Visiting a 19th-Century House That Reconciles Old and New

    In 1980, two young hippies made their way east from Greenwich Village and bought a small house in Amagansett with an old Harley parked in the front hall. Every weekend for 31 years, this was Robert Strada and Michelle Murphy’s home away from home until 11 years ago when they became full-time residents and fulfilled a dream.
    A huge green spruce, its twin having been demolished by lightning, towers over the front yard and shields the house from the street. The Stradas recently completed a two-year renovation, maintaining the integrity of the original house, built in 1894 near Indian Wells beach by Capt. Sam Loper of the Life-Saving Service on government property. When he left the service in 1902, he moved the house to family property on Fresh Pond Road. Held up by trunks of locust trees, the house had stood its ground for 105 years when Mr. Strada, a designer and preservationist‚ took matters into his own hands.
     Today, after adding 910 square feet, the house has a spacious central hall and 14 rooms, not counting its five bathrooms. Mr. Strada kept to the original design while creating open spaces with family life in mind. It also has a screened-in porch, two patios, and a deep basement. Mr. Strada’s renovation juxtaposes the old and the new throughout the house.
     The couple’s older daughter has, in Mr. Strada’s words, “the best room in the house.” On the second floor of the old house, it faces west and has an unobstructed sunset view. Their other daughter’s room faces east, and has a large deck, called the sunbathing porch.
     Although the house had seven-foot ceilings, Mr. Strada said that “in the renovation we blew the ceilings out and up in the master bedroom. That was the place to do it.” The room’s height allowed an 1860 Napoleon III Lyre clock to be placed under a peak window, an architectural feature of 19th-century houses that is triangular at top.
     Ms. Murphy’s family history is evident throughout the house. A painter who studied art at the National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts in New York, Ms. Murphy seems to have been destined for the visual arts. Paintings by her great-grandmother and great-aunt hang in the master bedroom, and her grandmother’s hope chest sits near the clock.


     A second-story deck off the master bedroom now serves as a porch. “We had a front porch, but we swapped it out for a bigger foyer and living room,” Ms. Murphy said. Mr. Strada’s craftsmanship is evident there in hand-carved roof brackets and moldings, as it is in other parts of the house.
    Downstairs, the foyer, or front hallway, is bright and airy. The central hall is new, as is the widened staircase. Framed illustrations that Ms. Murphy did for The New Yorker magazine hang in the hall, including one featuring a bodega that sells Optimo cigars in Sheridan Square, which is familiar to Greenwich Villagers. “It’s so welcoming now; the feng shui wasn’t good,” she said. “we gave up the front porch for this.”
     The couple each have workrooms on the first floor. “I love it in here,” Ms. Murphy said of her studio. She wanted a fireplace and a terrace, along with a sink and ample room for her files. Now she can work until late in the evening with her husband and one of her daughters, a high school student, nearby.
    Two paintings by the late Andrew Wyeth, on loan from Peter Marcelle, an art dealer who represents Ms. Murphy as well as Wyeth, are propped on the fireplace mantel for inspiration. Her own work in the studio includes portraits of her daughters and a detailed painting of her great-grandmother’s house, resting on an easel. Another painting, “Mrs. Halsey’s Horseshoes,” captures Water Mill, and a watercolor is of Jackson Pollock’s house in Springs.
     Mr. Strada has a small room of his own off the studio. It is packed with a 19th-century English desk and a 21st-century glass table from Italy, along with three chairs and a love seat he designed while living in Italy. “I like to work in confined spaces,” he said.
     The house seems to go on forever. The large living room, on the first floor, has a grand piano crowded with family pictures and shelves containing Ms. Murphy’s grandmother’s books, but the artwork in it is most memorable. A Hirschfeld drawing of a water show in Flushing Meadows that Ms. Murphy’s father staged for 12 years, the “Aquashow Squazanies and the Aquadorables,” is prominently displayed. In the opposite corner is a painting by Angelina Beloff, Diego Rivera’s first wife; the Stradas rescued it from an incinerator.

t was modeled on one the couple saw in Sag Harbor, although four-panel doors are more typical.
     In the dining room, the table is often set for eight, ready for a dinner party at a moment’s notice. The art includes an Andrew Wyeth over the fireplace, a Larry Rivers to its left, and a painting by Ms. Murphy, who uses the name Michelle Murphy professionally, is across the room. A portrait and a still life by her great-grandmother add to the ambience. Another work by Ms. Murphy, a still life, is of items such as a crocheted doily her grandmother made, and it hangs just over a table on which they are displayed. A page of The East Hampton Star is also in the painting.
     While the dining room is highly traditional, the kitchen has had a modern makeover. Light pours in through French doors, which lead to a patio next to a 130-year-old pear tree. There is plenty of cooking space, a utilitarian island, a six-burner, two-oven stove, two enormous sinks, glass-fronted cabinets, and marble counters.
     A pantry off the kitchen and other hallways feature family history, more art, and photos of friends. Relatives are seen in front of the Murphy family’s ancestral home in England. There is a Patti Smith photo of ballet slippers, a mirror from the Stradas’ brownstone in Manhattan, and a daughter’s electric and acoustic guitars. Near a door that Paul McCartney walked through in 1998 is a portrait he did of his wife, Linda. He gave the painting to the Stradas after her death, inscribing it, “To the folks next door!”
     A last-minute addition at the back of the house is a glass-enclosed, heated porch with long windows, which functions to bring in the outdoors all year. An old green dartboard with multicolored feathered darts, which came from the original Abercrombie and Fitch, hangs to one side.
   “Even though the kids were growing up, we wanted a place for everyone,” Mr. Strada said. To create more room, the house was lifted up and moved over so a deep basement could be dug. There are window wells that let in a subterranean glow, a music room for one daughter, a room with a plasma TV, and a collection of vintage Italian posters along the hall.
     Mr. Strada explained that a tarp in the backyard covers the deconstructed remains of a house from 1740 that he rescued in Sag Harbor, saving the beams, curved windows, and circular staircase. He and Richard Ward Baxter of Amagansett recently formed a design partnership committed to maintaining the history and architectural integrity of the East End.
     The partnership stemmed from “an absolute aversion to teardown mania,” Mr. Strada said. Their goal is to do everything they can “to see that this place doesn’t get destroyed.”


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