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Adaptive Reuse in Three Acts

Originally Posted: August 10, 2004

Mary Cummings

Villa Maria, or the Siena Spirituality Center, in Water Mill

Sometimes a landmark is a landmark simply because it has always been there. Like the Montauk Lighthouse, Sagaponack's little red schoolhouse, or Hildreth's department store in Southampton, these are structures that have presented the same profile and served the same purpose for so many years that their very consistency confers landmark status.

And then there are others that have survived to become fixtures of the local landscape by not staying the same, by adapting physically and functionally to changing times. They may look as though they have always been there, same as they ever were—to borrow a phrase—but no one should be fooled by their staid facades. In fact, many of our venerable old buildings have the most lively histories, full of drama and flux.

Take the Villa Maria in Water Mill, for example, which started life as a quirky Victorian residence and evolved into the familiar buff-colored baronial mansion on Mecox that currently serves as a spiritual center. Or consider the farmhouse on Hill Street that was folded into a mansion in the style of Mount Vernon for James Breese and his family and is today the centerpiece of the Whitefield condominium complex. Or the 18th-century house on Main Street in East Hampton where the celebrated preacher Lyman Beecher once lived, and which came perilously close to disappearing in the mid-'80s before it was rescued and retrofitted for offices.

The Villa Maria

Villa Maria - Before Rennovation

he Villa Maria story begins in 1887 when New York City department store magnates Josiah Lombard and Marshall Ayers purchased eight acres of land on Mecox Bay and built a rambling Queen Anne-style summer house at the corner of Halsey Lane and Montauk Highway. The two wealthy merchants, who acquired an additional eight acres along with the Corwith windmill a few years later, do not seem to have made much of a splash during their ten years in Water Mill. Much more is known of the next owner, Dr. Edward L. Keyes, thanks to his late grandson, Paul Du Vivier.

In interviews for an oral history project, Du Vivier described his grandfather as a leading urologist of his era, author of "the standard textbook on the subject," and a "very charming and gregarious man." The mansion he bought before the turn of the century (which he named Red Gables but referred to as "the villa") was "a tall and very elaborate Victorian house," as du Vivier described it, sheathed in "shingles in the old fashioned style" and bristling with "turrets, balconies, loggias" -all the quirky excrescences available to architects working in the style of the time. It was painted green with a red roof.

Villa Maria, today

A graduate of Yale with a medical degree from what is now the Cornell Medical Center/New York Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. Keyes established a practice on the Lower East Side, treating syphilis and "all of the degrading human failings which you find, especially among the lower classes, in any great city," according to his grandson. Armed with charm and a wife who was nothing if not socially nimble (her family home had been on a large estate with a number of slaves—later freed by her father—on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., the site today of American University), Dr. Keyes moved his practice uptown by stages, eventually settling at a prestigious address with the son of President Martin Van Buren as his medical partner. The two men "must have gotten along very well socially and professionally," according to Du Vivier, who cited their decision to invest jointly "in a new invention called the motor car." Their first was a French Renault, their second a 1902 Oldsmobile, and together they blazed a trail that might arguably have been better left unblazed.

According to du Vivier, the two men were "the first people to drive a motor vehicle from Manhattan to the eastern end of Long Island and it took them all day." Their wives were not included, of course, since the new contraption was considered unsafe. So "through the day," the men stopped in places like Jamaica, Smithtown or Ronkonkoma to send telegrams back home "saying that they had only one spare tire left and that they were still proceeding on course and hoped to complete the trip by sundown."
In 1908, for reasons that Du Vivier hinted may have had something to do with his grandmother's social ambitions, Dr. Keyes hired the architect Charles Ewing to build him a house in the Art Village and in 1909, Red Gables was sold to Brooklyn shipbuilder Edward Phinley Morse, who promptly painted it white with a green roof, requiring a change of name to "Green Gables."

In a letter published in Newsday in 1976, Morse's granddaughter, Mrs. Clarence Renshaw, offered this description of the house in its original guise: "A wide porch surrounded three-quarters of the main floor, and above the third floor was a little room reached by a narrow winding stairway, with windows all around—an enclosed widow's walk that provided a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. Halfway between the house and the bay the lawn was fenced to provide pasture for two Jersey cows."

