Meadow Lane House Originally Designed By Norman Jaffe Could Be Saved From Wrecking Ball - 27 East

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Meadow Lane House Originally Designed By Norman Jaffe Could Be Saved From Wrecking Ball

Brendan J. O’Reilly on Sep 21, 2021

An oceanfront home in Southampton Village originally designed by the late architect Norman Jaffe may be saved from the wrecking ball.

A majority of members of the village’s Board of Architectural Review & Historic Preservation voiced their opposition to issuing a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition of 88 Meadow Lane during the board’s September 13 meeting. Before they take a vote, there will be at least one more meeting so the attorney for the homeowner can present his response to a consultant’s report that found the house is architecturally and historically significant.

The ARB engaged Wall Street Journal architecture critic Alastair Gordon to determine whether the house is of importance and whether alterations and additions have undermined that importance. Mr. Gordon is the author of “Romantic Modernist: The Life and Work of Norman Jaffe Architect 1932-1993” and curated a related retrospective exhibition of Mr. Jaffe’s work in 2005 at the Parrish Art Museum.

John Bennett, the Southampton attorney representing owner Orest Bliss, said he had a problem with the selection of Mr. Gordon.

ARB Chairman Jeffrey Brodlieb defended the choice, saying, “We chose somebody who is known and respected in the industry and we believe — because of his knowledge of the architect — is actually highly qualified and very helpful.”

“I recommend that the Bliss house at 88 Meadow Lane be protected from demolition and preserved for future generations,” Mr. Gordon’s report states. “There are a number of reasons why the house should be saved from demolition, not the least of which is the fact that it is one of architect Norman Jaffe’s most significant houses on Eastern Long Island.”

Mr. Gordon explained Mr. Jaffe’s education and experience, from a “disciple of Frank Llyod Wright” to working for Philip Johnson in New York. He noted that Mr. Jaffe was one of the first modernist architects to establish a year-round office on the East End, where he worked during a period of modernist experimentation.

“Jaffe’s original design for the Bliss house was a visceral response to the oceanfront site,” Mr. Gordon wrote. “In some ways, it was all roof with three triangular planes converging near the center.” He described the roof as cutting in the sky like a knife, with ridgelines that run parallel to the dunes and shore.

When Mr. Bliss applied for permission to build the house in the late 1970s, the village’s ARB members at the time hated the design and required that it permanently be shielded from public view on the street side. Mr. Gordon pointed out that Mr. Bliss — citing Mr. Jaffe’s prominence as a respected architect with countless awards — later fought to have that covenant removed.

Mr. Bennett, who was hearing the report for the first time, gave his initial thoughts and also asked for an adjournment so he could have adequate time to formulate a response.

“I have to be highly critical of the board on the choice of Alastair Gordon as an expert,” Mr. Bennett said. “Mr. Gordon was a wholly inappropriate choice since he has an uncritical affinity for Jaffe houses. What you should be looking at is someone who has a broader view and is able to be critical. It is absolutely impossible for Alastair Gordon to be critical of a Jaffe house. He’s fully biased and he was a poor choice as an expert. I know his monograph on Norman Jaffe very well. I know Alastair personally. If it’s such a significant house, why did he give it a page in an approximately 250-page monograph?”

Mr. Bennett further argued that the house as built, and as it appears today, is not what Mr. Jaffe designed. “This is not a Jaffe,” he said, as he compared the original design to what’s there now. “This is a hodgepodge of field-made changes after ARB approval and then a wholesale renovation by Barnes Coy [Architects].”

He told the board that the Bliss house can’t be considered a contributing structure to the historic district because the district was created for the preservation of traditional homes. He also pointed to two prior demolitions of Jaffe homes that the ARB approved, both of which were unaltered, he said, unlike the Bliss house.

