In every community there is always an architect who “gets it,” who understands the social and cultural history of the community as well as its architectural fabric. One of those architects was William Lawrence Bottomley (1883-1951), whose family built a late 19th century summer cottage on Mill Pond in Water Mill.
Mr. Bottomley, who did renovations on the house before going to college, later became a nationally renowned architect designing 11 country houses on Long Island as well as prestigious commissions from Florida to Maine. He possessed an architectural pedigree second to none; a bachelor of science degree in architecture in 1906 from Columbia University, the McKim Fellowship in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome in 1907 and studies that took him to the successful completion of the program in architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Mr. Bottomley returned to the states in 1909, married, and by 1911 had established the firm of Hewitt and Bottomley.
In 1912, one of his first major commissions was Southampton High School, known today as Southampton Town Hall. At the time of its completion, the building ranked among the best examples of classical design in New York State.
Having won the commission in a national design competition, which required a Colonial design that would meld with the existing idiom in the town, Bottomley’s solution employed Georgian design. In what would become a trademark signature of his extraordinary sense of scale and proportion, this architect created a red brick exterior dressed with marble trimmings and a stringcourse at the base of the second floor windows. Two wings flank a projecting, pedimented portico supported by ionic columns. Just behind this ceremonial entrance is a hipped roof attic with an elegant cupola donning the peak. Splashes of detail in the form of swags and wreaths in the pediment and delicate muntin bars in the windows of barrel dormers illustrate both his restraint and knowledge of Georgian detailing.
Although Mr. Bottomley worked in many styles, the architect was well known for his town and country residences and for his classical Georgian designs,
many of which still exist in the Richmond, Virginia area. Additionally, during the Great Depression, he edited a two-volume book, “Great Georgian Houses of America.”
In 1915, Mr. Bottomley designed a house for Edward E. Bartlett Jr., a partner in Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Beane, which was the complete antithesis of Town Hall. The Amagansett residence, really a French chateau by the sea, presented a linear structure divided into asymmetrical wings of varying heights, all coated in a cream stucco finish over hollow tile.
Irregular blue slates connect the roofs and a system of collector heads and leader pipes were used decoratively to define the entrance. The interior details are both simple and exquisite with plaster medallion ceilings and an ingenious use of glazing in the living room. Mr. Bottomley cased mirrors that were identical in size to the windows so that the view out would be reflected throughout the room. One of the mirrored openings was actually disguised as a hidden door to the garden.
Also redesigned by the architect was a rebuild of the original Canoe Place Inn structure, which was originally erected in the 1640s, and whose charter as a stagecoach inn dates to 1707. This structure served as the headquarters for British soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Numerous additions were built onto the structure over 200 years and, on July 4, 1921, the historic inn burnt to the ground. Julius Keller, owner of Maxim’s in New York, commissioned Mr. Bottomley to re-create the historic inn. Mr. Bottomley’s approach reflected, according to Susan Hume Frazer, author of “The Architecture of William Lawrence Bottomley,” two of his great strengths—his astuteness as an observer and his picky and detailed regard for execution.
This was an architect who meticulously studied locales and knew their vernacular. Mr. Bottomley noted that if a building could be “invested with style ... that intangible quality, that stamp, which gives it life and individuality will be both sound and original.” The reinvented Canoe Place Inn, conceived by Mr. Bottomley, did, in fact, imbue these attributes.
The original inn, a ramshackle affair of multiple parts, spread across its site in add-on colonial glory. The new inn was anything but a clone of the original.
The architect built a structure that looked as if it had been added to over time. The different wings varied in height, but were unified through the use of materials, scale and proportion. Although linear, Mr. Bottomley used dormers and breaks in roof configurations to dispel any kind of lengthy appearance while arranging a second floor veranda to serve as both open and covered porches with square columns.
The interior of the rebuilt Canoe Place Inn included all of the amenities to be found in a high-end establishment while the architect captured the spirit of the old inn in his design.
Perhaps the most striking part of the building was the dancing pavilion. Mr. Bottomley was allowed to do what he wanted here and the result was a whimsical oval dancing floor with billowing green and lavender fabric hung, tent-like, from the peak of the ceiling to the tops of the columns of the second floor gallery. He devised a lighting system of Japanese and Venetian lanterns, which highlighted, at night, the splendor of the clientele in formal attire.
The inn remained a swanky vacation destination and showplace into the 1940s and visitors included Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses, Helen Hayes, Cary Grant, Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin and Waxey Gordon, a renowned East End bootlegger. For almost 30 years, Governor Al Smith resided in one of the cottages on the property and politico Charles Murphy lived nearby, which resulted in dubbing the inn “Tammany Hall East.” Boxer John L. Sullivan also trained at Canoe Place in preparation for his fight with “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.
Over the years, the Canoe Place Inn has had multiple owners, and, although deteriorated, it is far from being unsound. The “AIA Guide to Nassau and Suffolk Counties, Long Island” noted “it is a building worth preserving.”
Several years ago the developer R Squared purchased the property and applied for a Planned Development District (PDD) variance to demolish the inn to make way for an exclusive time-sharing condominium. What public benefit this could have for the citizens of Hampton Bays is beyond this architect’s imagination.
The proposed building is an affront to a community that stands to lose even more of its identity. This so-called “Maritime” project calls for a 164,000-square-foot monstrosity four stories high that will read as six. This is analogous to putting a skyscraper in the Grand Canyon and saying the building comes up to grade level.
Canoe Place Inn occupies a special place in the history of Southampton Town, in particular, Hampton Bays. In the May 1923 issue of “Architectural Record,” Costen Fitz-Gibbon wrote of the inn saying that the owners showed “a respect for a fabric so closely identified with local history; on the part of the architect, the sympathetic grasp of the essential qualities that gave the inn its unique character, along with an independent play of imagination refreshing and felicitous in its expression.”
Adaptive reuse for this unlandmarked landmark is in order. It’s the opinion of this writer that it’s time to protect the work of this esteemed architect and say no to developers with deep pockets. Southampton is under no obligation to grant this PDD variance, a variance mechanism, which is proving to be the single most destructive force in Southampton today.
There’s an irony here that the very thing that is being proposed for the Canoe Place Inn property is the antitheses of Mr. Bottomley’s approach to design. His legacy here has to do with the creation of objects harmonious in character and with the larger community surrounding them. It is an example to be followed.
Anne Surchin is an East End architect and writer.
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