In an Era of Teardowns, a Case for Preservation

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 Photos by Durell Godfrey



Valerie Smith is in many ways a preservationist. She lives in a house on land granted in 1650 to William Mulford, one of the original East Hampton settlers, and has filled it with shabby-chic furnishings and treasured mementos of family life.


Ms. Smith grew up in Greenwich, Conn., but the family decamped for an East Hampton house on Dunemere Lane every summer. Living in other places over the years as an adult, her feelings about East Hampton were so intensely positive that she often considered making it her year-round home, wondering if it could possibly rival her childhood memories.

“It always haunted me, and I wanted to see what it was like here all the time,” Ms. Smith said on a recent afternoon after welcoming a visitor. She relocated here about 25 years ago and has never once looked back. “Besides, New York, which is where I was living at the time, wasn’t some club that I resigned from and couldn’t get back into if it didn’t work out.”

For quite a few years, Ms. Smith rented the houses she lived in. Then, in 1992, she walked into an old shingled house on Buell Lane, not far from where she summered as a child, and had what she described as “a moment.”

“In real estate, much like relationships, you know whether you want to stay for a drink or head right home,” said Ms. Smith, whose fuchsia manicure offset a crisp white button-down shirt and matching slacks. Dixie, her golden retriever, lay sprawled across the kitchen floor. Before she decided to make an offer, however, someone else bought the house for $195,000. Nevertheless, it stayed “very much on my radar.” In 2005, when it was again on the market and she learned that a potential sale had fallen through, Ms. Smith knew better than to make the same mistake twice. Even though the market price had escalated more than she would have expected, she promptly scooped it up. “I’ve been happy here ever since.”

According to an extensive family history by the Rev. David E. Mulford, who lives near Princeton, N.J., the property once consisted of five houses, a barn, several sheds, and two acres of open fields. Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, lives just up the road, having bought two adjoining parcels of what was historically the Mulford “home lot.” Mr. Mulford writes that somewhere around the 1870s, “when East Hampton was “discovered’ as an ideal place to spend the summer,” local families began renting their houses to summer visitors, and, in many cases, moving into smaller ones on the same property for the summer.

Mr. Mulford explains that his grandparents and his Aunt Florence would leave their house and move into the two-story house that is now Ms. Smith’s. “And then, after Labor Day, they would return to their winter quarters.” Their winter house was known as Congress Hall, because it had been a gathering place in the mid-19th century for the men of the community. Today, it has new owners and is undergoing complete renovation.

In 1946, Ms. Smith’s house was remodeled and winterized for Aunt Florence, who occupied it year-round until her death in 1973. The Mulford family lived there only occasionally for the next two decades. Robert Earle and his brother, Steven Earle, who was an editor at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, were the buyers in 1992. They did an extensive renovation, reversing the living room stairs and extending the second story, allowing for three bedrooms and a bath. They added a fireplace, with hearths in both the dining room and the master bedroom upstairs, and added a screened porch. Martha Stewart Living featured their home on numerous occasions.

But Ms. Smith’s aesthetic was different. She described the color palette when she took over as “battleship gray.” Now the interior is awash in high-gloss colors and bright floral prints. Apart from enclosing the screened porch to make it usable during the winter and replacing a “monstrosity of a fridge” with a compact refrigerator beneath existing Formica countertops as well as adding three large windows, Ms. Smith made few major changes.

“All I did was paint, and I fiddled around with the floors and painted the walls,” she said, adding that “98 percent of people couldn’t live here.” The 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, she readily concedes, lacks what others might consider necessities — like a finished basement, gym, or media room. “For most people, this house would be completely unacceptable,” Ms. Smith said, predicting that it would be torn down “the instant I decide to part with it.”

An old sun-bleached American flag hangs on the wraparound porch. Once inside, the air smells of lilac. Ms. Smith admits that she is “crazy about flowers,” with fresh blooms arranged in vases in every room. Florist shops are popular destinations, as is Sage Street Antiques in Sag Harbor.

A small room contains a television and two striped upholstered chairs with large, floral pillows. Each room has delicate, sheer window coverings, which billow in a breeze. Benjamin Moore’s sugar cookie is her go-to paint color, a creamy off-white. The dining room, which is the oldest part of the house, now has a chocolate brown border on its white, shiny floorboards. A small recessed area, to the left of the distressed fireplace mantel, contains china and linens.

Once upstairs, one of two guest rooms, which Ms. Smith calls the blue room, has antique twin beds with pale blue frames which she bought in Greenport. White linens have delicate purple embroidery, although otherwise unadorned. The other guest bedroom is moss green, with a queen-sized bed with a frame of lacquered cast iron. A green and pink floral duvet cover picks up subtle pink accents in the pillows and wall coverings.

Her own bedroom, just down the narrow hallway, is covered floor to ceiling in heavily patterned wallpaper (Boxwood from Colefax and Fowler). “It’s been in every house I’ve ever lived in,” Ms. Smith said. Here, too, the accents are pink. “I’m not afraid of pink. I love flowers. I love stripes.”

Two giant chestnut trees, which have survived the blight that claimed others here, shade much of the house. White fabric awnings are a recent addition. Neatly trimmed boxwood hedges enclose a split-level backyard. A pergola, covered in wisteria, allows for outdoor dining. Pots of alyssum, moonflowers, nepeta, and PeeGee hydrangeas provide seasonal splashes of color.

When not at home. Ms. Smith can be found on Newtown Lane in the village at the Monogram Shop, a business she opened nearly 20 years ago. She has two daughters and five grandchildren and explained that by the late 1980s she was newly divorced and living in London. Visiting the Monogrammed Linen Shop on Walton Street, she was struck by its computer-generated sewing machine and its clients’ subsequent ability to turn up at social events with personalized gifts. “This,” she recalls thinking at the time, “is a really good idea.”

The idea stuck. Seven years after moving to East Hampton, she started the Monogram Shop with her younger daughter, Hadley, the two driving to Hauppauge to buy a monogramming machine for $30,000 (an amount they split). With only one training session, the mother-daughter duo was terrified to press start on their first order. Ms. Smith said she stayed awake until the sun came up, ready, when their first customer returned at 10 a.m. the next morning, to collect what she had ordered. Over the years, Ms. Smith’s older daughter, Devon, has helped look after the shop, with her 90-year-old mother, Constance, on hand every Saturday and Sunday.

“Everything we do is a present, whether to say happy birthday or to thank someone for a lovely weekend or to welcome a new baby,” Ms. Smith said. She’s generally in the shop five days a week, assiduously tending to every detail. “Your name is on the door. You know the way you want it to look. Retail is exactly like having a newborn baby who never progresses, who never sleeps through the night.”

In much the same way she created the Monogram Shop, Ms. Smith, a stickler for detail, turned her attention to her Buell Lane home. “It’s such a privilege to be the steward of this house. I love that somebody has lived here for over 150 years. I’m crazy about my friendly ghosts,” Ms. Smith said. “As a community, we must be very careful and very respectful about what we take away, lest we lose the unique and beautiful sense of place that captures all of our hearts every time we are lucky enough to come home here.”

A large floral pillow provides Catherine Constance Cooper with cozy comfort in her grandmother’s house. Photos by Durell Godfrey
Hurricane lamps and flowers enhance the dining room.
Shabby-chic is epitomized in the sun room.
A postcard of French bathing beauties is among antiques on a mantel.
An old high chair sits in the corner of the parlor.
The sun room was a 20th century addition.
Valerie Smith takes a break from the Monogram Shop with Dixie, her golden retriever.