said.
He read from a nature journal kept by Ms. Park where she recorded bird sightings, her observations on visits to various nearby beaches, and other notes. The book was donated after her death to the South Fork Natural History Society.
Jane Martin, a co-chairwoman of the East Hampton Arts Council, voiced the group’s “passionate support” for preserving the house and studios.
“It behooves our community to recognize these historic structures and make them available for the future of our town,” said Ira Barocas, a member of the committee overseeing the use of Duck Creek Farm, another town-owned historic site.
“A significant component of the community preservation fund legislation is that it is also for historic preservation,” said Robert Strada, the executive director of Peconic Historic Preservation, a nonprofit that is taking donations for the Brooks Park Heritage Project.
“There is nothing, really, probably more important in culture that happened in East Hampton than the Abstract Expressionists,” said Job Potter, whose father had moved the cottage for Brooks and Park. And, he said, referring to the group that formed the Brooks Park Heritage Project, now “there is a very strong group of people who are involved in this that I think will succeed in making money.” Though the property was purchased with the preservation fund, and the buildings can be restored using that money, ongoing maintenance or operating costs will have to be covered separately.
In addition to archives or exhibits documenting the lives of the two artists, art exhibits, events, and other public use is anticipated for the site.
Only one speaker at the hearing questioned the landmark designation. Martin Drew, who has often appeared before the board to press for land dedicated to all-terrain vehicle and BMX bike riding, said town officials “seem to be leaning towards exclusive uses and one user group.”