In The Magazine

Search & Rescue

Saturday, August 1, 2015
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After nearly a quarter of a millennium sitting serenely on what is now Main Street in Southampton Village, New York, a modest white farmhouse was abruptly lifted off its foundation this spring with a hydraulic jack system. At the gateway to the village, visitors were greeted with the jarring, surreal sight of the normally low-slung homestead perched high above the earth on steel-and-wood supports. But ironically enough, the raising of the 18th-century structure off the ground marked the first time in seven years that the future of the historic house was not up in the air. The home’s new owner, Hamptons developer R. Marco Robert, said he was replacing the structure’s crumbling brick-and-fieldstone foundation and had committed to restoring the exterior of the house “to within a sixteenth of an inch” of its previous appearance.


Ever since 2008, when the Southampton Historical Museum obtained the house, on the corner of Main Street and Jagger Lane, as an unrestricted bequest from Madeleine D. White, the institution had been in a quandary about how to preserve it. Although museum officials initially knew little about their new possession, research soon revealed that the history of the unassuming old farmhouse was intertwined in important, unexpected ways with that of Southampton itself.


The property was homesteaded in 1651 by John Jagger, the patriarch of one of the town’s earliest families, and town records show that a cornerstone for a Jagger home was laid there in 1707. The white-shingled house that stands on the site today is an architecturally unpedigreed mongrel comprising multiple sections. Its oldest part, which runs parallel to Jagger Lane, is a simple vernacular farmhouse probably built between 1750 and 1800, said Tom Edmonds, the museum’s executive director. Adjoining the farmhouse and facing Main Street is a two-story Greek Revival addition with an attic that Edmonds said was built around 1850 for George Gilbert White, a respected whaling captain. A front porch and a bay window were added around 1915, along with a side addition.


Captain White was one of the most cantankerous, colorful and influential figures in the development of Southampton. After a career at sea that took him as far as the Indian and Arctic Oceans, White returned home in the mid 19th century to Southampton, where he led the rescue of sailors and passengers shipwrecked off the coast. But his greatest legacy is the fierce court battle he launched in 1892, as president of the town trustees, to keep Southampton’s beaches public and thereby protect them from the development of casinos and hotels.


“If it hadn’t been for George White, Southampton would look like Atlantic City,” said Edmonds. “Southampton would have had a quick rush as a resort, and then it would have developed a more carny aspect.”


Although Captain White had been renowned enough to rate an obituary as a “man of courage” in The New York Times in 1893, his contributions to Southampton had long been forgotten until his great-granddaughter-in-law’s bequest. But along with the renewed recognition of White’s importance came the heightened sense that ownership of his house represented not only a blessing for the museum but also a burden. The institution already owned 14 historic buildings on four properties, which it maintained on an annual budget of only about $400,000.


“We struggled with the question of keeping the house, but it was just beyond us,” said Edmonds. “It was pretty much a dump on the inside, and we were told it would cost $800,000 to make it usable.”


After a year of  deliberation, a committee of museum trustees and local residents decided to place the White house on the market but to ensure its preservation by placing covenants on the property that would limit its development. Katie Milligan, an associate real estate broker and museum trustee, took charge of the listing, waiving her share of the broker’s fee and prevailing upon her employer, the Corcoran Group, to do the same.


Although the White house had been appraised at $2.9 million in 2007, finding a sympathetic buyer proved challenging. “I showed that house a gazillion times,” Milligan said. “But once the deed restrictions were revealed, most people didn’t want to pursue it.”


Those who did pursue a deal aimed to run a business on the property, which lies in a commercial district. One particularly enticing offer, for $2.2 million, came in from a gourmet market. But the museum demurred over concerns that adding a loading dock would bring too much activity to that corner. “We put so many restrictions on it,” Edmonds said, “that we made it impossible for anyone to buy.” Over time, the asking price dropped from $2.9 million to $1,895,000.


The museum never had much hope that a buyer would keep the house as a residence, because the White property is adjoined on two sides by the parking lot of a Waldbaum’s supermarket. But everything changed last fall, when Robert, owner of Dunecrest Development, decided on a whim to enter the White property from Jagger Lane and look around its eight-tenths of an acre.


“What I saw literally changed my mind instantly about the nature of the property, the importance of it, and the potential value of it,” Robert recalled. “Its expanse, and the way it’s lifted up a bit on a hill and fenced off properly, made you feel lost in the property, like you were on some farm’s field 200 years ago.” In April, he bought the White house and land for $1.625 million.


Edmonds called the purchase a “godsend,” because Robert committed to preserving the building as a single-family home. “We took a hit,” Edmonds said of the sale price. “We sold it for half of its 2007 value because George White’s legacy was that important to us.”


Captain White—dogged, combative, suspicious of the wealthy New Yorkers buying up Southampton land in the late 19th century—was “the moral conscience of the community,” wrote sociologist David Goddard in his book Colonizing Southampton. Under White’s fiery leadership in the 1880s, the town trustees won a landmark lawsuit against an oyster company that had claimed to own the bottom of Mecox Bay. Later, another legal campaign initiated by White led to a ruling that the town’s beaches were a “public highway” that couldn’t be privately owned. The matter was of great significance to the townspeople, as the beach had long been used by fishermen, as well as farmers transporting their produce between villages.


“We can see in the pages of our memory pictures of Captain George—tall, slender, active, wiry and well tanned by the weather exposure,” wrote the Southampton Press in the late 1920s. “We can see him striding down Main Street with a flash of fire in his eye going to town meeting.”


Captain White was as tough at sea as he was on land. In 1847, when a ship with 275 passengers became stranded on the “outer bar” off Southampton and was being beaten to pieces by heavy surf, a crew of fishermen led by White risked their lives to row out to it. The captain—“tall and straight as a poplar, and athletic as an Indian brave,” by one florid account—boarded the vessel and guided it and all of its passengers to safety.


None of this history was lost on Robert, a Hampton Bays resident, when he agreed to preserve the White house. Among the requirements to which he consented was the restoration of the exterior, including 50 windows, to be custom-made in Vermont. The house can never be demolished or relocated. And the museum can veto any development, exterior alteration or change of use on the property for seven years; thereafter, it has a say on these issues only within 100 feet of Main Street, an area that encompasses the White house.


Robert said that the cabana and garage he was building behind the house were 900 square feet each. As for the 3,000-square-foot White house itself, the 1915 addition on its northern side will be expanded by 1,100 square feet, most of it extending away from Main Street. It will be one story with a flat roof and decorative railings.


What Captain White would have thought of his home’s next iteration is unknowable, but the consideration given by the museum to the development’s effect on the village does seem respectful of the irascible old whaler’s approach. During a dispute in 1885 with a rich New Yorker who insisted that the townsfolk ought to be grateful for the newcomers’ largesse toward Southampton, White drily replied in the local paper that “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.”


Robert pointed to this quotation in justifying his combined restoration and development of Captain White’s house. “Whether I live in it or sell it, I think his philosophy is honored,” he said. “What wouldn’t have fit into that philosophy is if someone had bought it and developed it into a pizza parlor.” 




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