An Extraordinary Haven by the Sea

East Hampton’s heritage is alive and well on the Montauk bluffs
The view may be toward Portugal, but the property bespeaks of comfort. Matthew Carbone

    A quiet house on the Montauk bluffs is at once a testament to the architecture of East Hampton and the wildness of the moors.
    Built in 1980 by the renowned photographer Richard Avedon, who died in 2004, the house recently underwent painstaking renovation but remains devoid of the porches, patios, and porticos that typify so many second homes.
    Fred Stelle, of the eponymous Bridgehampton architecture firm, who teaches a design and construction workshop at Syracuse University, his alma mater, has worked on scores of outstanding contemporary houses. But his affection for what is still called the Avedon House is unmistakable.
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    “The house is important because it’s where you spend the night and eat and so forth. But that’s not the real reason the house is there. You like the spot. We wanted to preserve this idea that the house was not a big statement,” Mr. Stelle said.
    He began the renovation in the fall of 2009, working with Jim Kim of Men at Work, which is based in Wainscott. His wife, Bettina, collaborated when it was time to do the interiors. “Bettina’s approach to life in general is similar to the idea of this house,” Mr. Stelle said. “Not everything has to be perfect. Not everything has to be the newest and best and latest. There are values in things that have been created by other people, by people before us.”
    The rather modest, 3,500-square-foot house is on 7.5 acres. It has four bedrooms and four baths in addition to a diminutive guest house, an orchard, gardens, a stable, and a rustic pool. Every structure is secondary to the surrounding sea.
    The story goes that the photographer Peter Beard owned a house nearby and, enticed his friend Mr. Avedon to come out and look at the property when it came up for sale. By all accounts, Mr. Avedon looked, and loved it. At the time, Mr. Avedon’s place in the panthenon of portrait photographers was secure. He was known for revealing the personal attributes of famous people, with work frequently in magazines such as Vogue, but he also photographed the working class, drifters, and carnival workers. Mr. Avedon modeled his house on Home, Sweet Home, the museum on James Lane in East Hampton Village, Mr. Stelle said. “It’s interesting that a guy that is a paradigm of modern photography would choose to do something simple and nonconversational, almost traditional. But I think he loved the aesthetic of East Hampton mixed with the wildness of Montauk,” Mr. Stelle said.
    Calling the house “austere,” Mr. Stelle said it had been built without modern appliances, air-conditioning, or even the best materials.
     After 30 years of salt-laden wear and tear, the house simply wasn’t in good shape, and the one-bedroom guest house and tool shed were in great disrepair.
    “The intent was to not change the look at all,” Mr. Kim said. “The codes and practices today, 30 years later, are much more stringent. We had to update, revamp, and reinforce.”
    Almost every facet of the house’s infrastructure was brought up to modern standards, including the entire cedar-shingled exterior, every rotted, off-the-shelf pine window, all the plumbing, the water filtration system,  the warped, wide-plank oak floors, and, perhaps most significant, the kitchen, which required new electrical wiring, mechanical systems, and lighting.
    “It started out a much simpler project than it ended up,” Mr. Stelle said. “I had hopes to refurbish the existing windows and that discussion with Jim lasted all of about 10 seconds. We ended up having to redo some structural oddities.” Because Mr. Avedon’s son was interested in Tibet, the basement had been converted into living quarters where Tibetan monks sometimes visited. “It was never waterproofedand very damp. We had to fix that. We basically took the entire house apart and put it back together again, with a better level of construction,” Mr. Stelle said.
    The house now has handsome teak floors with joints that are relatively impervious to the contractions and expansions of heat and water. Most important, however, the floors “match the spirit of the original house, which is crucial,” Mr. Stelle said. 
    Aside from the kitchen, which was renovated top to bottom, a significant change was a new staircase, which leads to the basement. A wall had surrounded the original staircase so when you came in through the front door, you were confronted by a door. Mr. Stelle designed a “floating” teak staircase with open risers. Now when you enter the house, there is an immediate and sweeping view down the hall to the sea. Ms. Stelle chose a color palette for the rooms subtly inspired by the ocean, and placed new and vintage pieces together.
     All the walls and ceilings are basically white, although “there is no such thing as ‘just white,’ ” Mr. Stelle acknowledged.  A large stone fireplace dominates the living room. A long, wooden table, simple but strong against the white walls, directs your attention to the water. The kitchen has a wooden table as well, flanked by wicker chairs. Floor-to-ceiling shelves hold stark white cookware and more colorful teapots and dishes.
    The bedrooms are straightforward and uncluttered, while the modern fixtures and hardware of the bathrooms are set against Thassos stone, a pure white marble.
     “The main emphasis is on comfort,” Mr. Stelle said. “Simple, open space, and comfort.”