Hidden in Sag Harbor

An old house with resurgent life and family treasures
The photographs on the wall above are of the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea, with whom Peter Matthiessen and colleagues spent six months.

Not every old house that gets snapped up on the South Fork is razed to make way for a bigger one.  Especially not in Sag Harbor, and especially not the house Alex Matthiessen bought in 2002.

Built in the 1830s on a residential street near the Incorporated Village of Sag Harbor, the house was first renovated in the 1940s, with an addition put up at the back and the house enlarged to 2,000 square feet. A separate studio was on the property, too, and Mr. Matthiessen uses it as an office.

 The exterior of the house remains Greek Revival, like many of its neighbors, but the interior is a mix of styles, from French Art Deco to American country, with the space having the overall feel of a loft.

The house already had several lives before Mr. Matthiessen bought it. Gudrun Hoerig, an antiques dealer and real estate broker, bought it in 1996. She had renovated it, adding “distressed” exterior trim and doors from houses that were being demolished. She liked painted furniture, which Mr. Matthiessen bought, and she painted a checkerboard floor in the entryway, which he copied in a bathroom he added. 

Mr. Matthiessen is the son of the late Deborah Love and Peter Matthiessen, a revered naturalist and novelist who died two years ago and from whom he inherited many family treasures. With the sale of the Matthiessen property in Sagaponack, other family members have migrated to Sag Harbor, where they have houses near one another. 

One of Mr. Matthiessen’s treasures is an astonishing skull of a right whale, which his father found at Sagg Main Beach and had at the entry to his Sagaponack house, while another is a collection of photographs of the indigenous people his father lived among on a six-month expedition to Papua New Guinea, in 1961. The photographs cover a wall of the new living room in the 1940s addition. Spears from New Guinea that were gifts from the Kurelu people, whom he wrote about in “Under the Mountain Wall,” lie over the rafters of one room in a way that makes them seem part of the design. The senior Mr. Matthiessen’s favorite chair is also in the house, although it needs re-covering. 

Alex Matthiessen did a gut renovation of the house in 2014 and ’15, concentrating on the kitchen and second-floor bedroom, which he combined with a smaller guest bedroom. The bigger room, now the master bedroom, had windows but no closets; the smaller one, closets but no windows. He added a window seat bordered by built-in cupboards at one end of the room. At the other end, he added built-in bookshelves and an additional closet, adjusting it to the slant of the roof. Guest accommodations are on the first floor, giving Mr. Matthiessen privacy and a fireplace in his second-floor aerie.

Mr. Matthiessen praises Richard Dunphy of Kiwi Construction, a master woodworker, for some of the renovation’s success. The two of them did such things as change the master bedroom doorway and turn the tub in the adjacent bath to face outdoors, providing better access, more space, and a nicer experience.

During the kitchen renovation, Mr. Matthiessen moved things around, added a pantry, and put in corner drawers that have two fascia and pull straight out rather than having a two or three-shelf lazy susan. The result is more functional while the room maintains its charm.

A factor in Mr. Matthiessen’s decision to buy the place had been a kitchen fireplace. The fireplace is now in the combined kitchen and dining room, the openness suitable for entertaining and the fireplace a center of attention. A large table allows for inevitable family gatherings. 

At one end of the living room, there was once a wood-burning stove. That area is now occupied by a large antique cabinet that came from Ms. Hoerig. Mr. Matthiessen is thinking of buying a more efficient stove to put there and moving the cabinet elsewhere. The house also has a separate parlor with a fireplace.

Mr. Matthiessen was the Hudson Riverkeeper from 2000 to 2010 and now is president of Blue Marble Project, an “eco-political” consulting and environmental advocacy firm named after the famous images of the earth taken from space. 

The firm works with both for-profit and nonprofit clients. It now is engaged in an idealistic campaign that aims to reduce traffic congestion in Manhattan. The plan includes adding tolls on the four main bridges into the city and charging vehicles to enter the business district. The money collected would go into improving roads and bridges and increasing public transit.

Outside the house, quite hidden from the street by a tall hedge, is a bluestone patio surrounded by plants. The decorative dentils on the soffit of the cornice along the roofline of the house draw one’s eye, as does the gray-green color of the roof and window frames. This jewel of a house in a jewel of a community is testimony to what can be achieved when a teardown is eschewed. The total effect is cozy yet spare, with soothing colors and lots of light.

Alex Matthiessen, above, is seated on a settee in the sitting room. Below, the fireplace in the original kitchen was one of the reasons he bought the house. It now heats the combined sitting room, dining room, and kitchen.
Above, the folding doors on a corner cupboard in the kitchen were designed for access to a huge single shelf. Below, two rooms were combined to create an ample master bedroom.
A close-up of the Papua New Guinea photos that hung in Peter Matthiessen’s Sagaponack house.
A right whale skull has been moved from the Saga­ponack house to Sag Harbor.
The patio, surrounded by plantings rather than a lawn, features an Indonesian teak daybed.