From Cottage to Inn and Back Again

A quirky house that’s here to stay
The large house, set on Lake Agawam, was in recent years known as Southampton Victorian by the Sea and used as an inn. The present owners preserved the numbers on the doors, although it is very much a single-family dwelling.

Down a long, narrow driveway running past the historic Thomas Halsey Homestead in Southampton, Leslie and George Biddle’s weekend and summer retreat is a rambling Victorian full of quirky and fanciful details in its many rooms, porches, and spaces.

From its sliver of access to Lake Agawam to its upper floor views of the ocean, there is something eccentric and marvelous about the property. It is easily missed from the street, and may be missed from the lake as well, with only a narrow dock evident. Once on the dock, the siting is glorious, midway between the village’s memorial park and Gin Lane, which separates lake from ocean.

The main house and a pool house are modest and even a tad old-school frumpy at first glance, but with modern and stylish surprises around every corner. The house, along with four others, will be part of the Southampton Historical Museum’s annual tour of Southampton houses on May 30.

Like so many houses on the South Fork, this one has both history and locomotion, having strayed from its original site on a neighboring property.

According to Sally Spanburgh’s “The Southampton Cottages of South Main Street,” John Kilbreth, a successful banker from Ohio, built the original structure at 239 South Main. A document filed in 1979 by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities listed the architect as C.H. Skidmore with a question mark, and there does not appear to be definitive identification anywhere else.

The Kilbreths had the house until 1908 when it was sold to Samuel Parrish’s nephew, James Parrish Lee, and his wife, Clara Lee. In addition to founding the museum that bears his name, Samuel Parrish was president of the village and helped establish the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

The Lee family named the house Grassmere, according to Ms. Spanburgh, and they occupied it for more than seven decades before selling it to R. John Punnett in 1984.

When Mr. Punnett put it up for sale some 10 years later, his northern neighbor, Stanley Druckenmiller, approached him about buying the property as an empty lot to expand his view. The house, considered historic if not terribly significant by this time, became the subject of a preservation effort. Arthur and Betty Birnbaum, Mr. Punnett’s neighbors to the south, were happy to take the house and replace their 30-year-old ranch house with it, according to comments made at a 1993 village hearing. One neighbor voiced concerns about the Birnbaums’ staying in an apartment in the garage (which the Biddles have turned into a pool house) and renting out the main house.

These fears were not unfounded. The Birnbaums ran an inn called Southampton Victorian by the Sea there. Numbers, which the Biddles decided to keep as a funky reminder of the past, are on bedroom doors, and old listings still pop up on the Internet.

Ms. Biddle said the Birnbaums were famous for parties around a basement pool where many guests were said to have jumped in, clothes and all. Ms. Birnbaum, who died in 2012, was an inventor with many trademarks to her name, including a cleaning tool she called Ms. Wiggley. Mr. Birnbaum died in 2002. Their daughter, Susan, still lives in Southampton.

These days, it would be difficult to fit in more than the couple’s extended family, who include three Biddle children as well as grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and in-laws. All drop in for short or extended stays in the 10 bedrooms, including two in the pool house, year round.

The Biddles bought the house in 2012 on the eve of Hurricane Sandy, but it was untouched by it. Although the changes they made are significant, David Berridge, their architect, endeavored to bring the house back to its original design, removing all obvious and recent additions. He recalled the Biddles saying their aim was “to take away to give you more, to bring back the raw, seductive sense of the Shingle Style house and let it breathe.”

The basement pool and another, pond-style outdoor pool behind the house and close to the lake were removed. The graveled parking area in front was transformed into a landscaped yard and a new pool placed there.

The Biddles took out a porte cochere and sunken courtyard that led down to basement apartments (now removed) that the Birnbaums had added on the northern side of the house. These features had taken up all of the side yard, which has now been restored.

Ms. Biddle may have a day job in finance, but she is an interior designer manquee. She worked with Lisa Frazar (who has an office in Sag Harbor, as does Mr. Berridge) to realize her semi-nautical vision in a palette of blues, grays, beiges, and white, offset by punches of color. She kept the old stove, against her contractor’s advice, as well as the original windows, whose undulating antique glass pleases her even if it is not particularly energy efficient.

There are inspired decorative touches everywhere: natural wood planking on the semicircular master bath ceiling was white-washed and then wiped down for a warm/cool effect, Moroccan tile on the floor brings in a multicultural flair, the bathtub has a water view. A powder room in the main house is papered with antique maps highlighting places that have meaning to the family.

In the pool house, old oars found in Montauk are now the staircase’s balustrade, a new janitor’s sink with a stainless steel lip is the basin in the bathroom, and an old ship’s porthole serves as a mirror. Sailboat cleats function as drawer pulls.

The house has broad open spaces and the coziest of nooks. Elements of the old were honored and restored, such as the stripped wood paneling in the diminutive library. Much of the artwork on display is by family friends and well-known local names such as Mary Ellen Bartley and Mark Humphrey. And laying claim to all is the family’s recent addition, an English bulldog pup named Georgia.

It’s an extraordinary place that integrates the warmth of contemporary family life, the echoes of glorious summers past, and the muffled roar of the nearby ocean.

One of the more challenging aspects of the interior decoration was the curved front entry, above and below, whose asymmetry is not as evident from the outside. The Biddles added a table and some other furniture in the foyer to add balance.
The extra-large living room, above, has two seating areas and two fireplaces. The master bedroom, below, is not huge but is bright and airy and has both a lake and ocean view from its porch.
While the dock looks diminutive, the view from it is one of the best on Lake Agawam.
The powder room, on the first floor of the main house, is papered with antique maps of places that are meaningful to the family.
Natural wood planking on the semicircular ceiling in the master bathroom was white-washed and then wiped down for a warm-cool effect. The Moroccan tile on the floor brings a multicultural flair, and the bathtub has a water view.
Repurposed oars that comprise the balustrade of the pool house’s staircase add a nautical look.