Victorian by the Sea

Details were cloned, making the project much more than a renovation
The facades of the house are broken by porches, and shingled porch supports are at the front corners. The blue hydrangeas are many decades old. Durell Godfrey

Photos By Durell Godfrey

    Bob and Shari Thompson’s house, christened “Indian Wells” when it was built in 1897, is in the Bluff Road Historic District, Amagansett’s less well known and more straightforward answer to the sprawling “summer colony” houses erected before the turn of the last century in East Hampton Village. Like most of its neighbors on the bluffs between Hedges Lane and Atlantic Avenue, it is modest in size, unpretentious in design, attuned to its setting.

    In short, here is the charming seaside cottage that everyone dreams of owning — until they live in it for a while, and realize that in addition to those attractive glass doorknobs and great old clawfoot tub it has a single electric outlet in each small bedroom, tiny or nonexistent closets, and low ceilings just right for their great-grandparents’ generation.

    “Shari’s bathroom had a metal track along the tub-shower combination, with a sliding door, and every time I walked in I’d hit my toe on it,” Mr. Thompson recalled, grimacing.

    “He spent the summer with a bleeding toe,” said his wife.

     The kitchen, with elderly appliances and knotty-pine cabinets, was “disintegrating, and difficult to work in,” said Mr. Thompson, who like his wife enjoys cooking and is good at it. “It had to go.” After a cleaning woman lined the fat-catcher in the old electric oven with aluminum foil one day and the evening meal exploded in a fireball, the couple hired an architect, Amado Ortiz, and a contractor, Ed Beckwith, both of East Hampton.

   Renovations began in the fall of 1999. “We were astounded at the extent to which they had to remove everything,” Mr. Thompson said. “They took out the floors, the stairs, the fixtures, the windows.” Not a toenail of the building’s footprint was changed, however, except for a low wing, a midcentury addition, which was taken down. “We didn’t want a huge mega-mega,” said Mrs. Thompson.

    The house’s original ground-floor plan was unconventional for its time, in that it was and still is wide open, with an angled front door leading directly into the living room and a corner fireplace emphasizing the diagonal perspective. (Equally unusual for that era was its designer, Florence K. Johnson, whose parents, Helen and Rossiter Johnson – both die-hard anti-feminists – built the house next door and two others nearby.)

    From the beginning, said Mrs. Thompson, the renovation project “seemed blessed.” Early on it was determined that the chimney did not need to be as wide as it was, so a flue was removed, adding a welcome six or eight inches to an adjacent stairway and making it easier to move furniture upstairs. Next to the widened staircase, what had been a deep “junk closet,” home to miscellaneous clutter, was carved through and reborn in a double-sided configuration: a china closet, now holding blue-and-white serving pieces and bowls on the living room side, and on the other, in a nook near the kitchen, shelves for cookbooks and a collection of stoneware pitchers. A hidden ceiling vent lets sea breezes flow between them.

    Mr. Ortiz “would sketch on the spot,” Mrs. Thompson recollected. “He could take any room you wanted and do three sketches in 20 minutes,” each one suggesting a different use of the space. An inoperative dumbwaiter became a display case for the couple’s collection of goblets, antique ironstone, glasses, and tinware, with a concealed drawer at the bottom that holds newspapers awaiting recycling. “Everything fits together like a Swiss watch,” said Mr. Thompson.

    The walls in this house by the Atlantic are painted in a color called Whitecap Gray, the floors are Gig’s Gray, the ceilings are white, and much of the furniture is in a shade of gray called Big Chill. Other than the cool grays and some blue accents in cushions and the chinaware, the only other distinctive color is found in a collection of yellowware bowls, displayed in the new dining room overlooking a native-flower garden dominated by black-eyed Susans.

    When it came to the kitchen, said Mr. Thompson, the key question was “how far out could it go without harming the chestnut trees?” Once they had that figured out, he said, they could decide on the appliances, including a Viking Professional gas oven — two ovens, actually, large and small — and a large refrigerator, also Viking Professional.

