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Turning Sag Harbor Iron into Gold

Friday, August 19, 2016

In 1849, when news of the gold discoveries in California reached the village of Sag Harbor, New York, a master blacksmith named Thomas C. Overton was one of the first villagers to form an expedition to the mines. Along with a group of what the local paper called “a party of Long Island Argonauts,” Overton sailed forth from Sag Harbor in the ship Little Hamilton, under the command of one Captain Shamgar H. Slate. The outcome of the expedition is unknown, but after returning to Sag Harbor, Overton resumed his work as a blacksmith, and by 1873 a village map identified him as the owner of a house on Howard Street, situated on the very spot where a circa-1850 house with an elaborate, columned doorway stands today.

Did Overton strike a vein in California rich enough to turn his fortunes from iron to gold and allow him to build a fine house more befitting a sea captain or a merchant than a blacksmith? One can only speculate, but if he did, then history may be repeating itself after a fashion, as the home’s current owner has recently completed a dazzling renovation that is its own form of alchemy.

When interior designer Steven R. Gambrel plunked down $1.3 million for 42 Howard Street in 2013, the three-bay frame house retained its handsome Greek Revival–style doorway, which is topped by a transom and flanked by fluted pilasters, slender columns and sidelights. But the house was otherwise badly deteriorated, clad in aluminum siding and lacking most of its original windows and other period details. Uncharming appendages had been slapped onto the side and back of the building to turn it into a boardinghouse, and a hodgepodge of staircases made of pressure-treated wood ran up and down its exterior. Inside, the house had been chopped into a multitude of claustrophobic apartments with cheap paneling, dropped ceilings and little efficiency kitchens.

But amid all the visual distraction, Gambrel, who has done design and architectural work on more than 50 homes in the Hamptons, was able to discern a house of noble dimensions.

“You have the very tall, proud proportions of a 19th-century structure that was built not for a fisherman but for someone with affluence,” he said, “so it had the proper proportions, a beautifully detailed front door and entablature, and beautiful mantels inside.”

Gambrel was also taken with the size and topography of the half-acre parcel of land, which runs the full distance from Howard to Garden Street, where it overlooks an estuary. The site is a wide one, and the land slopes down to the left of the original main house, so that Gambrel immediately understood he could strip off the 20th-century boardinghouse appendage on that side, replacing it with a handsome new wing adjacent to the ground floor of the main house, and tuck a two-car garage beneath it.

Although Gambrel had done major design work on 11 previous houses in Sag Harbor, including his own home, 42 Howard Street was the first house in the village that he developed on speculation. As the owner, he was in a position to choose costly materials he considered essential to the enterprise of accomplishing a proper period-home renovation.

“I wanted mahogany windows that replicated the proper size of a muntin bar,” he said, “and I wanted cedar siding that replicated the proper proportions, and I wanted corner boards and shingled roofs and lead-coated copper gutters and reclaimed bricks for the chimney—all the things that one should use.”

That insistence on top-flight materials is reflected in both the quality and the $10.5 million asking price of the finished seven-bedroom, five-bath home, which is listed with Jane Gill (no relation to this writer) and Terry Cohen of Saunders & Associates.

Crucial to the enterprise was a rigorous study of Sag Harbor’s distinctive architectural vernacular. During a career spanning more than 20 years, Gambrel has been to nearly every good 19th-century house in the village, sometimes obtaining permission to measure door details and trim profiles.

“Starting at the ceiling, you can find crown into casing into panel-under-window into mantel into baseboard,” he said. “Every detail is a detail, and they’re what makes the village. That’s not to say that there aren’t shared elements among different villages, but there are details that feel very Sag Harbor and there are details that feel very Nantucket.”

Working with Historical Concepts, an architecture and planning firm based in New York and Atlanta, Gambrel undertook the painstaking process of drawing up these myriad details. “From day one as construction began, you started to feel the old experience recaptured, and it started to become more and more real, which is what one hopes for,” he said. “When you don’t get those details right, it feels like a facsimile of what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Early on in the construction, the old foundation, a haphazard assemblage of brick and ballast rock from 19th-century ships, collapsed. Although it was an unforeseen headache, the collapse was also an opportunity. A new concrete foundation was poured and then sheathed in antique bricks reclaimed from the project, resulting in an insulated, suitably strong structure to support a house built of very heavy old-growth oak timbers.

“We used the ballast rock as retaining walls outside,” said Steve White, whose company, Timeless Homes, served as general contractor and construction manager. “Thirty feet of wall along the driveway and some in the back,” where outdoor seating areas overlook a saltwater pool and a guest cottage.

By being beholden to the history of the house and working within the dimensions of the existing walls, Gambrel created a series of charming, cozy rooms in the original building. But by removing the 20th-century boardinghouse additions on the side and back of the building and replacing them with appropriately scaled new additions, he was able to add a vast kitchen, a spacious master bedroom, a mud room and a double-height great room, all modern innovations that help make a 21st-century home luxurious.

From the outside, however, even these additions resemble integral components of a historic structure. “Steven wanted  the new wing to the left of the house to look like a porch that someone had enclosed in the past,” said White. “We made half columns on the outside wall to duplicate the feel of a porch.”

Gambrel calls himself “master of the obvious” because he has made a career of studying the architectural style of historic buildings, whose design secrets are hiding in plain sight. “I’m a learner from materials and I learn from seeing,” he said. “I put together what I’m offered and then look at similar properties in town and see this kind of thread that runs through everything, which is very compelling.” By putting this vernacular to work at 42 Howard Street, and adding his own instinctive quirks of design and decoration, the 21st-century master of the obvious has rejuvenated the home of the 19th-century master blacksmith.

John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March 2017


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