An Aesthetics for Amagansett

By Robert Stuart

    Ron Fleming lived on Meeting House Lane, Amagansett. His 73rd birthday would have been April 21 of this year, 2014.

    Ron lived in a house built not long after the turn of the last century, its architecture and style from that time, similar to beach houses along Bluff Road, large, gracious, and welcoming. “The house with the red shutters,” when giving directions.

    Ron bought the house in the 1960s and converted a garage into a bungalow, where he moved for the summer while he rented the house. He cultivated gardens in his front yard, the house set back from the road. Blooming shrubs and flowers graced the side along the driveway, and the deep backyard, which included the bungalow, was another expansive setting of trees, shrubbery, and flowers.

    The interior of the house was Victoriana. For many years Ron had an antiques store in Boston. Inside on the other side of his heavy front door, I felt the world had laid down its weight, or I had. Guests relaxed. For 10 years he hosted a gay men’s Thanksgiving dinner, 12 of us seated at a large table in the snug dining room. His banter in conversation was whimsical and friendly, sometimes acerbic, with a quip about “stupid things” going on in town. He felt it would be helpful to have had the Amagansett “Lanes” designated a historic district. In that regard, he lamented the razing of an old house on Indian Wells Highway. It was, he said, a travesty to demolish it.

    What would he say then of his house after he died? The property sold immediately to a developer who in no time razed the grand old place, flattened the bungalow, tore up all the trees and gardens, leveling everything to the ground. If Ron’s death felt precipitous, this rapid destruction of his property added to the sense that Ron was completely obliterated from the earth. By his request some of his ashes had been scattered on his gardens. Even that faint remnant was now dug up.

    What is replacing Ron’s house is what anyone can see driving up and down the Amagansett Lanes. Developers are building tall houses on narrow lots, so that with multiple peaked roofs they appear to be latter-day castles pushed inward and up. What are the zoning requirements? Is the pyramid rule still in effect?

    Not all lots are narrow, requiring houses with pitched rooflines to look pinched. Some lots are larger, providing greater perspective.

    On Atlantic Avenue, where apparently adjacent lots were purchased, a large house also fills all available space. I knew the mother and daughter who lived in one of the previous homes. When I met her in the early 1980s, Paulene See was the oldest living member of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church, where I was the minister. Her daughter, Virginia Morgan, lived with her. When Paulene died, Virginia came to the manse where I lived and gave me $1,000 cash to be used in her mother’s memory. We purchased plantings for the front of the church, which subsequently Ron Fleming cared for during the present pastorate of the Rev. Steven Howarth. And Ron added plants and trees.

    Older residents of Amagansett may say of a house regardless of who lives there now, that was the Bennett house, or that’s the Schellinger house. On the northwest corner of Indian Wells and Further Lane, the expansive white house was the Terry home, where the widow, Katharine Terry Scoville, lived. Her husband was the Rev. Clarence Beecher Scoville, of the Presbyterian Church. I knew Katharine in her advanced age.

    At least that Terry/Scoville house is still standing, so it can be identified historically with personal reference. Not so the new constructions replacing those that have been razed. We cannot say of the replacement to Ron Fleming’s house, that is the Fleming house.

    Then there is Scoville Hall on Meeting House Lane. It was destroyed by fire two and a half years ago and awaits reconstruction. An architect with sensitivity to the church’s history and place in the hamlet will design something appropriate to its ministry as a church and community center. Though not part of the church, the property immediately east of the manse, owned by Wilson Griffing Jr., now deceased, is for sale. Will it be bound by restrictions because it faces Main Street and is therefore part of Amagansett’s historic district?

    Not every house has to be kept as it was from an earlier time, as though there could be no change or development. A given property cannot always be the Terry house, for example. Who besides the town crier, Hugh King, knows such things, anyway? By that reasoning Amagansett would have nothing but 18th-century houses, and so — someone might wisecrack — just open the hamlet up as a museum.

    In fact, there was a lot of building in Amagansett and in town going into the second half of the 20th century, much of it modest family dwellings on half-acre lots. My own home in Springs is one of those. Oceanfront properties are another matter, and I’m not writing about those.

    Is there some “golden mean” between keeping everything as it was and tearing down and building over with castles-in-the-air architecture? Is there an aesthetics for Amagansett?

    To speak of aesthetics philosophically is to become engaged in a discussion of beauty. Classically, beauty refers to such things as symmetry, proportion, harmony, and is associated with the moral force of truth and goodness.

    Whatever the particular architectural design, I would suggest two aesthetic criteria.

    One, to draw from classical argument, does the house have a sense of proportion and harmony with its setting? Is there breathing space such that the structure does not take up the whole parcel of land? Does the new building take into account the architecture of the neighborhood, not to duplicate other structures but to be harmonious with them? Is there a sense of composition with the whole, not separateness?

    Two, related to the first, what strikes me about some of these new structures is that they are being built with an appeal to the individual alone. That is — the owner in isolation from the neighborhood. I suggest a social philosophy as a second aesthetic criterion.

    Individuals are part of a community in social context. People in their homes live next door and down the lane from other people living in their homes. What I see currently is the undermining if not destruction of social cohesion. The inference seems architecturally to be of these newer castles in the air — this will be my house, my castle, and I’m not concerned about the neighborhood except to protect property values.

    That may be an unfair inference, and I admit it depends on the people who reside in the new houses. They may indeed want to be neighbors and make good neighbors. But my caution remains against the vaulting of the individual, raised up without reference to community. That concern is the moral component of aesthetics.

    Ron Fleming’s house invited you in. It had a welcoming entrance and facade. There were gardens. It was open to the street, not closed from the street. There was symmetry and proportion in relation to the property and neighborhood. There was also Ron’s good will, his jolly personality, which expressed itself with neighbors and in his particular dedication to the Presbyterian Church.

    I am writing in remembrance of Ron as a friend. He died last July from melanoma, which had progressed rapidly through his body from its initial diagnosis the previous fall. His death therefore was relatively quick, his departure sudden, as we felt it, those of us who knew him.

    In his name I argue for the preservation of community.

    Robert Stuart was the minister of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church from 1982 to 1998. A member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop, he recently completed a memoir having to do with sexuality and religious faith.