    “The thing I am most happy about is that we have two dishwashers and two sinks,” said Mrs. Thompson, “and we use them.” They entertain often, she said, and have lots of house guests. Two toasters “make breakfast a breeze.”

    The hanging kitchen cabinets have no doors, “so if houseguests say, ‘Where’s the coffee cups?’ they can see them,” she said. It makes for an open, uncluttered look, underscored in the pull-out drawers beneath the two-inch-thick maplewood counters. The drawers, which ascend in height from four to eight inches (Saran Wrap and such above, lobster pots below), have no handles. In fact, the only visible hardware in the room is on the recycling bin under the sink, which is latched to keep Valentino, a standard white poodle whom both dog-loving Thompsons dote upon, from getting in.

    Every spare inch of space, it seems, has a surprising purpose. It was Mr. Thompson who conceived of an inconspicuous hatch in the ceiling that opens to reveal a time capsule of a child’s life: boxes of term papers, artwork, stuffed animals, photographs. When she visits, “she can sit up there with her legs dangling down and see all her old stuff,” said her mother, in one compact space fragrant with the scent of cedar.

    The kitchen’s open cabinets “provide a great incentive to make things orderly,” Mr. Thompson said, not that either husband or wife needs much encouragement. On the house’s pale floors, “every grain of sand, every blade of grass shows,” said Mrs. Thompson. “And paw prints! It’s a constant effort to keep it clean.” Mr. Thompson nodded. When he uses a paper towel in the kitchen, he said, he will sometimes use it again on the living room floor. (The floors have not needed repainting in 12 years.)

     Upstairs, except in the master bedroom, the couple did away with what closets there were — one room had none — and put in curtained-off free-standing units to hold clothes. Custom-made built-ins, designed by the architect, are beach-cottage in feel with simple lines in keeping with the surroundings. The house, which once had baseboard steam heat, now has forced-air heating; air-conditioning was installed as well.

    The Thompsons kept as many of the original fittings as possible and had the rest meticulously cloned. The duplications and other details took “much, much longer than we expected,” Mr. Thompson said, especially in the kitchen. “We spent more time and twice as much money there as any other part of the house.”

    The renovations wound up taking three times as long as predicted. “We took day trips out on the Jitney every week or so for the whole time” to check on progress, Mr. Thompson recalled. “They said six months; it was a year and a half. But it wasn’t the contractor’s fault. For instance, the outdoor doors came and turned out to be indoor material. It took six months just to get the stuff he’d promised in three weeks.”

    In the end, though, they couldn’t have been happier. In fact, the only thing needed when it was all over was a two-way light switch in the original dining room, now a breakfast nook. Putting it in took maybe half an hour.

The table in the new dining room, looking out into the backyard and cutting garden, is often set with playful centerpieces.Durell Godfrey
Valentino, the Thompsons’ standard white poodle, finds the living room furniture inviting. The curved window may originally have been stained glass.Durell Godfrey
A wainscotted cabinet, wicker chair, and blue-and-white platters make an attractive grouping.Durell Godfrey
The corner fireplace in the living room is set on a diagonal opposite the angled front door. The painting is of the owners’ late poodles. Bunnies cavort on a vintage hooked rug over a chest of drawers in the dining room. An antique hooked rug, a gift from Mrs. Thompson’s daughter, Carrie Lewis, is mounted over an occasional table.Durell Godfrey
The large kitchen has access to the back and side yards. Drawers beneath the counter have no visible hardware, lending an airy look. Open upper shelves make it easy for guests to find what they need for breakfast.Durell Godfrey
The porch overlooks a nature preserve on the Atlantic. The table is a duplicate of one the owners admired at the Amagansett Beach Association. An inoperative dumbwaiter was reborn to hold ironstone, goblets, and tinware.Durell Godfrey