Updating Ancient Beams

The original house has been a residence for 336 years
Cherished in a recent renovation, adze-hewn ceiling timbers in the living room reveal the house’s pre-Revolutionary origins. The painting is by Hilary Holmes.

Well-behaved ghosts haunt East Hampton if you know how to find them. The hand-hewn beams of the village’s oldest houses, for instance, dated by experts to the 1680s, can still be seen, emerging like spectral cartoon characters from white “sheets” of modern plaster. 

Tudoresque timbers are preserved inside the Ralph Lauren children’s store on Main Street in East Hampton, in the stucco-clad Harper-Poor-Baker house a few blocks to the west, and the Mulford House, a museum in the East Hampton Historical Society’s complex behind Town Pond. Ancient beams are also a prominent feature of a recently renovated house on Pudding Hill Lane that historians think is the only building in East Hampton that has been continuously lived in since the late 17th century. Today, it shows how a respectful update can keep druidic oaken spirits very much alive.

The house was dubbed “Ivy Cottage” by a 19th century owner because ivy covered most of its exterior. Naming a house for foliage was part of a vogue in the Hamptons’ early resort days that Richard Barons, the head of the East Hampton Historical Society, calls “the English conceit” — evoking England in architecture and names like Maidstone and Devon. 

Originally built by Joseph Osborn, a member of one of the town’s founding families, and twice moved, the house also brings England to mind with its park-like lawn, providing what Mr. Barons calls “a real sense of a palatial English countryside.” Early England is most visible in the saltbox architecture of the house’s original structure. 

The backyard connects with those of two other houses, all now owned by sisters who grew up during the summer in their family’s nearby house at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Crossways, which is still occupied by one of them.  “You used to walk across people’s yards all the time,” lamented Carol Deane, the sister who bought Ivy Cottage four years ago. “Now you can’t, because of the deer fencing” (though she and the others have sisterly gates).

A swimming pool is discreetly hidden behind hedges in the backyard, which is drolly presided over by four cast concrete, Art Deco gargoyles, which Ms. Deane’s late husband rescued from a construction site in Manhattan.

Later owners expanded the house with a slightly anomalous sunporch (now with Victorian, diamond-shaped panes), a second-floor bedroom, and to the rear, what Mrs. Deane calls “a saltbox on a saltbox,” designed to stay in harmony with the older parts of the house. Set at a right angle to the original, it allowed the colonial kitchen to become a large dining room while adding a new kitchen and breakfast area and two more upstairs bedrooms.

After removing the ivy, which, though pretty, was “eating away the walls and shingles,” Mrs. Deane added a small saltbox, the third, on the rear just big enough for a powder room, mud room, and indoor staircase to the basement. She also removed “an odd bump-out along the side of the kitchen that was not in keeping with the saltbox shapes,” closed in one side of a former wraparound porch to make a narrow TV room, and merged three former maids’ rooms on the third floor into a fifth bedroom. 

Some of the additions are smoothed together on the outside by unbroken rooflines, but they are hardly disguised. The second floor has no fewer than five different levels, lending the sleeping area a quirky, maze-like quality. But the real legacy of the house shines in its ceilings. 

No fewer than eight 300-year-old exposed beams lift one’s attention in the living room, and similar hand-hewn vestiges of the original construction are overhead in the dining room. The prior owners used distressed wood beams and slats when they added the new kitchen, so “you have to pay attention to see that this part really is much newer,” Mrs. Deane said. Upstairs, she added, “I always try to make sure my bedroom is neat and presentable just in case someone drops by, so I can show them the beams with the bark still on them.” 

The kitchen has one countertop of copper and another of white marble, but the rest, including the wood-covered door of the refrigerator, matches the beams. The room is accented by stainless-steel glints of a new oven, dishwasher, wine cooler, and stove top. The deeply carved cupboard doors on a kitchen island came to Mrs. Deane with the house and, Mr. Barons said, reproduce a “sunflower” design that has been found on 17th century Connecticut Valley furniture. 

Mrs. Deane’s other changes, intended to “keep the house as close to the original as possible while bringing it into the modern age,” are largely unobtrusive. They include carefully scaled new thermal windows throughout, the one exception being an original window frame that Robert Hefner, the preservation consultant for East Hampton Village, identified and successfully urged keeping. 

The indoor temperature is controlled primarily by a geothermal pump system, an innovation recommended by Arthur (Tiger) Graham, the past president of the historical society, who uses a similar system in his house. Ducting for forced-air heat and cooling is tucked into closets and storage areas under the eaves.

In winter the system extracts and concentrates the heat of water drawn from deep wells that maintain a steady temperature of around 50 degrees, returning the water via another well. In summer, the underground water provides most of the cooling, abetted by a dehumidifier. Mrs. Deane forwent the additional environmental advantages of solar roof panels because the old beams might not have withstood the combined weight of the panels and a heavy snowstorm.  

Having visited the house as a girl, Mrs. Deane kept her eye on it as an adult, meanwhile cutting her renovator’s teeth on a house she lived in until two years ago on Beacon Hill in Boston that dated from 1795. There she recalls “fighting with the contractor to keep the beams in the living room exposed,” but in East Hampton, her contractor, Rob Biondo, got the idea with no trouble.

The house is furnished largely with Georgian antiques, filled out by a small collection of board games, and intricate Stave jigsaw puzzles are scattered on lazy Susans so several people around a table can work on them at once. The house frequently is filled with family members and guests, and the beamed dining room is packed each Thanksgiving. ther ghosts have not appeared.  

The original saltbox, festooned in ivy (insert), remains visible despite additions, to the left, of an upstairs bedroom and a vaguely Victorian sunporch.
Uncurtained panes and a bay window added by an earlier owner lighten the living room — and one of the house’s wooden Stave jigsaw puzzles, in foreground at left and below.
Large and small saltboxes were added.
The master bedroom is kept tidy for guests’ tours. Below, a gargoyle among many in the yard and one of many joints.
A copper-topped counter connects the kitchen and breakfast room.
Windsor chairs and a Bernard Buffet painting grace the dining room.