Sag Harbor's Morpurgo House Has a New Owner

After a few tense moments on the steps of Southampton Town Hall, Mitch Winston, right, was ultimately the winning bidder at the auction of the old Morpurgo house in Sag Harbor Village. Taylor K. Vecsey photos

A storied 210-year-old house on Union Street in Sag Harbor Village, long abandoned and called a safety hazard by officials, has a new owner who has promised to work with the village and restore the house to its former glory. As long as all the particulars that come with the purchase of a property at auction fall into place, the old Morpurgo house is about to get some long-needed attention.

Mitch Winston, an Amagansett resident and developer, emerged from the public auction, held under court order Friday morning on the steps of Southampton Town Hall as part of a foreclosure process that has spanned several years, as the next owner of the blighted property. The winning bid was $1.325 million.

The auction was neither swift nor simple. Despite its 10 a.m. start time, it did not begin for another 45 minutes, because neither the lawyer acting as the referee nor the lawyer for the mortgage lender could produce the required terms of sale. Joel Zweig, representing Atlantic View Holdings, the lender, made a trip to the Rogers Memorial Library, about a half-mile away, to print out copies.

Upon his return, Michael Ahearn began the auction by reading out the three pages, his soft voice all but lost amid the hustle and bustle on the steps of Town Hall. It was a far cry from the lively auction that had been held for the property in 2005, on the steps of the Sag Harbor Municipal Building.

“Are we supposed to be able to hear this?” asked Mia Grosjean of Sag Harbor, who was among several residents watching the proceedings.

The minimum bid — the amount of the outstanding mortgage on the 4,000-square-foot house -— was $1.146 million, but a principal of Atlantic View Holdings was able to drive the price up about $200,000 in a few tense minutes by bidding against Mr. Winston, who was his only opponent. The man, quiet and heavyset, standing next to Mr. Zweig offered $1.2 million after Mr. Winston’s opening bid. He declined to give his name.

Mr. Winston asked to see his certified cashier’s check, which was required of all bidders. It turned out, however, that the mortgage lender was exempt from the requirement.

Frustrated, Mr. Winston bid $1,000 more. The heavyset man then offered $1.25 million. Mr. Winston pressed the question about identification, asking for proof that this man represented the lender. Mr. Zweig and the referee both said it was not needed, and that Mr. Zweig’s vouching for him was enough.

After a brief conference Mr. Winston offered $1.325 million, which won him the property. Afterward, he said he hadn’t expected the lender to drive up the price, but did think there might be other bidders and had been prepared to spend more. He turned over a certified check for $135,000, a little over than the required 10 percent down payment. He has 30 days to close, or risk losing his deposit.

“The priority right now is to make sure the place is safe,” said Scott Strough, who, with Christian Lipp, both from the Compass agency, helped broker the deal.

“Amen, brother,” called out Ed Deyermond, a village board member. The board had debated whether to tear down the house, which, with its front porch in danger of collapse, an open septic tank, and crumbling roof, is considered a health and safety hazard. There is a chain link fence in front of the house and a fence separating it from one neighbor, but two other sides, including the one it shares with the John Jermain Memorial Library, have been left exposed.

Asked how quickly the new owner needs to address the safety issues, Mr. Deyermond answered, “Forthwith.” 

The challenge now, Mr. Strough said, is safe entry, in order to do an architectural assessment and document the interior photographically. “I think right now, the physical condition of the property may warrant at least some of the structure to come down,” he said. The new owner is committed to working with the village.

Jane Peterson, who lives on nearby Latham Street, asked Mr. Winston to try to save as much of the façade as possible. She suggested that Mr. Strough, who has been active in the sale of other historic properties such as the old Methodist Church on Madison Street, could do it.

Jason Crowley, who until recently was a director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, has called the house a contributing resource to the local and national historic district, and said that every effort should be made to repair it, and that it should be demolished only as a last resort.

A two-and-a-half story, Federalist-Italianate structure, it has long been known as the Morpurgo house. Two sisters, Annselm and Helga Morpurgo, fought over it for decades while it fell into disrepair. Twice, a judge put it up for auction at more than $1 million, all of which created a buzz but no bids. One sister tried to sell it on eBay for $19 million. By 2007, when it had had no heat or running water for years, the village deemed it unfit for human occupancy, and the last sister finally moved out.

In November 2007, a limited liability corporation called Captain Hulbert House bought the house at auction for $1.46 million. Annselm Morpurgo had said the house was built by and for Capt. John Hulbert, hero of Ticonderoga and crafter of the Hulbert flag eulogized by Francis Scott Key in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” However, the sister also said it was build around 1810 for a Captain Vail, a whaler.

The property went into a lengthy foreclosure, made even longer by its being tied up in the phony mortgage schemes that landed former Suffolk Legislator George O. Guldi in jail.

Mr. Winston, who said he had several partners in this project, told those gathered at Town Hall that he was committed to restoring the house, saving what can be saved, and keeping the historic character of the neighborhood. While he has not worked before in Sag Harbor, he said he has developed homes elsewhere on the South Fork.

Joel Zweig, right, with a man, identified only as the principal of Atlantic View Holding, the lender on the property who drove the price of the house up at the auction.
Scott Strough of the Compass agency, who helped broker the deal, said the new owner is committed to working with the village.