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Southampton Village: The Transition to Stylish Resort

Originally Posted: March 21, 2007

Mary Cummings

Even before the Long Island Rail Road extended its tracks eastward and arrived in Southampton in 1870, a few hardy souls had thought the village's leafy streets and pristine beaches worth the overnight boat trip or even the grueling journey by stagecoach, which could take up to three days from Brooklyn Ferry. In a reminiscence written for Southampton's 325th anniversary in 1965, Marion McKeever Thompson recalled that her great-grandmother, Mrs. Joseph Gamble, and her grandmother Mrs. Isaac McKeever "spent two summers here at the Post House at the time of the Civil War." In 1877, when she was a year old, her parents took rooms for the family at Captain Barney Green's boarding house at the corner of Toylsome Lane and South Main Street. Finally, in 1882, her father built a summer home for the family on the "Pond", as Lake Agawam was affectionately known.

Lake Agawam circa 1900.
Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

Thus did one family's experience illustrate the path of Southampton's transformation into a fashionable resort. Many of the earliest arrivals were sportsmen, alerted by the widely read "Sportsman's Gazetteer" that no place had better wild duck shooting than Noyac. The prospective gunner was advised to take the four-and-a-half hour train trip or, alternatively, the evening steamer, "W.W. Coit," which arrived in Sag Harbor the following morning.

With the heady days of whaling prosperity behind them, many Southampton residents were on the lookout for new sources of income and accommodating visitors from the city now that the village was accessible by train was a natural choice. Particularly the case for those in possession of large houses built with whaling wealth. Writing in her "Memories of a Southampton Child," Margaret Schieffelin Trevor recalled that when her father, an attorney of German descent, and his gunning buddies came out to Southampton to shoot ducks, they stayed at Mrs. Myers' boarding house at the corner of Main Street and Meeting House Lane, originally built in 1843 as a private residence for Captain Albert Rogers, another whaler.

Despite its swift ascent to fashionable status, that early notion of Southampton as a society in the sporting style, disdainful of all formality and opulence, would never quite die as an ideal. It survived in the heartiness of Southampton club life, the prevalence of places where men could be men—hunting lodges and gentlemen's retreats. As the inevitable march toward excess progressed, it manifested itself in a remarkable ability among the very wealthy to profess a craving for country simplicity while living in fully staffed mansions, which they coyly called cottages.

It was not however, the super-rich who were to set the tone for what became known as Southampton's summer colony. Its pioneers were drawn from the ranks of New York City's second-tier wealth. These gentlemen were bankers, lawyers, medical men and the like who, though their fortunes did not rise to the level of New York's robber barons and industrial tycoons, were well off nevertheless. They were all socially conspicuous and well positioned in the city's WASP-dominated circles of power to exercise considerable control over municipal affairs.

Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, 1890.
Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

This movement was led by Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, a brilliant and charismatic practitioner in the relatively new field of gynecology. Dr. Thomas' adoring New York City clientele included society matrons as well as less fortunate patients whom he treated with the noblesse oblige of his time and his temperament. He and others like him were men who had made their mark on the metropolis and were eager to retrofit Southampton as a seasonal Arcadian alternative. As Thomas Kessner observed in his "Capital City: New York City and the Men Behind America's Rise to Economic Dominance 1860-1900," it was during this period that men of their ilk were accomplishing much the same thing in a far bigger arena, as "control over city growth passed from professional politicians to a class of businessmen with the time, money and inclination to shape a modern metropolis in their own image,"

Among Dr. Thomas' patients was the wife of the successful dry-goods merchant Leon Depeyre DeBost, who had childhood memories of Southampton, his maternal grandfather having preached at the Presbyterian Church and welcomed his grandsons for extended visits during their youth. As an adult, DeBost returned with friends to shoot game, boarding with local families until, in 1875, he purchased land not far from the church and built the village's first summer house, which survives today at 220 South Main Street. Two years later, in 1877, DeBost convinced Dr. Thomas to follow him to Southampton and Dr. Thomas, in turn, convinced his patients to follow him.

At a time when gynecologists were lionized by their patients and relieving women's "hysteria" (thought to be the consequence of sexual deprivation) was a staple of gynecological practice, Dr. Thomas recommended the tonic effects of Southampton's salubrious air on the nerves. He arranged for his patients to lodge at a local boarding house and built himself an extravagant seaside summer home—long gone—which locals, struck by the double-deck wraparound porches that reminded them of a canary cage, dubbed "The Birdcage."

So smitten was Dr. Thomas said to have been when first he set foot in Southampton that legend has it he walked the beach for more than seven miles in a semi-ecstatic state. But Thomas, a handsome fellow of imposing proportions, was also a man of science with a practical bent. After building his own summer home, he put up several more to rent out to his friends, launching a trend that anticipated—and helped to create—the coming real estate boom.

