Southampton’s ascendancy as a fashionable resort is usually thought to have hit its stride in the 1890s, which doesn’t mean that summers lacked glamor in the years before “cottagers” began buying up land and building country estates. No sooner had the railroad reached Southampton in 1870 than word spread that just a few hours from the city were wide, pristine beaches, quaint village streets and cool country air.
But where to find suitable lodgings?
As it happened, Southampton was well stocked with large, handsome houses. Built with whaling wealth, they reflected a boom that had lined the pockets not just of captains and shipbuilders but of their many suppliers. Nearly everyone prospered while it lasted, but by mid-century the industry had begun to decline and in 1870 it was moribund. The transformation of these private homes into boarding houses provided a timely answer to empty rooms and empty pockets, one that benefited both their owners, who needed a new source of income, and well-heeled city dwellers eager to escape the torments of an urban summer.
Captain Barney Green saw the advantage and was evidently as agile an entrepreneur on land as he had been at sea. In an 1885 list of fashionable places to stay in Southampton, Harper’s magazine included “the home that Capt. Barney Green, a splendid old seaman, has built for his boarders,” complete with hatches through which, by means of block and tackle, their top-of-the-line trunks could be “hoisted to the upper rooms.”
Two years earlier, on June 7, 1883, the Brooklyn Eagle, reporting on the seasonal exodus from the city, had noted that the captain had no fewer than 75 summer lodgers while 30 were staying at David Burnett’s and James Hildreth was host to 40 on Toylesome Lane.
As Elizabeth Hildreth Johnson related in an oral history interview, the Hildreth hostelry was the brainchild of Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, the socially prominent New York City gynecologist who is often credited with founding the Southampton Summer Colony. He approached her grandfather in 1880 and arranged to have the Hildreth farmhouse enlarged to accommodate some of his patients. The plan promised benefits for the patients, who would breathe the restorative seaside air; for the doctor, who would enjoy summers in Southampton without abandoning his practice; and, of course, for the Hildreths.
In the following years, the number of bedrooms in the house doubled, then tripled. Wings were added, the roof was raised. Every summer the rooms filled up with worldly, glamorous, not-very-ill visitors who indulged in sports by day and charades in the evening. Among them was the wasp-waisted actress, Clara Bloodgood (described in the society pages as “the dashing Mrs. Jack Bloodgood”). Other descriptions often included the words “nervous” and “high-strung,” according to Bloodgood's biographer, Kim Marra, and, indeed, in 1907, her successful acting career came to an abrupt end when she took her own life with a .32-caliber pistol.
Mrs. Lloyd Aspinwall, whose several summers spent at the Hildreth House were duly noted in the Sea-Side Times, was another star of the society pages. When she died in 1897, at 35, the details of her brief, turbulent life made good copy. Her greatest misfortune was to have married Lloyd Aspinwall Jr., the grandson of one of New York’s merchant princes but a gambler and cheat who spent time in jail. At his death in 1899, The New York Times wrote: “One time well-known and wealthy clubman Dies in Comparative Poverty.”
No wonder she sought refuge in Southampton.
Sources from the archives of the : Oral History:Elizabeth Hildreth Johnson; Harper's magazine, "A New England Colony in New York," 1885; The New York Times, 8 January 1897; The American Transcendental Quarterly, U. of Rhode Island, September 1993, "Clara Bloodgood (1870-1907): Exemplary Subject of Broadway Gender Tyranny" by Kim Marra.