Memorable Beginnings

A Grand Old Dame Restored With Love
This Bluff Road, Amagansett, original had been abandoned and was dilapidated. Durell Godfrey Photos

The old house on Bluff Road in Amagansett was severely abandoned. When I pulled up, on a cool October day, it looked forlorn and haunted. The white paint was peeling and scattered among the overgrown weeds. But there was majestic beauty in the main facade, which sat gently witnessing the ocean’s moods and facing the weather for all those bygone decades. What had this grand old dame seen? What was it like to be alone on Bluff Road in 1915?

I entered the house with daring buyers. At the young age of 28, I could not fathom that a client would be interested in restoring such a dilapidated house. The time. The money. The care. The work. At the time, I was working toward my license, and interning for another architect. I was hired to be the project architect for the heavy lift of a difficult project. It was going to require a ton of measuring, computer work, and documentation.

 The new owner did not seem to worry about my lack of experience. “This is historic renovation number eight for us,” he told me with a laugh. “We have done this before.” Thank God, I thought, because I hadn’t. To say I was daunted would be an understatement. The house was a gem, no doubt about it. At the time, there was a building boom and plenty of work to go around on the East End. Many architects shied away from restorations of historic buildings because it is so time-consuming to tie in the modern necessities and create a seamless look. 

Other architects, like me, revel in it. There is something about old houses that makes me swoon. Part of it is the actual architecture and part of it is the idea of a simpler life, when time must have stretched out in the summer with no interruptions like we have today. Beach and nature, nature and beach, then sunset and, at night, a sandy bed.

For an architect there is always one project that stands out as beginner’s luck. Sometimes, if you are really lucky, the house remains in your heart not only for the architecture but the people. It is a rare occasion that transcends design. For me, that project was the house on Bluff Road. The McSpaddens hired me to help them design the kitchen and interiors, which launched my firm.

The front, western, room of the house was set up as a bar with a door that had scribbles of guests’ signatures with dates from the 1920s onward. What fun people must have had in this house. Prohibition! So much history within the walls. The Depression. World wars. 

The house was literally sinking into the ground, and unevenly. I wore a zip-up utility suit and measured every locust post lodged under the framing within about 30 inches of space. There were more than 200 posts, some of which were added when the house began to tilt. Dawn House Movers lifted the house up in the air, where it sat for six months. It was stripped to the framing, reinforced, and set onto an extra-deep foundation. (Twenty years ago, a 12-foot- deep foundation was a marvel, whereas nowadays they are common.) An addition was added to the front and side of the house, with a long, gracious porch wrapping around the back.

The new owners, Ruth Ann and Jack McSpadden, were veteran renovators, from townhouses in the Carnegie Hill neighorhood of Manhattan to beach cottages. Ms. McSpadden is a decorator who delights in traditional European decor and has a flair for color and scale. She knew exactly what she wanted in each room. We worked together, creating “open loops” of circulation so there were no dead ends.

The family entry was an essential part of the design, the most frequently used entrance. Ms. McSpadden knew this and dressed up the entry hall with lovely dark-blue wallpaper, nautical art, and her signature deeply rich wooden antiques. The kitchen was designed for serious entertaining. The circulation from kitchen to pantry, to the bar area, and to the dining, powder, and family rooms flowed, giving the house energy. The family room spanned the whole length of the rear of the house with a covered porch extending off it. This room was added to the original structure. The bedrooms and bathrooms were carefully planned according to need. The third floor had been used for servants when the house was first occupied. A McSpadden cousin, an architect, suggested changing the configuration of the walls to create a porch under the span of the roof. It was a splendid idea that resulted in softening the overall look of the house while providing an outdoor space with an epic and sweeping view of the dunes and ocean for the family’s two daughters.

The front porch was enclosed with diamond-pane windows, suggested by Ms. McSpadden, to add a whimsical seaside feel. Antique wicker furniture, a bead-board ceiling, and a puzzle on a table completed the room.

The master suite overlooked the ocean dunes, and, through a pair of French doors, a covered porch ran along the whole suite. The result was a breezy old-school look. Some would say it has a Nantucket feel.

One of the most interesting historic features of the house was the west-facing stairwell. Extraordinary light comes in and cascades up and down into the house. The whole interior glows with legendary East End light in the afternoon.

On day, before work had begun in earnest, I sat on the porch with Mr. McSpadden. “You know, Jack,” I said, “you could hire anyone you want to do this. I don’t have a lot of experience. I don’t want to mess this up.” 

He turned to me in his gentle Southern way and joked. “First of all, you certainly wouldn’t make it on Wall Street. You cannot admit you don’t know what you are doing. Second, in business and in life, I will tell you something important. You don’t have to know everything. There will always be someone who knows more than you do. On this job, you can find that person, hire them, and send me the bill.” I sat there stupefied. As it turned out, I never had to hire anyone to jump in. It is a lesson I have continued to share with many young interns and architects over the years.

He then added, “My wife likes working with you. That is the most important thing to me. It will all turn out great.” 

And it did. It sure did.

The house has changed over the years. A decorator’s home always evolves, and the children grew up. But the mood has remained. The house is a grand old dame of architecture, lovingly restored to her former glory, bathed in honey-soaked sunshine.

 


Erica Broberg Smith is a practicing architect in East Hampton and owns Hampton Gather Antiques and Consignments at 94 Newtown Lane.

The McSpaddens survey the living room from their portrait even when they are not in residence.
Although the kitchen appliances were updated and a marble counter installed, the room is redolent of the past.
Family photos line the long third-floor hallway leading to a bedroom.
An antique bed encourages dreaming.
And the sun porch, with the diamond-pane windows Ruth McSpadden favored, is quintessential.