Playing up the Yokel vs. "Yorker" roles that, even then, the media loved to exploit for the amusement of city readers, a correspondent for The Evening Post wrote in August of 1880 that when "Mr. L.D. DeBost planned his neat summer dwelling...and laid out the grounds about it with an eye to the transfer of home comforts from New York to Southampton during the hot season..." there were "ominous comments on his undertaking. When T. Gaillard Thomas followed suit," he went on, "it was a seven days' wonder. But when the west side of the pond began to blossom with summer cottages for the habitation of the families of Mr. William Hoyt, Mr. Frederic Betts and Dr. Albert Buck, the croakers closed their lips to croak no more forever."

Students of William Merritt Chase circa 1900.
Collection of the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY

With the arrival of the Hoyts, and particularly William's wife Nettie, daughter of Abraham Lincoln's brilliant Secretary of the Treasury who served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the post Civil-War era, cultural life in Southampton—largely viewed as nonexistent by those with an urban perspective—got a significant boost. Theirs was "the first house on the choicest knoll on the pond," as the Sea-Side Times rhapsodized, "a great rambling structure, with the scent of fresh pine and cedar trees in the floors, walls and ceilings."

Looking back at Mrs. Hoyt's influence a few years later, a columnist for the Daily Express credited her with, "Originally having started the fashion of cottage life at Southampton." An artist "of no mean order and also a marvelously energetic woman," Nettie Hoyt was seen as the woman who planted the seed for Southampton's cultural flowering.

Before the end of the century the village would acquire a library and an art museum and the celebrated painter William Merritt Chase would be lured to Shinnecock Hills to preside over a summer art school. While Samuel Parrish, the somewhat eccentric Quaker lawyer who became Southampton's best known benefactor, was responsible for the museum, which bears his name, and contributed to just about every civic-minded project he or his peers could dream up, it was Mrs. Hoyt who orchestrated the art school endeavor and enlisted the cream of New York City's society matrons as benefactors. Listed among them were Mrs. August Belmont, Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, and Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt.

Portrait of Samuel L. Parrish by Howard Chandler Christy, 1924.
Collection of the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY

The first of the Betts brothers to arrive was Frederic, a lawyer whose clients included J.P. Morgan & Co. and a long list of corporate giants. C. Wyllys Betts, also a lawyer, arrived not long afterward and both bought land at the south end of the lake adjoining the ocean, thus making them "the fortunate possessors of the most valuable building sites in Southampton," according to one of their contemporaries, William S. Pelletreau. (It also brought them some future unpleasantness in the form of a lawsuit challenging their ownership, brought by some of Southampton's fiercest defenders of the public's beach rights.) Frederic built himself a charming, many-gabled cottage with lawns that sloped gently down to the lake where his wife kept a gondola purchased during a sojourn in Venice. Each Sunday, poled by four footmen, the gondola crossed the lake to deliver the lady of the house to morning services at St. Andrew's Dune Church.

Well-heeled Yale men, the Betts brothers were prominent in promoting the various improvements championed by the SVIS (Southampton Village Improvement Association). Among C. Wyllys's other interests were numismatics (he was co-editor of the American Journal of Numismatics) and English furniture. Legend has it that he shipped so much furniture back to Southampton after buying sprees in the British Isles that Frederic felt obliged to build his brother six houses to accommodate his extravagant purchases. Whether inspired by furniture overload or something else—a desire to be surrounded by friends, perhaps, or to turn a profit on his real estate investments?—six cottages went up on Betts land, all spoken for during the summer of 1880, according to a report in the Evening Post.

Another Yalie, Charles Larned Atterbury, a partner with C. Wyllis in the New York City firm of Atterbury & Betts before leaving for even more lucrative work on behalf of the booming railroads, also saw opportunity and seized it, buying up pondside property and putting up cottages. Dr. Buck, too, eventually became a homeowner and landlord, as did the Meads (he of Dodd Mead) and the Murdocks—all reported by the Sea-Side Times to have "invested largely in real estate."

The main entrance on jobs Lane as it appeared shortly after the 1913 addition.
Museum Archives of The Parrish Art Museum

Soon what had been known simply as Town Pond got a name upgrade, to be known henceforth as Lake Agawam, and the building boom went into high gear. Salem H. Wales, who had been a publisher, president of the New York City Board of Park Commissioners, and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of New York City—"a prominent New York gentleman" and "a man of great wealth," as the Evening Post identified him—made the shift from renter to owner in 1880. [Wales purchased] 10 acres bordering the lake at a price that had risen from $50 or $75 an acre a decade earlier to $300 and $400 an acre. (The surge should have come as no surprise, the writer suggested, for "the place has grown to such an extent that in the season just past 1300 to 1500 hundred strangers or 'New Yorkers,' as they are termed here, were entertaining in the height of the season.)"

On his coveted plot at the northwest corner of the lake, Wales erected "a most substantial, elegant and costly mansion to be a permanent summer home..." reported the Post. "Ox Pasture," as Wales called it, boasted a view overlooking "the quaint, old-fashioned village, and stretching far to the North over wooded hills and green fields, "making it the perfect refuge from the noise and turmoil and pestilence-breeding atmosphere of the great city..."

