If Mocomanto were to be recreated in Disneyland, which version of the historic house would be chosen as the most significant? Would it be the 1880s house with the Betts family gliding across a crystal clear Lake Agawam in a gondola propelled by their gondolier? Or could it be the 1920s version, seen in photographs with two-story additions flanking both sides of the house and many of those rooms given over to renters?
The answer at Mocomanto is a problematic one for preservationists, as it has to do with the age-old issue regarding the significance of the layers of history on a historic house. Should all of the layers of history be considered preservation-worthy even when, for example, the later additions to Mocomanto weren’t really sympathetic to or harmonious with the original house, or should this distinctly original house be preserved as originally conceived—a standalone jewel on the lake? To complicate matters even further, and this is key, these later additions were removed long before the house was designated as a contributing historic district landmark. Documentary evidence for the additions consists of a few photographs, some scuzzy picture postcards, aerial photographs and various atlas maps.
What makes the original Mocomanto so compelling is the steeply pitched pyramidal roof sweeping down across the third and second stories only to be horizontally anchored on the first by a porch roof of oceanic breadth. This house, on a little peninsula jutting out into Lake Agawam, was built not only to take advantage of the views but also to be seen as well. It was conceived as a nodal point, a location marker identified by all—much like a lighthouse. Mocomanto retains its prominence today as it can still be seen from Gin Lane as well as from across the lake.
The house itself is part of a greater whole: the historic district. In Southampton it is far easier to chip away at historic district houses, which are equally weighted with one another and collectively considered contributing resources, rather than an individual structure listed as a local “landmark”—the attendant scrutiny of which is far more discriminating. However, in recent years this chipping away is fast eroding the character of the historic district, what with demolitions, broken promises about restoring in kind (40 Meadow Lane) or inappropriate, but sanctioned, renovations and additions that just aren’t responsive enough to design guidelines.
The Southampton Village Architectural Guidelines for Historic Districts and Landmarks states that large-scale additions to historic buildings should be located “as inconspicuously as possible, usually to the rear or least public side of a building.” It goes on to say, “do not obscure or destroy the characteristic features of historic structures when making additions; the loss of any materials should be minimal; Do not introduce a new architectural style or too closely mimic the style of the existing building. Additions should be simply and cleanly designed in a compatible but not imitative style; Adhere to the principle of additive massing, where an addition is secondary to the main mass of the building rather than a predominant element. Historic buildings often have additions at the rear of the buildings, or at the sides. Several small additions can provide as much livable space as one large addition.”
The proposed work on Mocomanto by owner Ken Fox calls for replicating the former two-story north-facing addition and adding a hipped roof one-story addition on to the west elevation. Unlike what had been presented to the ZBA, this new scheme now includes a new two-story garage separated from the house, with a roof height of 16 feet. Under dispute at the moment is the length of the addition with Mr. Fox’s team claiming the original addition as 32.5 feet long and the opposition saying 25 feet long. The Fox team also claims, from a very blurry photo, that another 7 feet can be attributed to a mudroom, which would make the total length 39.5 feet. No matter whose numbers are accepted, neither length really matters as the addition to the north is simply too big and too long. The addition also includes a short lattice railing on its flat roof that elongates the length and increases the height of the addition. Removing it would certainly reduce the scale. If the addition were scaled back further to the 1880s version— 12.5 feet long with two bays of windows—this would go a long way to making it a truly subservient addition.
Mr. Studenroth, the architectural preservation consultant to the Southampton Village Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation, or ARB, in his initial report on Mocomanto stated that the residence was a stand-alone house and that the first 30-foot-tall proposed garage/guest wing linked to the existing house competed with it and was in no way subservient. Now, in his second report of January 19, he called the new addition “a clear and decisive change from the prior design,” noting it takes its inspiration from the late 19th-century addition documented in historic maps and photos.
This addition simply replicates what was there. It is imitative, it simply mimics the vocabulary of the house, and its massing doesn’t work with the existing. It so elongates the structure that the existing house is robbed of its most distinguishing feature: its verticality. The whole impression is that of a house that has added on a bed and breakfast addition.
Keep in mind that when Mocomanto was first built it was an 8-acre property. Today it sits on 2 acres with roughly half an acre consisting of driveway. Essentially, whatever is added on is a tight fit given that the original carriage house/garage was remotely located away from the usable 1.5 acres remaining. As proposed, Mocomanto’s footprint will be increased by 79 percent, from 3,130 square feet to 5,599 square feet, and by 98 percent along the lakeside (the opposition’s calculation). The length of the façade along Lake Agawam is unacceptable. It simply overwhelms the existing house and the spatial relationships that characterize the property.
Last week in The Southampton Press, the editorial “Believe in the Process” prematurely concluded, “the process that Mocomanto has endured is valuable. The result is a respect for the past, even a restoration, with a nod to the present and the future. It is, ultimately a compromise, because that is the process, and the process works only if there is a resolution.” Contrary to that opinion, the process is far from being resolved. With plans submitted to the ARB and the opposition right before the meeting, Mr. Fox’s team left no time for anyone to review or digest the latest amendments to the drawings. What kind of process is that? The opposition and the ARB need to weigh in. The Fox team still needs to go back to the drawing board and they can do better.
Everyone involved in this “process” needs to seriously reconsider the basic premise as to whether or not this replication of a poorly done layer of history (one that was removed for a reason) should serve as the basis for the addition. Anointing it as the real deal for precedent is simply absurd.
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