The future of Mocomanto, an early vacation “cottage” and one of the lone survivors among the first houses of Southampton’s summer colony, is uncertain. The proposed renovation/addition project will be a watershed moment, and its fate will be inexorably linked to the survival of the Southampton Village National Register Historic District—or not.
This controversial project was first approved by a zoning board that neither considered nor even discussed how it might change the character of the community, something that every zoning board in the country is required to assess. The proposed renovation/addition to the existing house is currently under review by the Southampton Village Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation.
At the first hearing on Monday, November 13, John Bennett, the attorney for Mocomanto’s owner, Ken Fox, instructed the ARB on how its members should review the project. Not once did he mention historic preservation.
He cited square footages of other large-scale additions that the ARB approved in the past as justification for what his client wants. Unfortunately, he did not give the context for his examples.
Citing Old Trees on First Neck Lane—a featured estate in the book “Houses of the Hamptons, 1880-1930”—Mr. Bennett described the square footage of the garage and pool house additions on the property as quite large. The reality is that the entire estate property is intact and remains on large acreage. These accessory structures are in proportion with the size of the property and certainly subservient to the massive 40-foot-high residence.
The 5,000-square-foot natatorium at Linden also was mentioned as another enormous structure added to a property. It was not, however, added onto the existing house: It’s actually situated behind the house, out of public view.
These examples just aren’t relevant to the Mocomanto additions, which are slammed onto the existing house in a very cramped and awkward fashion. It’s just too much structure in such a condensed amount of space, and it leaves neither breathing room nor space around the house or between neighbors.
The other factor, which is really the most important criteria for the ARB, has to do with abiding by its own handbook, titled “Architectural Design Guidelines for Historic Districts and Landmarks.” The guidelines mentioned in the publication are based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. Its nationally recognized credo of “retain, repair, replace” relates to keeping historic elements, repairing them when possible, and replacing them as a last resort.
The secretary’s standards also include a 10-point set of tenets that must be considered. With regard to Mocomanto, three are of particular relevance.
First: “The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces, or spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided.”
Second: “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale, proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.”
Third: “New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.”
The house, built in 1880 for the F.H. Betts family, represents a period of unassertively scaled summer houses pre-dating, in less than 20 years, the excess and opulence that would later characterize Southampton’s Gilded Age estates.
Mocomanto’s significance has nothing to do with the fame or wealth of its first family, or the unknown architect or builder responsible for the creation of its iconic form. Rather, this particular house, built as the boardinghouse era ended in the late 1870s, is representative of the type of seasonal wood frame home occupied by the cottagers, also known as the “first vacationists, Yorkers and rusticators.”
Southampton, in this era, didn’t have elaborate gardens. Exclusionary privet walls didn’t exist. In fact, the landscape was open, barren and windswept, with sweeping vistas of waterfront and plains. Mocomanto sat in the middle of this open landscape, and one can only imagine the views, the breezes, the air and the light.
The original summer colony was just that—a colony of homes possessing an uncalculated simplicity, situated close together with easy access to the bathing beach, a crystal-clear Lake Agawam, the Dune Church and the Meadow Club. It represented an era in which health and recreation constituted the reason for establishing the summer colony.
Zachary Studenroth, the architectural preservation consultant for the ARB, in his report on Mocomanto, documented the additions and subtractions of different wings over the years, as evidenced on the 1894 F.W. Beers, 1902 and 1916 E. Belcher Hyde, and 1926 and 1932 Sanborn maps. The home developed over time and even included an extension, later removed, on its west side, which was longer than anything ever documented on archival photographs.
The original core section of the two-and-a-half-story house—with its steeply pitched, dominant hip roof—remains intact, as do the two porch facades facing Lake Agawam.
What’s problematic, according to Mr. Studenroth, is the scale and massing of the addition, and the way in which it’s connected to the house. What’s particularly striking is the increase to Mocomanto’s footprint, which Mr. Studenroth describes as being “about 180 [percent] larger than that of the original house as constructed.”
The renovation includes some reconstruction work and a glazed one-story link connecting the existing house to the 30-foot-tall, two-story garage/guest/potting shed wing to the north, which runs perpendicular to the house and parallel to the property line. While the link’s roof acts as an attenuated extension of the porch roof facing the lake, it also prevents this connector from being truly transparent, since it doesn’t read as a separately articulated space.
Mr. Studenroth notes that “while the proposed plans meet applicable building and zoning standards, the appropriateness of their size and scale in proportion to the existing dwelling is problematic.” Furthermore, “the proposed 2-story guest house, which emulates the architectural detailing of the house and is similarly set back from the east façade, inadvertently rivals and distracts from the original architecture.”
He states, “Despite a conscientious attempt to detail the additions to mimic the architecture of the existing house, the proposed plans and elevations enlarge the building without balancing the size and placement of these additions to adequately minimize their visual impact. In addition, Southampton Village code does not recognize vegetative screening as a means of disguising or mitigating such an impact, thus any representation to that effect is without merit.”
Mr. Studenroth suggests that the additions just shouldn’t mimic the existing house but rather address the appropriate massing of the additions: “It is further recommended that the additions be substantially separated from the main house, actually and visually, to minimize their impact from the public view.”
Clearly, Mocomanto is a stand-alone house. It is seen from Gin Lane as the road sweeps by the Dune Church and the Bathing Corporation. It is a fabled place, an object in the landscape that arouses curiosity, leaves an impression, and still, despite everything built around it, retains its own purified essence.
The ARB should simply reject such a poorly planned and inappropriate addition. To approve such a plan would simply inspire others to land grab and further erode what’s left of the historic district’s character.
As one Southold historic preservation commissioner has often said, “Would you draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa?”
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