By 1919, Mr. Morse, a native of Nova Scotia and founder of United Shipyards in Brooklyn, was no longer satisfied with his summer "cottage" and hired New York architect Frank Freeman to transform it into a more elaborate residence befitting a man of his station. Freeman's plan called for the house to be, in effect, completely rebuilt. He added an opulent two-story stairway and a large living room, enveloped the whole in Indiana limestone and hollow tiles, and spared no expense on the details. Today a visitor would be hard put to discern any trace of the old "cottage" in the palatial estate with its pillared porches and sculptural friezes.

There were tales of magical evenings when the huge living room was filled with couples swirling to the music of an orchestra that played under the mansion's rotunda, which was capped by a stunning dome two stories above. But reports of extravagantly elegant soirees presided over by the Morses were much exaggerated, according to Mrs. Renshaw. Yes, she said, there were visitors, but "of the most tame variety." Her grandfather "didn't like a lot of social life," she added. "He didn't drink or smoke and never held elaborate affairs."

In 1929, Mr. Morse retired and followed through on a longstanding plan to end his days in Nova Scotia, according to Mrs. Renshaw. He sold the Water Mill estate, including the windmill, to Irene Ann Coleman and began building a large home in the village of Clementsport, which had been his boyhood home. Sadly, he died there in 1930 before construction was completed.

Mrs. Coleman, who was described as an actress, kept the house for only a year and a half before selling it to the Sisters of St. Dominic, who bought it with the idea of establishing a college there for young Catholic girls. Aware of their interest in finding an appropriate site, R.A. Correa of Brooklyn, then the bishop's real estate agent, advised the sisters of the availability of this "very fine estate in one of the best sections of Long Island" in April 1931, suggesting that it could be bought "at a great bargain." The 1929 crash having made its inevitable impact on the real estate market, the property's future must have been in some doubt. There were probably few prospects then in a position to pay even half the appraised value, which as former Villa Maria occupant Sister Mary Margaret Duffy told an interviewer in 1982, was what the order eventually paid (approximately $250,000).

A boon for Water Mill, the purchase also proved a wise one for the sisters, though not in the way they had anticipated. For practical reasons, the college idea was overruled by higher-ups in the church who felt that eastern Long Island was not accessible enough for that purpose. Instead, they bought 25 acres in Rockville Centre as a site for Malloy College and the Water Mill property was designated as a juniorate for aspirants to the order. Known as the Villa Maria High School, it functioned until 1953, when the students were transferred to St. Albert's in Brooklyn and Morse's mansion became a home for senior sisters unable to continue in active service to the Church.

In response to petitions signed by public-minded Water Mill residents interested in preserving the hamlet's historic legacy, the Order of St. Dominic gave the Corwith Mill and "common ground" to the Water Mill Village Improvement Association. A brochure published by the order offers this description of the dedication exercises held on Labor Day 1933: "The Sisters and girls from the Villa Maria High School, in full uniform, sang the National Anthem after the American Flag was raised. A plaque recording this transaction was placed before the Wind Mill. It has since been lost in one of the hurricanes."

After the high school for aspirants to the order was closed in 1953, the Sisters of Saint Dominic used the waterfront site as a home for retired sisters until 1988. In 1992 they added an arts and craft building to the property and changed its name to the Siena Spirituality Center at Villa Maria, which continues to function today, offering programs in spirituality, education and holistic living. In 2001 and 2002, as host and beneficiary of the annual Hampton Designer Showhouse, the estate received some much needed restoration and updating, thanks to a committee of concerned Hamptons residents who understood that no landmark, however beloved, is invulnerable to development pressures.

It is interesting to note that in the brochure published back when the Villa Maria was still operating as a home for retired sisters, the estate enjoyed the support of a similar booster. "For the past 13 years," states the brief history, "Saks Fifth Avenue Company has been most gracious and put on a Fashion Show for the benefit of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Villa Maria Convent. This, through the tireless work of Ladies of the Committee for Villa Maria, has helped to keep our Convent in repair, etc."

"The Orchard" - Whitefield

The Orchard, early 20th century

Despite a pedigree that includes the names of prominent New Yorkers James Breese (high-stakes investor, bon vivant and best friend of architect Stanford White) and Charles Merrill (of Merrill-Lynch renown), not to mention two academic institutions that at various times have taken possession of the estate—Amherst College and, briefly, the Nyack Boys School—the mansion that is now a centerpiece of the Whitefield condominium complex on Hill Street in Southampton had extremely humble beginnings. An account of the dazzling transformation of the house by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White in the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities volume on area estates notes that the actual core of the house was "a Long Island farmhouse dating from the 18th century that was moved to the site."

