Though historic houses are a huge factor in what creates the aura of the Hamptons, buyers for such houses are few and far between. People like to look at the charming old houses as they pass by on their way to newer ones. They’re quaint from afar.
“It’s tragic,” said Cliffeton Green, a broker at Corcoran in Bridgehampton. “Many people no longer appreciate 18-inch wide, 250-year-old pine floorboards.” Or the old beams, many of which were made from decommissioned sailing ships. Or the “massive brick walk-in fireplaces.”
Old houses appeal to those who relish their intimate rooms, authentic lines, original details, and the potential surprise of finding that the insulation is made of old newspapers, or even seaweed. But the problems for today’s buyer are many: Rooms are small, ceilings are low (often under eight feet), light is limited, windows are single pane. Also, said Ms. Green, some have termites, though she stresses that is “almost always a solvable problem.”
And, of course, they often take a lot of work to bring up to modern standards, not to mention code. Ms. Green recalls a 1730s preacher’s house in Sagaponack she sold where the basement was “literally on dirt,” and had to be carefully excavated by hand. “Most buyers will not want to undertake such a project.” It takes a certain kind of buyer to “appreciate and understand the significance of a much older house.”
They also take money. Cornelia Dodge, an agent with Halstead Property in East Hampton, recently sold the timber-frame saltbox, Congress Hall, a village house dating to 1680 with views of Mulford Farm and a village green. “They have a special set of challenges,” she said of the family who bought it. “I would guess they’re spending as much [on renovation] as they purchased the house for.” It went for just under a million. “But they look forward to treating it with care. The rewards are amazing.”
Strangely, some of the top architects on the South Fork who spend their days designing ultramodern houses spend their nights sleeping in antiques. Richard Meier lives in a traditional Shingle Style cottage on Georgica Road. Rob Barnes of Barnes Coy Architects lives in an 1899-vintage house in East Hampton Village. Nick Martin of Martin Architects lives in a Sagaponack house built in 1776. And Fred Stelle of Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects lives in a 1920s house overlooking the Shelter Island Sound. The truth is that architects appreciate good lines whether old or new.
“My kids keep asking when we’re going to move into a house I designed,” said Mr. Stelle. With an appreciation for the bones of the house, he renovated it rather than tear it down.
“It’s rare to find a [pre-existing] modern house that you’d want to live in,” said Mr. Barnes. Early modern houses, he explained, were shabbily built and many are not worth restoring. While he claims that modern houses today are better built than traditional houses, in previous decades cost-cutters “used cheap sliding doors, plywood siding,” and the like.
More recent modern houses were custom-built for owners who likely still reside in them. Why not build a modern house for himself? “One day I will,” he said. Mr. Barnes, who is single, prefers village life, where vacant land is scarce — except in the cases where a builder knocks down an old house to put up a new one and charges twice as much as he paid. Meanwhile, he enjoys living in a house that is “nicely proportioned, comfortable, and warm.”
Of course architects are often called in to renovate or restore an old house, in which case they will mostly redo the bathrooms and kitchens while keeping the other rooms as true to their origins as possible. Or, they might add on a modern wing “that follows the same lines” of the original house, according to Mr. Barnes. “A little glass piece on the back of a house makes it more interesting,” he said. But it must be executed “sensitively” and not mar the street-side facade.
Which leads to another potential downside to owning a historic house: the fact that exterior changes must be vetted by historical committees and architectural review boards if the house is a landmark or in a designated historic district. In Sag Harbor’s historic district, for example, owners must get approval for paint colors. As one owner put it, “It’s a matter of opinion what’s historical and what’s hysterical.”
A truly historic house with details including elephant pine floors, tin ceilings, and original fireplaces sells quickly in that burgh, according to Jane Holden, an agent with Brown Harris Stevens.
She recently sold such a house on Jermain Avenue that was neglected for many years, even having an incarnation as a restaurant, the House on Otter Pond, but was “replicated exactly” to its original state in the early ’90s. It just sold for $1.25 million, which “was a steal,” she said.
The new owners, like other owners of historic properties, are in for heavy upkeep. “There’s always something that needs to be repaired,” she said. “Something as simple as putting in A.C. is complicated. You’ve got to have a love for it.” And you need to have an architect or contractor who “knows what they’re doing, and has respect for the history. I’ve seen too many say ‘Rip this out.’ ”
During a showing, when a prospect complains that the floors are leaning, she tells them, “You pay extra for that — it took a long time to get that way.” Like others who adore old houses, Ms. Holden enjoys sharing anecdotes about them. “There was a house that sold years ago on Madison [Street in Sag Harbor]. When they renovated it, they found English doubloons behind the fireplace. It’s an adventure.”
Jose Enrique Arandia, an agent at Corcoran in Bridgehampton, lives in a house dating from 1929. It has an interesting history that Mr. Arandia likes to repeat. It was a spec house built by a developer who “had a whole plan in place” for the area north of the highway in Wainscott. “It was going to be called Midhampton,” Mr. Arandia said. But the project was abandoned after the Crash.
“When people come by they say, ‘This is a happy house,’ ” he said. “That is one thing we lose. . . . Contemporary spaces don’t flow into one another.” He is also enamored of the walls’ lathing, which he described as layers of sand, stone, and concrete poured over “metal mesh” resulting in a textured effect. “It provides a solidity.”
There were modernizations made to his house before he moved in, including large-paned windows that allow in “a beautiful northern light.” Only one other house was built, which remains “almost entirely in its original state,” thanks to third-generation owners who only come out in summers, so apparently are not driven to update it.
One of the oldest houses on the East End went on the market a couple of months ago. According to the owner, Neil Heiskell, Hedge Court Cottage, located in Water Mill across from the Parrish Art Museum, was built in 1699. A true historic gem, the price of just under $1 million reflects the fact that it’s on the highway, though its magical gardens with specimen trees and giant hedges, for which it was named, seem to transport you to a bygone era. Its listing agent, Ellen Lauinger of Corcoran in Southampton, admits that it will take a “very special audience” to appreciate it. There have been several “quite knowledgeable” lookers so far who have “reveled in the history” and nooks and crannies of the house. No takers yet, but with its all-important “room for a pool” status, it probably won’t take long.