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Aug 7, 2017 1:25 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Surchin: Approving Mocomanto Plans Would Set a Terrible Precedent

In this rendering of Mocomanto, the white represents the existing structure, and the red represents additions and changes.  COURTESY SIAMAK SAMII
Aug 7, 2017 1:25 PM

The proposed renovation/addition to Mocomanto in the Southampton Village National Register Historic District is about as two-faced a project, both literally and figuratively, to come before the zoning and architectural review boards in recent memory.Mocomanto is located, in its entirely, within the existing wetlands setback of Lake Agawam. Under current regulations, one would not be able to build anything new in these wetlands today. Ken Fox, the owner of Mocomanto, is looking for a reprieve from the Southampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals that actually expand the degree of wetlands non-conformity by adding a wing whose new 592 square foot link will, in fact, extend over the existing wetlands.

New vegetative buffers aside, the notion that the installation of an innovative/alternative onsite wastewater treatment system—deemed necessary given this location—will somehow negate any potential ill effects of this expansion simply isn’t a justification for building over endangered wetlands.

Wetlands provide habitat for fish and wildlife, so preserving them isn’t just about nitrogen and phosphorous reduction. Rather, it’s also about providing the physical space necessary for living things to thrive. If they do, in fact, sanction this addition over the wetlands, it would set a terrible precedent for others to expand their properties, further threatening the health of an already contaminated and environmentally challenged body of water while reducing the size of available habitat. What’s the point of having a wetlands setback if people are allowed to violate its reason for being? Why the ZBA should entertain such a proposal is beyond all comprehension, especially since such an approval flies in the face of the lake’s Comprehensive Master Plan, which specifically recommends limiting density.

At the recent ZBA hearing, John Bennett, Ken Fox’s attorney, said he was not going to discuss Mocomanto’s architecture since it is not in the domain of the ZBA. If he’s implying that on a stylistic basis the ZBA has no jurisdiction over the proposed building renovation and addition he is, in fact, correct. However, any building that threatens to change the character of a neighborhood is very much in the ZBA’s domain. So, the architecture does relate to the size and positioning of the renovation/addition to Mocomanto, as it will be visible for all the world to see.

Mocomanto was built as a stand-alone structure in the early 1880s and it encompassed the other parcels that now exist along its long driveway to First Neck Lane. Today the building sits on 2.2 acres, so what can be built today has as much to do with proportionality as does square-footage limitations. To say that the additional square footage is “de minimus” compared to other larger properties with more square footage and more acreage, as Mr. Bennett has suggested, is really quite disingenuous. The reality is that Mocomanto is a rather big house given the size of its property and that makes its expansion even more glaring.

The proposed addition to Mocomanto—really another house minus a kitchen—will be smacked against the existing house. This link, comprising a so-called family room over wetlands followed by a skewed section composed of a multiple car garage, attached garden shed and second story, will more than double the footprint of the property. What’s relevant here is the impact of the addition as it positions itself to become the Great Wall of Lake Agawam, highly visible from the parking lot on Gin Lane in front of the Beach Club, the Dune Church, the adjoining neighbors as well as the houses on the opposite side of the lake. The high visibility of this almost serpentine extension will, with almost mathematical certainty, change the essential character of the National Register Historic District neighborhood and its iconic panorama along Lake Agawam. On this basis, as well, the request for expansion should be denied by the ZBA.

Lastly, Mr. Fox’s request for relief is, in fact, a self-created hardship. Could he add a low scale, one-story garage separate from the house with a garden shed and rumpus room, not visible through privet hedges, that doesn’t need to be built within the wetlands setback? That’s a question that should be asked and answered.

This particular home is symbolically representative of the houses initially developed by the founders of Southampton’s summer colony. These cottages were substantial without being overwhelmingly large by today’s standards. Simply finished with shingles and stock trim on the outside and wood paneling typical of the era inside, they couldn’t even begin to compete with the formal, marble palaces of Newport. The historic cottages of the summer colonists, however, have been dropping like flies in recent years with the demolition of Sandymount, Halcyon Lodge, and the C. Wyllys Betts house among other historic district houses. Mocomanto belonged to Wyllys’s brother Frederic Betts, who along with Dr. Theodore Gaillard Thomas were the primary movers and shakers among founding summer colonists.

The Southampton Village Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation (ARB) has to review any alterations, renovations and additions in the National Register Historic District. It has to consider whether the new construction will be made harmonious with its immediate historic surroundings, whether the existing house additions will be in keeping the massing and architectural features of the original and whether alterations will do the same, especially if they are to blend with significant later additions. From the proposed plans and elevations of July18, thus far, this project is way off the mark.

The addition of the link to the garage wing has nothing to do with the original house. The link is a modern glazed connector, which will bridge the gap between old and new. As one colleague remarked to me “the garage wing looks like a horse stable.” Triangular dormers, triangular gables, and a few jerkinhead dormers abound both on the new wing and the main house, which originally had only dog house dormers popping out of the roof.

Speaking of dormers, there’s a little roof deck on the second floor facing the driveway, which shows a new dormer coming off the main roof to access the deck roof at a 45 degree angle where the two adjoining roofs are perpendicular to one another. The dormer’s ridge hits the valley directly where the two roofs meet. It is simply one of the most bizarre details I have ever seen on a house, especially from the seaside Victorian era. What it has to do with the architecture of the existing house is beyond all knowledge of architectural history.

Mocomonto’s new windows aren’t consistent within the whole. It’s as if the photographs from the 1979 inventory forms for landmark designation have been used to establish the window selection for the renovation/addition. Diamond-paned fixed windows, double-hung diamond-paned top sashes over blank bottom sash units and Frank Lloyd Wright-style prairie windows masquerading as Queen Anne are being reinserted on the house facades. These windows replicate a layer of history which may, in fact, bear little resemblance to the original windows. As a totality the facades resemble one grand, undisciplined cacophony of details, none of which relate to one another. The revised front elevation facing the driveway has taken on a squatness not befitting the house. All in all, the house is being eaten alive by embellishment where one side of the house shows a different face to the other.

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I agree with A. Surchin well written comments about Mocomanto. She makes her architectural points very clear to non laymen of why these variances/addition to this historic home must be DENIED. I would also like to know why the summer resident Mr. Fox needs more than 4700 feet of living space to raise his family. I bet he has 1 or 2 kids. This homeowner would be better off with a new build construction. Please ZBA you must do your civic duty.
By dhh1416 (1), East Hampton on Aug 13, 17 10:29 AM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By even flow (521), East Hampton on Aug 13, 17 10:38 AM
This is a serious issue in regard to the quality of architecture of Southampton Village. There is also no architectural professional better equipped to address the pitfalls of this issue than Anne Surchin.
By elliot (238), sag harbor on Aug 16, 17 10:25 AM
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