James Lawrence Breese bought the house and 30 acres of land in 1895, a year when his investments, which peaked and plummeted periodically, were well into positive territory. Though trained as a civil engineer, Breese never practiced his profession, preferring to manage the family fortune, develop his considerable talent for photography, and indulge a taste for pretty women and parties that he shared with his pal Stanford White. In 1898, Breese moved into the house he called "The Orchard" with his family and from that time forward, whenever the vagaries of the stock market permitted, Breese, often with Stanford White as his active collaborator, applied his creative talents to the building of additional wings.

Actually, Breese was friendly with both Charles McKim, who is credited with much of the exterior remodeling, and White, who worked on the interiors, especially the fabled 70-foot Renaissance Music Room, which was completed in 1906, just shortly before White's death at the hands of showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt's jealous husband. In her memoir, "Tanty," Breese's daughter, Frances Miller, suggests that Breese acceded to his friend's more flamboyant tastes in this room, which was decorated with animal skins and Persian carpets. He was persuaded by White to put in ceiling-high (18-foot) gilt columns in the four corners of the room and a painted Italian ceiling. Miller recalled watching White, "his red hair en brosse, flat on his back a la Michelangelo "showing the Italian workmen how he wanted the work done."

In 1925, Breese's up-and-down investment career bottomed out and, obliged to sell "The Orchard," he found a buyer in financier Charles Merrill. (Undaunted, Breese took a round-the-world steamer trip with the proceeds and was soon back in the swing, acquiring ever more youthful female companions and enjoying life to the fullest.) With the Merrill family in summer residence, the estate continued as a place for balls, musicales and the glittering gatherings of Southampton society. Later, when Merrill died in the late 1950s and bequeathed the property to his alma mater, Amherst College, Belle Epoque grace and Gatsby-era extravagance made way for the more sober activities of the sons of the upwardly mobile who came for graduate training in the art of moneymaking.

The Orchard, now Whitefield, as it looks today

Operated as a satellite campus devoted to graduate business education, it proved too remote from the main one (in western Massachusetts) and, after a few years of struggle, Amherst sold the property and it became a campus of the Nyack Boys School in the 1960s. While it lasted, small bands of boys in blazers could often be seen making their way somewhat edgily from Hill Street to Main Street. The students never seemed to feel welcome, probably because few residents welcomed them. Their reticence was perceived as snottiness and they were not spending nearly enough money in town. When, in 1971, the school defaulted on its $1.1 million mortgage and property ownership was transferred to the Marine Midland Bank, it is probably safe to assume that neither students nor townsfolk shed many tears.

There was concern, however, for the future. While the school had not been popular, no one wanted to see the estate neglected and allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, which is exactly what happened following the foreclosure. Over the next six years prospective buyers turned up now and then, but none were able to raise enough money to complete the purchase.

Southampton real estate investor George Semerjian was perhaps the first to recognize the potential for combining preservation with profit by dividing the estate into condominiums. But his plan, put forward in 1977, would have required that a portion of the estate be reclassified to allow construction of multiple-family dwellings and, though it is hard to believe, now that condominiums are so often presented as luxury housing, the whole concept once struck terror in the hearts of skeptics. Equated with "downzoning," a word never uttered except in horror, permitting construction of multiple dwellings was viewed by many as a first step toward the creation of slums.

Less than two years later, in 1979, when three New York City developers again came before the Southampton Village Board for permission to put multiple dwellings on the Breese-Merrill estate, resistance remained, but the mansion, unoccupied for six years, was by then reaching a dangerous stage of deterioration, and that worked in the developers' favor. When the partnership operating under the name Whitefield Associates and with local real estate broker Marshall Crowley as their spokesman and a principal, began musing aloud about the 29 single-family homes on half-acre lots that the prevailing zoning permitted, the two sides came to terms.

Today the Whitefield complex is considered a model of adaptive reuse. Even the late Frances Miller, who played croquet on the lawn, ran through the gardens and was married to Larry Miller in the Music Room in 1915, declared that the developers had done an excellent job. It has also been an official success. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Whitefield also has received a New York State Preservation Award.

The Lyman Beecher House

Lyman Beecher

In 1798, Lyman Beecher, a young clergyman recently graduated from Yale University, arrived in East Hampton with hopes of becoming pastor of the town's only church. According to a brief history of Beecher and his house written by Averill D. Geus, "several anxious months" passed while he proved himself to the congregation, after which he was offered $300 a year to serve as their minister. The next year he married his fiancé of two years, Roxanna Foote, and the year after that he paid $800 for the house that still stands on Main Street at the corner of Huntting Lane.