Alas, the land surrounding Lake Agawam —pronounced "the very center of our summer colony" by Dr. Thomas — was less than ideal in one important respect: it tended toward swampiness, a condition that presented its own pestilence-breeding potential. Concern over sanitary conditions—intensified by an outbreak of dysentery in the village in 1880—was undoubtedly one of the chief reasons behind Dr. Thomas's decision to invite a small group of his friends who owned summer houses in Southampton to attend a meeting at his Fifth Avenue home in October of 1881. Galvanized by a common conviction that the rustic little seaside village was in need of improvement, and that as men of wealth, stature, and civic achievement, they were the ones to take on the task, they set about creating what was to become the Southampton Village Improvement Association.

Called to order by their host and leader, they elected George R. Schieffelin chairman and Dr. Buck secretary of the fledgling organization and declared its chief objectives to be "the beautifying of the principal streets and open places of the village, and the removal of all such nuisances as tend to make the place unpleasant or unhealthy." In time, they would invite all current members of the summer colony and a select number of sympathetic year-round residents to join the organization, though membership in the executive committee, which maintained a firm grip on the helm, was at first reserved for summer residents.

True to their commitment, the city men were generous with their time and their money. They saw to it that shade trees were planted along Main Street and Jobs Lane. They moved forward on plans for an appropriately elegant train station, and they threw themselves into the studies, dredging, seagrass removal, and other measures aimed at making Lake Agawam safe for boaters, bathers, fishermen and, not least, for occupants of the houses that increasingly ringed its shores.

Captain George G. White, 1880.
Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

Since the village was not incorporated until 1897, the SVIS agenda did not have to compete with that of local officials—which is not to say that it had universal approval. Surely it rankled when George Schieffelin used his position as SVIS secretary in 1883 to scold village merchants and residents for being insufficiently tidy, assuming the lofty and censorious tone that came naturally to these self-appointed guardians of public orderliness and morality to remind them that "a little care and a little thoughtfulness on the part of each individual will result in a very large aggregate of improvement. Neatness and order about our dwellings and streets not only give an air of thrift and beauty to the place and are pleasing to the eye, but beyond this unquestionably have a favorable effect upon our own characters and upon those of our growing children so susceptible to impressions from objects around them."

Such presumptuousness galled. Sometimes it provoked outright antagonism. This was particularly true in conflicts between those who would build on the beach and locals who believed strongly that the beach always had—and always would—belong to the people. These clashes would pit sophisticated and silver-tongued New Yorkers like Dr. Thomas and Frederic H. Betts against local opponents of beach privatization in any form, led by the formidable Captain George G. White, an old whaling man turned politician who was their match in shrewdness and verbal agility, though perhaps not in sonorous oratory.

In 1885, the pages of the local weekly, the Sea-Side Times, sizzled with the heat of an exchange between Captain White and his adversaries over a proposal to erect a beachfront building variously referred to as a "casino" (a 19th-century term for a social hall that had no gaming implications), a "beach house", and a "club house on the beach" at the south end of Lake Agawam. While the Town Trustees, under the leadership of Captain White, professed a willingness to lease the land to the building's backers, they would not allow beachfront property owner C. Wyllys Betts to make a gift of it to the town for a purpose he insisted was intended as a public benefit. The land, argued White, was not his to give.

On May 7, 1885, the paper published a long plaintive letter from C.W. Betts (endorsed by his brother Frederic and Salem H. Wales) bewailing the Town Trustees' failure to appreciate the largesse of the summer residents. "The New York residents at Southampton," he affirmed, "consider it due to themselves that recognition should be made of the benefits they have conferred and are year-by-year conferring upon the place, by a formal relinquishment of all claim on the part of the town trustees to beach lands between the ponds and the ocean..."

Gin Lane circa 1900.
Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

On May 14, 1885, George White replied, citing the townspeople's irreversible claim to that beach land "from the pond to the ocean, it being handed down to them by their ancestors as an open road and free beach from time immemorial..." As for the townsfolks' ingratitude, he had this to say: "I will, in behalf of the town, publicly thank Mr. Betts for his public works, yet invisible. We are pleased to have the wealthy people settle among us, but suppose that when buying our property they consult their own interest fully as much as the welfare of the town."

Another verbal skirmish involved the SVIS's much-vaunted tree-planting project, for which White believed the summer colony took far too much credit. In correspondence published in the Sea-Side Times, he pointed out that the "village people" had given enough to the Improvement Association "in money and labor to pay for all the trees that have been set out."

And then there was the matter of the elaborate plans put forth by Betts et al for a new town hall. Here, White let out all the stops. "I admire a first-class humbug," he wrote. "For four years meetings were held, and plans were drawn and altered by Mr. Betts. On the fourth year he had a beautiful, ornamental building on paper, to cost about $7,000..." Promises were made and a sum was dangled as a "lever," presumably to pressure the population at large to demonstrate a comparable commitment to this public-spirited project. And then, a bare three months later, Betts and the others apparently thought better of the whole plan and withdrew it—an outcome that White seemed to greet with little surprise and less distress. As a result, he asserted, "we must go ahead and build our hall, which was a relief to the stockholders and a gratification to the village people. Finis."

Next: Southampton Enters the 20th Century as "The Queen of American Watering Places.

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