Building A Home And Garden On A Kettle Hole - 27 East

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Building A Home And Garden On A Kettle Hole

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Work begins on the kettle hole house in 2006.

Work begins on the kettle hole house in 2006.

Work begins on the kettle hole house in 2006.

Work begins on the kettle hole house in 2006. COURTEST AMADO ORTIZ

Work begins on the kettle hole house in 2006.

Work begins on the kettle hole house in 2006. COURTEST AMADO ORTIZ

Carol Merksamer sits on a stump on the natural slope of the kettle hole.

Carol Merksamer sits on a stump on the natural slope of the kettle hole. COURTESY CAROL MERKSAMER

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The house and gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

The gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole.

The gardens at 6 Catulpa Place, built on a kettle hole. COURTESY SAUNDERS & ASSOCIATES

Brendan J. OReilly on Oct 13, 2020

When others looked at the large hole in the ground and saw a problem, architect Amado Ortiz saw opportunity.

In 2005, his clients Carol and Sam Merksamer were looking to move to the South Fork, and they wanted to build a house from the ground up on a special property. In northern Amagansett, in the Bell Estate subdivision, they and Mr. Ortiz found a vacant 2-acre parcel with a kettle hole — a geological formation created by a slowly melting block of ice left by the glacier that formed Long Island. The topography of the site made it difficult to build on, but Mr. Amado took advantage of the lay of the land to design a home that looks like a typical two-story house from the street while the back side has three full stories cascading down the kettle hole.

“There is a restriction, actually, in East Hampton against three-story houses, but we were able to really do some drawings that showed the building inspector that we did not ever exceed two stories relative to natural grade, because that’s how they measure it,” Mr. Ortiz recalled during a recent interview. “So, in fact, it has three usable stories, but in all respects it’s a legal two-story house as it descends down the slope.”

The kettle hole project came halfway into Mr. Ortiz’s tenure so far practicing architecture in East Hampton — this month he celebrates 30 years since his relocation from New York City — and it remains one of the most memorable.

He said the average client would have wanted to do extensive filling of the hole, and basically put a rectangular box on a platform. The Merksamers were not typical clients.

The Merksamers decided to leave California for the East Coast after Mr. Merksamer sold his business, to be closer to their children, Sam and Jen. They looked on the South Fork, where they had previously rented on the ocean in Napeague while their kids were on Thanksgiving break from college, and found what they were looking for in Amagansett.

“We really liked this area because it’s so gorgeous with the beech trees and the hollies and everything, and it’s like rolling hills through here,” Ms. Merksamer said. They also wanted to use a local architect, because they felt that was the right thing to do, and Mr. Ortiz came recommended.

The Merksamers desired a house typical of a Hamptons cottage, but modernized. “We worked with Amado for the entire year on the plans, and he was very good because he wanted to know how we were going to use the house, and how we entertained,” Ms. Merksamer said.

What they got was a 5,200-square-foot house with a first-floor master bedroom and three en-suite bedrooms upstairs. It also has an office with a fireplace and access to the backyard.

“The center of our house becomes the kitchen,” Ms. Merksamer said, “and when the kids are here and family’s here, everybody’s in the kitchen. Everyone is cooking. Everyone is telling everybody else what to do. And we’ve had lovely parties here.”

On August 15, they celebrate Ferragosto, the kick-off to summer vacation in Italy. They put a table in the pea gravel courtyard to seat 20 to 30 guests for a candlelit dinner then move inside to the family room to watch a movie in Italian.

Knowing they would be using the house as they got older, the Merksamers wanted it to be convenient to get around. To that end, the scissor stairs that connect the three floors have low rises so they’re easier to go up and down.

The house is on Catalpa Place off Fresh Pond Road, and the kettle hole is 200 feet in diameter with a 30-foot drop from street level to the bottom. “That was a puzzle to most people, how to deal with that,” Mr. Ortiz said.

The Bell Estate area has a high elevation, so the bottom of the hole is still 25 feet above sea level and only seasonally damp, occasionally collecting rainwater or groundwater, he said. He noted that the entire Bell Estate, and north Amagansett in general, is terminal moraine — the edge of a glacier — with undulating mounds of gravel and sand.

When the house was constructed over 2006 and 2007 by local builder Phil Kouffman, beech trees and ferns —which thrive in moist conditions like the bottom of the kettle hole — were preserved, as were holly and sassafras trees.

The house has a slab foundation with built-in radiant heat and drainage, and is in an L-shape to follow the contours of the kettle hole.

Also unusual is the location of the pool. “The default position for a pool is right up against the house, parallel to it,” Mr. Ortiz said. “We didn’t want to do that.”

Instead, a tiered garden separates the house from the pool, which is at an angle and nestled among the native beech trees.

“We’ve tried to keep with native plants or plants that are ubiquitous to the Hamptons, like hydrangeas, and really protected out beech trees,” Ms. Merksamer said.

She said the idea was to landscape the property so the gardens would be an extension of the home.

Stack walls made from Pennsylvania stone created curved and terraced gardens moving down the kettle hole’s slope. The same stone was also used to create the steps down to the courtyard, with a custom handrail with beech leaf details to complement the beech trees than overhang the steps.

In addition to the ornamental mini-gardens in the terraced planting beds is an Italian-style kitchen garden, called an orto. A rip wall of stones that were found on-site separates the kitchen garden’s raised beds from the other gardens. A wall of hydrangeas planted in front of the rip wall has matured over the years to be over 6 feet tall. “The entrance to the orto is like the entrance to a secret garden,” Ms. Merksamer said.

The Merksamers also incorporated into the garden an antique garden gate from England that they brought with them form California.

“The garden is a perennial garden, so it starts blooming about April,” Ms. Merksamer said.

The Montauk daisies are blooming now. Roses and other colors in the garden will keep going until there is a hard freeze in December, when most will die back to the ground.

The flowers start blooming again in spring, starting with daffodils, forsythia and a tulip tree. Native wood anemones pop up followed by blooms from rhododendrons, azaleas and two large red camellias. And then, Ms. Merksamer said, lilacs bloom and “perfume the garden.”

Among her roses are “antique roses,” which predate the 20th century, such as the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster.

Purple lavender and yellow yarrow filling a walkway are the most loved by honeybees and butterflies, she said.

The plants will start to grow one at a time, like the movements in a piece of music, she said. “First one things blooms, and then another thing comes up. So it’s not all at once — it’s continuous through the season.”

Now that their children have left New York, or will be leaving soon, the Merksamers have put the house on the market with Scott Bradley and Michael Cinque of Saunders & Associates, seeking $5 million.

“We’re not too sure what we’re going to do,” Ms. Merksamer said of their next move. “We want to be someplace warmer in the winter and closer to family. So, we’ll figure that out when it comes.”

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