Court Rules Demolition of Norman Jaffe-Designed Bliss House in Southampton Village May Go Forward - 27 East

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Court Rules Demolition of Norman Jaffe-Designed Bliss House in Southampton Village May Go Forward

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The residence at 88 Meadow Lane in Southampton Village was originally designed by Norman Jaffe. It was later renovated and added onto by Barnes Coy Architects.

The residence at 88 Meadow Lane in Southampton Village was originally designed by Norman Jaffe. It was later renovated and added onto by Barnes Coy Architects.

Brendan J. O’Reilly on Mar 3, 2023

A state court has ruled that the Southampton Village Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation must allow the demolition of 88 Meadow Lane, an oceanfront residence by the late modernist architect Norman Jaffe, to move forward.

The board had decided unanimously in December 2021 to reject owner Orest Bliss’s application for a certificate of appropriateness that would allow him to demolish the residence, which is in a historic district. But in a ruling handed down on Wednesday, March 1, State Supreme Court Justice Christopher Modelewki overturned the board’s decision and ordered the board to issue Bliss a certificate of appropriateness within 10 days.

The village intends to file a notice of appeal, according to Jeffrey Brodlieb, a member of the board who was its chairman when it turned down Bliss’s application in 2021.

Modelewki, in his five-page decision, rebuked the board — commonly referred to as the ARB — writing that a review of the ARB’s decision, the transcript of the public hearings and the exhibits compels a reversal.

“The court finds that the ARB decision in this matter was arbitrary, wholly without regard to the facts, and made in derogation of the law,” the justice wrote, adding that he saw no reason for the ARB to deny this certificate of appropriateness when two other Jaffe-designed houses in close proximity were permitted to be demolished.

He accused the board of being predisposed to denying the application and pointed to a ARB meeting transcript in which a board member had said, in substance, “l wanna make sure that we’re clear, this is a significant house. It’s a Norman Jaffe house.”

Modelewki’s decision states that it is uncontroverted that Bliss caused “something of a stir” in the village when he advanced plans for a nontraditional home by Jaffe, which was built in 1979 and renovated by Barnes Coy Architects in 2000. He also noted that the Southampton Village Planning Board had made Bliss agree to a covenant on the property that requires the residence to be screened from public view.

“His home was deemed too incongruous (if not hideous) for the citizenry to bear, so the reviewing Southampton officials decreed that it be surrounded by walls of trees and shrubs,” Modelewki wrote. “Fast-forward to the present, for what presents as an about-face and subjective determination to preserve the home against the will and contrary to the needs of its owner, notwithstanding that the facts and law do not support such determination.”

Modelewki also criticized the ARB’s interpretation of the village’s own code. He quoted a 1947 decision from Judge Learned Hand that stated, “There is no more likely way to misapprehend the meaning of language — be it in a constitution, a statute, a will or a contract — than to read the words literally, forgetting the object which the document as a whole is meant to secure.”

Modelewki pointed out that the historic district that the Bliss house lies in pertains to structures built during the period of 1660 to 1930.

“The ARB’s denial of the petitioners’ application includes not a single syllable to explain how, with these predicates in mind, a reasoned case could be made to preserve a radical-looking modern structure erected decades following the capture period for the historic district,” the justice wrote.

He also took issue with the board’s selection of architecture critic Alastair Gordon, the author of the book “Romantic Modernist: The Life and Work of Norman Jaffe Architect, 1932-1993,” as a consultant to craft a historical report on the home. He challenged the ARB’s conclusion that Gordon is “entirely impartial.”

In a footnote, the justice wrote, “Mr. Gordon reveals himself to be an unabashed Jaffe admirer incapable of objective analysis.” He also noted the “tone, tenor, and content” of the ARB report, as well as the “mantle” Gordon took up in the community, exhorting others on social media to “SAVE BLISS” and soliciting letters.

Modelewki wrote that this “invites the conclusion that the ARB had decided this application well before Mr. Bliss had attended the first of five hearings on his application and to that end, employing Mr. Gordon to supply a report intended to justify their decision.”

More than 80 emails and letters were written to the ARB in opposition to Bliss’s application, from as far afield as Germany and Japan — which Modelewki indicated appear to have mostly emanated from Gordon.

The justice wrote: “If the ARB had not been predisposed to a denial of the Bliss application, it appears that this board bowed to community opposition, which is yet another reason to overturn its decision. Community opposition is not a predicate for determination of any land use.”

In an interview Friday, Gordon questioned who would have been a better consultant to make a report for the ARB. “Who would you get to be an expert and give advice to an ARB on a certain architect, other than someone who had made a multi-year study of that architect’s work?” he asked.

He said he interviewed Jaffe multiple times and did a movie about him — but that doesn’t mean he is Jaffe’s biggest fan. “I’m a cultural historian. I’m a critic. I’m a journalist,” he said.

Gordon said he was very critical of Jaffe’s work when the architect was alive and didn’t like everything Jaffe did.

“No one can disprove that Norman Jaffe was a very interesting and important architect, especially for Long Island,” he said. “I think he did more than anybody else in that period on the East End, including the Jewish Center [of the Hamptons, in East Hampton], which everybody lauds as one of the great buildings out there, which I think it is.

“And he did some dogs, too, like everybody. He did mediocre spec houses and things like that that were just to fill in and make some money over the winter. But he also did some really marvelous things, and I think the Bliss House is one of them.”

Gordon also disagreed with the contention that the Bliss house, having been significantly renovated, does not reflect Jaffe’s work.

He said there are cases that a house changes so much it is no longer the original. He does not think the Bliss house is one of those cases.

He noted that Rob Barnes, the late co-founder of Barnes Coy Architects, was an acolyte of Jaffe who worked in Jaffe’s office for years before opening his own firm. “There are maybe two or three people who worked for Norman Jaffe whom I would consider qualified to do in addition,” Gordon said, indicating that Barnes was one of the few.

Modelewki acknowledged the village’s argument that the ARB has discretion. “However, the exercise of such discretion is not without limitation,” he added. “The ARB’s use of discretion must be rationally based and predicated upon facts.”

Bliss’s attorney, John Bennett of Southampton law firm Bennett & Read, said this is one of the sternest decisions he has seen in more than 40 years of litigating.

“The ARB was acting totally outside their portfolio and totally outside of the laws,” Bennett said.

He said that more and more often, land use boards are ignoring the fact that results can only be within the bounds of the law.

“This is very gratifying as a lawyer to see,” he said. “The judge said, ‘Yes, there’s a set of rules, and you have to follow them — and you didn’t here.’”

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