The story of Tick Hall, as told by its owner, talk show host, comedian and writer, Dick Cavett, is one of coveting, destruction, reconstruction and rebirth. At the 24th annual landmarks luncheon of the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society on October 1, Mr. Cavett regaled a packed audience with the tale of his path to ownership of the Montauk Association house, its subsequent reincarnation after a disastrous 1997 fire, and how this place has shaped the lives of those who have lived there.Built in 1882, Tick Hall was one of the “Seven Sisters,” a grouping of houses in the Montauk Association designed for financier Alexander E. Orr by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, that has earned a place today on the National Register of Historic Places. The house, named for the ubiquitous arachnid (an external parasite) that populates the East End of Long Island, was later owned by attorney Harrison Tweed, and it remained in his family until 1968, when Mr. Cavett purchased it.
While a friend suggested Mr. Cavett should take the house as a summer rental for $1,000, he chose to rent elsewhere with several other people instead. When he went with an architect friend, out of curiosity, to look at Tick Hall, remotely situated on the bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, he exclaimed, “Is this place in the witness protection program?”
His friend just said, “Buy it, buy it, buy it.”
Buying it, however, wasn’t going to be all that easy since “a fellow by the name of Edward Albee had right of first refusal,” Mr. Cavett explained at the luncheon. There was talk that Mr. Albee wanted to install a pool and a tennis court and that the Tweeds didn’t favor those additions to the property. Mr. Cavett wondered how he could get through the year without having the house. When the Tweed family finally asked him if he wanted to buy it he leapt at the opportunity.
His first night in the house occurred during a raging storm. The house was so dark that his dog Louie, a large poodle, spent the night tucked up next to him in bed. Mr. Cavett and his late wife, the actress Carrie Nye, enjoyed the house for many years until in 1997 when she called her husband to say, “It’s gone. Tick Hall is burning as we speak.”
Mr. Cavett said his mind could not grasp the fact that it was all gone. Treasured items, autographed books, memorabilia and Ms. Nye’s family furniture from Mississippi all went up in flames.
“It was like a death in the family,” Mr. Cavett said.
Roofers had been making repairs when the fire started, perhaps from the spark of a torch, but no one knew for sure how. The chimney was the only thing left after the fire.
Ms. Nye, however, determined to reconstruct the identical house, pulled together every piece of information in their possession. No archival drawings existed, so they had to rely on drapery measurements to determine room heights, snapshots from their city residence as well as those supplied by friends who had visited over a 30-year period, including the one of their stained glass window of the four winds. Another photo of a dog with his paws on a windowsill was used to determine the sill height, since they knew the exact length of the dog.
James Hadley, of Wank Adams Slavin, known for their preservation work, acted as architect/archaeologist. A culling through the rubble produced part of a wall with shingles and beveled siding intact, which revealed the exact dimensional exposure to the weather. Moldings, door hardware, window glass and even a fireplace surround tile with a manufacturer’s stamp on the back provided forensic clues needed to replicate the house.
Memory also played an important role in the reconstruction. The couple asked the architects if they could make the new staircase squeak, in addition to sanding down door saddles in the middle to look as if they were 100 years old. Reclaimed, old growth southern pine replaced the original wood, which could not be bought new today. Wear and tear had to be shown on certain moldings with eased edges, while the paint job needed to give the effect of multiple layers of paint accrued over the years.
When the house was completed, the Cavetts would slip into conversation saying, “Remember when so and so sat in that corner,” and then they’d catch themselves forgetting that the old Tick Hall was gone. A visiting German friend remained completely fooled, unconvinced that the new house really wasn’t the old house.
Many celebrity friends from Mr. Cavett’s talk show days had stayed in the old Tick Hall over the years, and at the luncheon he could not resist sharing anecdotal recollections of some of those visits.
Muhammad Ali, staying in a guest bedroom for the first time, picked up the phone and said “Hello,” while Ms. Nye, not knowing he was at the house, replied, “Darling.”
Ali countered with, “This ain’t Darling, it’s the three-time heavyweight champion of the world, watching your TV.”
Ms. Nye knew Ali’s voice immediately and said, “I will have to put a plaque over that bed.”
Ali later said to his friend, “You really love your house, don’t you Dick?”
After playwright Tennessee Williams stayed as a guest one firefly-filled summer, he wrote a note saying, “This is to thank you for my time at the firefly house—the most beautiful house I have ever seen in the north. Some people find the house they deserve, and they are blessed.”
The story of Tick Hall didn’t end with its reconstruction. Mr. Cavett introduced his new wife, Martha Rogers, a founding partner in Peppers and Rogers, a customer-based management consulting firm. She told the audience that she knew Mr. Cavett was really serious about her when he told her Tick Hall would always be her home. The talk show host interjected that it had to be confusing as he mentioned his wife as well as his late wife, but quipped, “At least you know which one is here.”
Ms. Nye, before her death, was not able to finish the interior decoration of the house, and Ms. Rogers spoke about completing the finishing touches. Woodwork that had been quickly painted was stripped in the stairwell to allow a screened wall to once again become transparent against a wood wall behind it. An addition off the back of the house was rebuilt with an extra 7 feet added to the kitchen, with additional windows at the rear for water views and an enlarged garage below. A porch added to the kitchen now connects to the side porch of the house. The gables, soffit details, trim and railings match the details on the original house. The hall, along with other rooms, received a treatment of William Morris wallpapers. A newly acquired collection of china is also on display in the home.
Ms. Rogers noted that the project took two years to complete, and Mr. Cavett interjected, in jest, that they had to go to former East Hampton Town Supervisor Judith Hope, who’d introduced him at the luncheon, “to obtain a list of corrupt politicians to get through the permitting process.”
Mr. Cavett added a pond on his 20-acre property, “for when we get sick of looking at the ocean,” he explained to the audience. A newly built pool down a narrow path is also tucked away out of view of the house.
Ms. Rogers said that she and her husband really did not feel like the owners, but rather the caretakers of Tick Hall so that it would be there for generations after they are gone. This house is one that is deeply felt with a personality all its own.
Perhaps architect Grosvenor Atterbury, describing houses in an essay, conveyed Tick Hall’s real essence, stating that “the quality of beauty and charm—what we are so apt to think of as a footnote to the architecture—which is oftentimes due to the owner as much as to the designer—appears in the final analysis to be the only real, vital, immortal part in the whole business.”