ARB member Peter DeWitt defended the changes that had been made to the Bliss house by Barnes Coy Architects. “It’s an extremely successful addition,” he said. “It does not mar the original house at all. Moreover, I want to say that the special quality of this house is its invisibility from Meadow Lane. That is what’s special. If it comes down we’re going to have to do FEMA all over again with another 50-foot monster up in the air. And that’s why it should be landmarked.”

By “do FEMA,” he was apparently referring to Federal Emergency Management Agency flood zone requirements that call for newly built residences on the ocean to be at a higher elevation than existing homes.

“I don’t know that I would agree that it should be landmarked because of what could be there. I think that’s immaterial,” ARB member Mark McIntyre said. “I think what’s material is this is a significant house. … Jaffe’s impact on this community was significant. And while others may question his impact on the entire country, his impact on our community is important.”

Member John Gregory agreed: “It’s part of the community, and the house is definitely worth saving.”

Ultimately, the board agreed to Mr. Bennett’s request for adjournment until September 27.

550 Hill Street

In another application for permission to demolish a house in a historic district, Mr. Bennett presented evidence that a residence at 550 Hill Street was built in the mid-20th century. “It doesn’t add anything to the historic district,” he told the ARB.

Mr. Brodlieb added, “My research was unable to bear anything that would contradict what Mr. Bennett had put forward.”

However, an attorney for two neighboring property owners argued otherwise: “There is documentary evidence in the state records that this building is a protected building,” Jeffrey Bragman of East Hampton said.

Mr. Bragman said New York State’s Cultural Resource Information System, known as CRIS, states that 550 Hill Street is a contributing property and identifies a circa 1910 house there as the Hanhausan house.

“It’s unclear whether this is that house or whether the site is that house, but it is unequivocal that it is identified in the CRIS system — which is the formal state record documenting your local historic district — as a contributing property,” Mr. Bragman said.

However, Mr. Bennett said the state made a mistake. “It’s always great when someone sets their own hook because that’s exactly what happened in the meeting tonight,” he said, as he presented a map that he called “absolute, unequivocal proof” of that mistake. The 1916 map shows the Hanhausan house as being on the property to the east of 550 Hill Street, and it shows 550 Hill Street as vacant.

The public hearing was closed but the attorneys were given time to submit more briefs before the board renders a decision.

130 Powell Avenue

In seeking a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition of 130 Powell Avenue, the attorney for the applicant said it was fairly straightforward. Members of the ARB did not agree.

The single-family house with a wood deck and garage is not in a historic district but it appeared on a 1926 map of the village, so it is at least 95 years old.

“The structure’s been altered over time,” Southampton-based attorney Heather Wright said. She noted that in 1996, a rear porch was added onto the house, and she said she believes the front porch was also an addition. Plus, some of the original windows have been replaced with vinyl windows, she added.

The house is not associated with a historic person, has no distinguishing architectural characteristics and is not the work of an influential designer, according to Ms. Wright.

ARB member Sarah Latham pointed out that the house was listed in the village’s historic inventory that was taken in 2000, and she said it is a contributing building. She decried that the ARB’s choice is either to declare the house an individual landmark or allow it to be demolished. “It’s disturbing to me because we’re losing these contributing buildings left and right,” she said.

Mr. McIntyre said he recognizes that the house is contributing but that he doesn’t know that it is a significant contributing house.

“I’d hate to see any older home demolished,” Mr. Gregory said, adding that he’d be OK with stripping off the additions and would like to see the house be part of new construction. He also agreed the house may not be significant.

Mr. DeWitt lands squarely on the side of saying no to demolition. “It’s authentic, and authenticity is becoming rarer and rarer in this village — and it happens one house at a time,” he said.

A 2011 survey noted that the house is intact, he added.

“Yes, it’s a simple building,” Mr. DeWitt continued. “It is a simple vernacular building, and that’s what most of Southampton vernacular buildings were. … I’m against tearing down any more contributing buildings. This is the Board of Architectural Review & Historic Preservation.”

Mr. Brodlieb said the board will take time to research whether the house is contributing and requested the opportunity for board members to visit the house. The application was adjourned for two weeks.

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