For the price, he got five acres of land and a barn, but the house, which was more than 50 years old and had been vacant for more than a decade, was apparently in sorry shape. Records indicate that the couple spent $300 for repairs and Sally Ball, a later owner who did considerable research into the house's history, claimed that Beecher also had help from his friend and the local lord of the manor, John Lyon Gardiner, who sent his team of craftsmen over as a wedding present to help make the house livable.

Gardiner, who shared Beecher's avid interest in East Hampton history, also showed his friendship by helping Beecher to decipher difficult 17th-century documents. And when Beecher wrote the famous anti-dueling sermon that established him as a rising star in an era of celebrity preachers, he is said to have first submitted the draft to Gardiner for comment. Written in 1804, after the tragic death of Alexander Hamilton in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr, the sermon was delivered with the fiery passion that would mark his later tirades against intemperance and slavery and clinch his reputation as one of America's most eloquent pulpit orators in the 1830s and '40s.

Of Beecher's 11 children (four of whom were born in East Hampton), Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is the best known, but all were distinguished. (A 19th-century journalist called Beecher "the father of more brains in America than any man of his day.") Unfortunately, a growing family and an annual salary that did not grow, despite Beecher's repeated pleas for a raise, made it difficult and eventually impossible, for him to remain in East Hampton, and in 1810 he transferred his ministry to Litchfield, Connecticut.

The Lyman Beecher house, now East Hampton Village Hall

The record shows that on January 27, 1810, the Beechers sold their old house to Abraham Hand for $1,875.00 "lawful money." A sixth generation descendent of one of the 35 original proprietors of East Hampton, Abraham Hand took residence after a long absence from East Hampton, having shared his father's self-exile to Connecticut during the British occupation and then taken his bride to live in upstate New York.

Abraham left the house to his nephew George, a carpenter, who substantially changed the house's appearance, raising the roof and eliminating the central chimney. He also built East Hampton's first post office behind his back door. When he died in 1865, his widow, Eliza, continued to conduct post office business, took in boarders and, with the aid of her two sons, George Henry and John, expanded and improved the premises. With more and more summer visitors looking for lodging, rooms were added, making a total of 17. Indoor plumbing, with impressive nickel fittings, all "made to order for the job" added a luxurious touch.

George Henry Hand, his wife Julia and son George Beaman Hand were the last of the Hand family to live in the house that had stood for so many years as a handsome residence, conveniently close to the business hub but still somewhat buffered from the commercial cacophony. By the 1980s, however, things had changed and Sally Ball, who had tried various strategies for maintaining the landmark as her home, was ready to concede defeat. Having locked horns with village officials over the years on a number of matters, including a disputed easement alongside her property and numerous unsuccessful requests for relief from trespassers, Ball threw in the towel, declaring the house "a constant financial drain" and "just no place to live any more." Her end of Main Street had become too noisy, too brightly lit and there were too many people who found it convenient to park on her lawn.

What made the house untenable as a residence—its location within the expanded de facto commercial district—made it attractive to Marshall Crowley, the man who had led the successful fight to build condominiums on the Breese-Merrill estate. He told the authorities that he was willing to pay Ball's price and to treat the landmark house with the same sensitivity shown to Whitefield if his application to have the property rezoned so that he could convert it to offices with a branch of his real estate agency as a tenant were approved.

It wasn't. Later the Ladies Village Improvement Society also came close to buying the house for its thrift stores but they, too, would have needed village approval for a change of use and Ms. Ball was not prepared to set herself up a second time for disappointment should the village refuse. In November of 1983, Sally Ball and Donald Clause, the owner of a real estate firm bearing his name, finally came to terms. The sale spelled the end of a long struggle for Ball but for Clause it was just the beginning. His plans for making a suitable office building out of the 18th-century house also encountered resistance, though he was eventually permitted to proceed with his plan for renovations.

Like the Villa Maria and Whitefield, the Lyman Beecher house story has a happy ending. In 1994, the Village of East Hampton bought the historic building for use as a Village Hall. Today the Beechers' old sitting room is a reception area, the bedroom behind it serves as office space. And in the study where Lyman Beecher composed his fiery sermons, the building inspector conducts his daily business.

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