At a “demolition sale” Saturday at a property on Meadowlark Lane, off Ocean Road in Bridgehampton, an army of bargain hunters descended upon a house fronting Sagg Pond and carted off assorted treasures from a washing machine to the blue stone walkway surrounding the pool. (John Buckheit, a mason, was the lucky one who got the stone at an unbelievable $1,200.)
The house will be torn down to make room for a bigger abode. It is a nice house, and was just renovated, but it’s a generic barn-like contemporary.
As people left the house, a side path led to a second house on the property, a sweet antique farmhouse, probably used in its most recent incarnation as a guest house. At about 11 a.m. a woman standing in the kitchen was heard to say, “I feel sick; I feel like throwing up.”
“They’re going to tear down this house,” she wailed. A hubbub of “Oh nos” ensued as the woman, who identified herself as Pam DeFronze, walked through the house pointing out the original 12-over-12 windows with price tags of a measly $100 per. “You can’t get those anymore,” she said. Then she pointed out a built-in corner cupboard, wide plank floorboards, ancient ceiling beams. “I’m numb,” she said. “This is an 18th-century house.” She added that she may know, at least she hoped, someone who would buy it.
A man in an apron, one of the workers for Hampton Estate Sales, said he had heard that the house had been moved from Sagaponack. Then Denise Stephens, the proprietor of the company, appeared and in defense of the homeowners stressed that they had tried to donate the house to the historical society and the town.
People milled about scavenging what they could. Everything was for sale from the mantelpiece to the floorboards. Blake Fleetwood, a writer who lives in an 1830 house in Amagansett, put in his two cents: The hand-chiseled 8-by-8 timbers were indicative of a structure dating from the 1830s. No matter how you look at it, the structure has housed local families for two centuries.
“Houses like this are our physical connection to our history,” said Sally Spanburgh, a local historic preservation advocate. “Along with farmland and open space and natural resources, historic structures are integral to the sense of community character, sense of place, and identity. They provide us with a lot of education about the skills and trades and owners, and not just of the English settlers, but also African-American families, and Polish and Irish, all those diverse groups that came here. . . .”
Ms. Spanburgh makes it her business to keep abreast of endangered historic houses, yet she had not heard of the plight of the Meadowlark Lane house. “As of last week I worked at the Bridgehampton Historical Society and I have no knowledge of that being offered to the society.” Nor had the director, John Eilertsen. It wouldn’t have made much difference. “Unless they also offered us land,” said Mr. Eilertsen, “we have nowhere to put it.”
Ms. Spanburgh also said that Southampton Town’s Landmarks and Historic Districts Board, of which she is chairwoman, had not been approached. Among the many goals of that entity is to protect “historic landscapes, settings, and structures,” according to its website.
“We could have done a press release and helped them out,” said Ms. Spanburgh. She was also unaware of any application for a demolition permit for the property. “If a house is 75 years or older, landmarks has to review it.” Is there anything they can do to stop the process? No. But they can alert the owners to incentives that have been established to encourage preservation of old structures. A yearly $20,000 maintenance grant is just one of several incentives the town instituted.
If only this were the sole historic house currently endangered. “We’re coming out of a slump so [demolition] is picking up,” said Ms. Spanburgh.
The threat to historic structures is what brought Robert Strada, a designer whose passion is to restore historic buildings, and his wife, Michelle Murphy Strada, an actress, to form Peconic Historic Preservation Inc., a not-for-profit whose mission it is to promote the preservation of historic buildings on the North and South Forks. The 501c3 got federal approval in March.
The couple, who live in an Amagansett house built by Capt. Sam Loper in 1894, began their crusade in 2006 when, at their own expense, they saved a 1740 house on Little Plains Road in Southampton, just outside the historic district.
“It’s tragic that they’re parting it out as opposed to maintaining its integrity,” Mr. Strada said of the Meadowlark house. He would have relished the opportunity to work with the owners to “deconstruct” it: a process to identify and label important components, take the house apart, and move it to another site where it can be reconstructed “in a comparable setting.”
“If we had enough time we could have raised the funds and maybe this building wouldn’t be lost,” he said. He is also actively working to save the Southampton house of Pyrrhus Concer, a freed slave and whaler who ran a shuttle service between Lake Agawam and the ocean.
“The battle lines are being drawn,” he said, adding that those on the side of historic preservation, including Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., “the driving force behind creating the community preservation fund,” often find themselves up against developers. However, Mr. Strada was careful to single out a couple of developers who have “supported historic preservation,” Jeffrey Colle and Ben Krupinski, whom he commends for restoring the Amagansett Life-Saving Station’s exterior at his own expense.
Mr. Strada has joined forces with another historic preservation advocate, Richard Ward Baxter, to form Strada Baxter Design Build. In working with government agencies, they have restored such buildings as East Hampton Village’s newly completed Isaac Osborn House on Newtown Lane, which dates from the 1840s, and the Smith-Taylor Cabin in Coecles Harbor on Shelter Island.
House preservationists have their work cut out for them. “There’s a stronger desire for something new than there is respect for something original,” said Ms. Spanburgh. “I really wish that people who want to build a new house would not buy a property with an historic structure.”
Meanwhile, Ms. DeFronze was able to purchase a bit of the Meadowlark house’s history, its handsomely paneled front door.