Real Estate

Tick, Offed

Friday, August 11, 2017

Main Street, Montauk, has no stoplights. But the drive through downtown is an exercise in patience. A few miles beyond, Ditch Plains Road is home of the most famous surf break on the East End. But only a handful of drivers will continue on and hang a left, where Deforest Road dead-ends at the wooden gate to the Montauk Association. There, paved road turns to dirt. Shadbushes bury your car. Homes, separated by acres, loom in the distance. One is named Tick Hall. Unlike the rest of the East End, time has stood still here. Mostly.

Now owned by famed talk show host Dick Cavett, Tick Hall was built for lawyer Alexander Orr in 1883, and named Wrightmoore, aka the Orr House. In 1924, Wall Street lawyer Harrison Tweed purchased it and gave it the name Tick Hall after the insects that populate the East Coast—and the property. Male visitors to the home were called ticks, explains Martha Rogers, Cavett’s wife. Women were “tickesses.” Children were “tickettes.” In 1997, the home burned to the ground. It was rebuilt in its exact likeness.

Now, for the first time in its history, Tick Hall is on the market, co-listed by Corcoran’s Tim Davis and Karen Kelley. It previously only changed hands privately. Cavett is asking $62 million, based on the $50 million sale of what had been Andy Warhol’s Montauk estate in 2015.

Tick Hall is one of the Seven Sisters of Montauk—a group of homes built as hunting lodges for Hamptons families by the then newly formed architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, with a site plan by Central Park designer Fredrick Law Olmsted.

“Montauk was a leisurely escape,” says historian Gary Lawrence, who explored the Seven Sisters, also called the Montauk Point Association Houses, in his book Houses of the Hamptons 1880–1930. The enclave was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

The Gilded Age in Newport, Rhode Island, was defined by the marble mansions that dotted the shores. But the Hamptons were known for shingle-style architecture, a look “that is less pretentious,” says Lawrence.

In contrast to its immediate neighbors, Montauk was even more relaxed. “The ladies ran the social world of the Gilded Age, and Montauk was a men’s getaway,” says Lawrence. “It was wild. It was empty, and they needed the space. One went to the Hamptons to get away from the formality of the city, and one went to Montauk to get away from the formality of the Hamptons.”

Cavett has been escaping the formality of the city for half a century. He purchased the home in 1967, after renting it the summer prior. “It was a lucky break,” says Cavett. “[Producer] Nikos Psacharopoulos said, ‘Dicky, you should try the Tweed house.’ I had been in East Hampton, and I said, ‘Is it better than that?’ And he said, ‘You’ll see.’”

Cavett drove out to Montauk with friend Tom Migliori. “When we pulled up, Tom was so excited, he forgot he was driving. He jumped out while the car was still running.”

Fortunately for Cavett, the property was—and remains—such a natural oasis that it would be a challenge for even a running car to hit something. The house is 7,000 square feet. The property is 20 acres, most of which are dotted with wild shadbushes.

It never occurred to Cavett that he might purchase the home. But Tweed was looking to sell. Edward Albee wanted it, but Cavett won out, as he said he’d keep it as is; there was talk that Albee had plans for a tennis court.

Tick Hall has been visited by a cadre of New York and Hollywood stars, including Muhammad Ali, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen and Jack Paar. Ali once slept in Cavett and then wife Carrie Nye’s bed. “Ali and I were making some sort of documentary out there,” begins Cavett. He offered to let him stay in the house, and left him there to rest while he picked up Ali’s wife. While he was out, Nye called. “I came back and Ali said, ‘I talked to your wife. I told her, I’m the heavyweight champion of the world, and I’m lying in your bed and watching your TV!’ She was informed enough to say, ‘Mr. Ali, I’ll put a plaque on the bed.’ That’s more than she ever threatened to do for me!”

Medium-sized compared to the other six Sisters, Tick Hall is the only Montauk Association house with beach access. Tweed extended the property, purchasing the land at $5 per acre. “At the time, people thought he was crazy,” says Cavett. The Montauk cliffs rise above the rocky shoreline. The untouched slice of sand, arguably the most private in the hamlet, is known as Cavett’s Cove.

Cavett heads down to his cove often. One time, before he built steps down to the water, he decided to teach himself how to surf cast. He was standing on the beach when “I see this man walking slowly and dangerously down the cliffs with a surf casting rod. It was Harrison Tweed, at 91 years old, trying to teach me how to surf cast. I got a master lesson that day,” reflects Cavett.

In 2008, Cavett sold 77 acres to the government for $18 million, to save the views. “All of those acres are preserved, and how rare is that going to become?” Cavett asks. The sale prevented further construction on three lots. Included in the current property, says Rogers, are three potentially buildable sites.

Just 11 years prior, there was a flurry of construction after Tick Hall completely burned to the ground. No one knows for certain how the fire started, explained Rogers, but it’s widely believed that roofers repairing the house left a blowtorch on while taking a lunch break.

Though the original plans for the home has been long lost and there were no archival photographs, Nye was determined to rebuild it. “I didn’t know if we could pull it off, but I had to try,” she told Architectural Digest in 2001. “As long as we used the same materials, as long as we didn’t fake or cut corners or Disney-fy, I thought we’d have a reasonable chance of succeeding.”

She was right. The team began to piece together the new home.

Project architect Keith Gianakopoulos, then of WASA Architects, took the lead on the restoration, which might be described as forensic architecture. One of the most useful bits of information was Nye’s notes on new drapes. That allowed the team to determine both the dimensions of the windows and the elevation of the ceiling. They combed through the ashes, using whatever they could salvage to re-create the original. Among the artifacts was an anchor that now sits just atop the porch. It was given to the Tweeds by a navy captain for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Other remains gave clues about tiles, shingles, hardware and window glass.

“When a building goes, its ghosts remain,” says Cavett. “Carrie didn’t just want to create a home that had the same look and feel of the old one,” says Rogers. “She wanted to create an exact replica.” To that end, no detail was spared—spring-loaded rods were placed under the steps to create a creaking noise, suggesting that people had been walking up and down them for a century. By all accounts, she was successful. The home took three years to rebuild. Rogers credits Nye, who died of lung cancer in 2006, completely for the project.

In truth, a few small things are different. After the initial rebuild, the garage was extended by 48 inches, so that it could accommodate a modern-day car. That, in turn, allowed the kitchen to be extended by seven feet, and opened it up to the ocean views. Above the kitchen is a new outdoor sleeping nook just off the master bedroom, a favorite space.

All of the additions were done with a nod toward the original design. The Tweeds had added three upstairs bathrooms and the kitchen, as the Montauk Association originally had a communal dining hall. But Rogers notes that the easiest approval to get was from the Architectural Review Board, as the new changes were more in line with the McKim, Mead & White design than Tweed’s upgrades were.

Also different is the absence of the hiding place in the floorboards of the dining room, which Cavett determined was a part of the Underground Railroad. He used the hideaway as a party trick—he’d ask everyone to leave the room. When they returned a few minutes later, he was gone.

Rogers and Cavett married in 2010. They had known each other for years, connecting over a mutual love for Mark Twain and Shakespeare. On their second date, they walked through the Montauk property. Their love for it is palpable. But “it’s time for someone who runs out to the ocean to take ownership,” Rogers says.


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