Americana by the Sea

An antiques-filled cottage, made livable by Mary Emmerling
Wooden beams, along with wood walls and floors, speak of the house’s age, while most of the furnishings are vintage. Durell Godfrey

    Tucked into the front corner of a spacious property in East Hampton Village, where a green lawn edged with a jumble of wild plants spreads down to meet a finger of Hook Pond, is a little old house with timeless charm.
    Like others built here in the 19th century, it was moved to its present site. Old wall and ceiling beams give evidence of its age,

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but it has been custom-fitted to accommodate the owner’s daughter and grandchildren, who spend long vacations there. A parade of thin white starfish, flanked by a child’s drawings and books, decorates a hutch. An old book tucked into a notch in one of the upright beams probably is a child’s work.
    A larger house on the grounds was also moved from elsewhere and totally rebuilt in the 1980s. Both are owned by Patti Kenner, whose friend Mary Emmerling has helped her decorate her houses in true American country style.
    The author of 28 books on decorating and collecting, Ms. Emmerllng, who now makes her home in the Southwest, is a former South Fork resident and shopkeeper. At one time she had a shop in the city, and it was there that she and Ms. Kenner met. For the next several years, Ms. Emmerling collected pieces for Ms. Kenner, slowly amassing the pine hutches, vintage painted furniture, old tables, prints, and textiles that make the little house picture-perfect.
    The furniture is for the most part of honey-colored pine, and many pieces are weathered, pocked with signs of wear. The “half-cupboards,” as Ms. Emmerling calls them (think a hutch without a top), are “just great for storage,” she said.
     Because Ms. Kenner loves flags and the Fourth of July, Ms. Emmerling searched for what she calls “celebration pieces” — Americana, Stars and Stripes, and the like. “I went with a tape measure everywhere,” Ms. Emmerling said, to local shops like Sage Street Antiques in Sag Harbor and the annual antiques shows here.
    “This house had so many little rooms — you didn’t want them all full of little furniture,” Ms. Emmerling said. “You want [pieces] a little bit oversized, but not too much. That wouldn’t fit through the door.”
    This spring, she turned to freshening the small Kenner house for another summer. Through the years, she said, it has undergone “slow, small changes —but basically it remains the same.” 
    Ralph Lauren chintz bedding in one of several bedrooms has an antique blue-and-white look. Lamps are made from old ceramic jugs. Under a bedside table, a carved wooden swan sits on top of a rattan case that looks like it could have been carried by a man wearing a boater. Although the house is clearly lived in, all of the details are in keeping with the decorating theme. Next to the hearth, an old-fashioned broom with a stout stick handle leans against the wall. There is a quartet of Currier and Ives prints and framed needlepoint samplers on the walls. One, articulating “A Good Motto,” is signed “To Violet From Mother on Your 21st Birthday” and dated March 2, 1831. Not all the artwork is vintage or historic, however. There are several modern geometric paintings of beachy scenes.
    In a small sitting room, a cobbler’s bench serves as a coffee table in front of one of the hutches. A 13-star flag, hung vertically, reaches from floor to ceiling, perhaps a dozen feet. A wooden box with vintage green paint is used for storage. Framed old maps of Long Island and of East Hampton are also on the walls. A child’s room contains a child-size four-drawer dresser, which also has marks of its past life, and a dark wooden crib.
    Tall round coffee tables, three-legged “cricket tables” from England, are used in several of the seating areas. “You just can’t find some of this stuff anymore,” Ms. Emmerling said. “I wish these pieces could all talk.”
    Fitted under one wall of the center hall, under a mirror framed in wood, is a trestle table with planed edges that are curved at the front corners rather than square.     The kitchen, although updated, retains a historic feeling. A wooden cutting board on top of a counter hooks over the counter’s edge — evidence of the practicality and ingenuity of a former time. A two-drawer wooden box holds silverware. A trio of small oil paintings on the walls are soft still lifes, and three handwritten ledgers have been framed and hung: of bricks, sold in April and June of 1900, and of butter, from 1806. Over the frames are silhouettes, one of a street scene, another of a cow. A record of hog sales in 1866 is set off by a big, black paper pig.     
    Nine narrow stairs lead to the second floor and an open game room, which is further evidence of family life. Skylights provide ample light for playing pool or tossing darts at a board on a wall. A classic trunk is a coffee table in front of a couch, and a log cabin replica is on a table behind it. Ms. Emmerling calls it the “rainy-day room.”
    Up another five steps what once had been an attic has four single beds and a view of the treetops through a small window. “I just love the four beds together like a bunk room,” Ms. Emmerling said.
    Ms. Emmerling used antique lace to make half curtains throughout the house so those inside could be shielded but still glimpse the sky and the outdoors. Outside, an old-fashioned dooryard garden has hostas and ferns under flowering trees, with lilies of the valley peeking through on a recent visit. The view from the dining room draws the eye toward the pond. A rusted anchor lies half-buried in the grass. Just outside the dining room, a swimming pool and a nearby wisteria-topped pergola shades a cast-iron garden set and an old flag. Purple martin houses on tall posts edge the woods.    
    A resident or summer visitor here for 40 years, Ms. Emmerling has decorated 10 East End houses, and had houses of her own in Bridgehampton and Sagaponack. She is working on three new books, still decorating, and working as an organizer. Of her signature style, Ms. Emmerling said, “I took the words ‘early American’ and updated them.”
    “I just love cottages. . . . You can open the windows and let the breeze blow through.”      


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