I recently gave a presentation at the in Bridgehampton on"How to Research the History of Your House." Afterwards the subject of demolition came up, probably because I had paid homage to a house in Southampton Village that had been demolished last summer and I have not yet gotten over. I really should get over this and move on ...
Anyway, I learned from audience members that the next day, was going to review a new demolition application for a house that was supposedly built in 1913 and occupied by an African-American family. Hmm. My curiosity peaked, I decided to attend.
The 3.6-acre property, 79 Parsonage Ln, was purchased not too long ago by an LLC with which Michael Davis, a well-known developer, is involved. Eric Woodward, a Southampton architect, who designs many projects for Davis, represented the application. The 1,339-square-foot existing structure is generic, modest and non-descript architecturally, as you can see in the attached photo. The applicant would like to demolish it and replace it with a new 10,975-square-foot home, including accessory structures. Nothing new, right? Except, apparently this is the only house ever historically occupied by an African-American family in Sagaponack. Ugh. So the ARB is perplexed by the question, how do they not stand in the way of change, and yet preserve the heritage of the village? It's a question with which I am sure many villages in many places also struggle.
A bit more history of the property recounted by various people attending the meeting unveils that the owner, a Bevry Stewart, was a descendant of a slave who rented property from Paul Roesel, the owner of the property and more according to a 1902 map, and worked for neighbors to the west, the Deshlers. Later, Stewart inherited a portion of the Roesel property now under discussion. As the African-American community was not well documented as far as census and other information goes — at least as far as I have found — we don’t know much about this Stewart except that many oral histories have seemed to establish that he wasn’t a farmer, even though he was listed as such on the 1930 Census.
The Sagaponack ARB ultimately decided to adjourn the application in order to visit the site and gather a bit more history. Apparently there is a granddaughter named Audrey who now lives in western Long Island that can be contacted. But before they did so, they wondered about the adaptive reuse of the existing house into one of the accessory structures.
This brings us back to the dilemma facing this board and others: How do they not stand in the way of change and yet preserve the heritage of their village? That’s a very broad question difficult to answer succinctly except to say one step (or applicant) at a time and with economic incentives attractive to a broad assortment of buyers. As for this project, I believe the house is not worth saving because it cannot, in this case, be preserved authentically while also allowing for the construction of the large new "McMansion." If it were to be incorporated into the larger project it would likely be changed to such an extent that it would become cute and cliché and potentially more offensive to the African-American community than if it had not been "preserved" at all.