The Nathaniel Rogers House is located in Bridgehampton. There’s not much in the Hamptons that’s considered ugly. This is the land of the rusty pitchfork, sold as art, and hung under a cathedral ceiling. But when something is ugly, something which, at its core, is an historic gem, why then, we find it hideous.
Take for instance, the case of the Nathaniel Rogers House, occupying the southeast corner of Montauk Highway and Ocean Road in the hamlet of Bridgehampton. What an unsightly mess that has been for years, and undergoing work for the past ten.
What we don’t see is the behind-the-scenes, intense and devoted restoration enterprise that has joined private and public sectors, comprised of the Bridgehampton Historical Society (BHS), the Town of Southampton and New York State, through its Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. This has been going on since 2004.
Why just since 2004? That’s when the very last of a long succession of owners moved out.
The Town of Southampton assumed legal title to the House and property in August 2003. The Bridgehampton Historical Society maintains a stewardship agreement with the Town, so that it can restore and occupy the structure.
“The Town has been a supportive partner in this,” says Gerrit Vreeland, President of the Bridgehampton Historical Society, “but the Town has obligations and priorities, which at times forces it to move more deliberately and at a slower pace than anybody in the private sector. We had to learn how to work with that. We started off with the perception that we could do this in stages. After years of fits and starts, we sat down with the Town a few times, culminating in a meeting a month ago, where we said, we need to proceed after almost 10 years with one decisive move.”
The house is important because of its architecture, its key location, its history, and its future as the BHS headquarters, when it will house exhibitions, historic documents, with research and study areas, a visitor’s welcome area and gift shop, and special events.
On May 14 the Town of Southampton unanimously passed a resolution committing Town resources, through the Community Preservation Fund, to fully fund the restoration project to completion, according to Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi, who has been working on the project since he joined the board in 2006.
“We want to open this place up so everybody can see it and use it,” says Nuzzi. “It’s about packaging everything together and moving forward as quickly as we can.” The amount committed for Phase Two of the Exterior Stabilization Project, he reports, is $2.5 million over the next two years. The BHS has committed $1.3 million.
This is stunning when you think that to complete Phase One the Town has already contributed $1,025,000, the BHS, $350,000, in addition to a New York State grant of $700,000. The original cost of acquiring the house from Jim Hopping was $3 million, from private and public funding.
“It’s a unique Greek Revival home, situated at a crossroads in the Hamptons,” says Mary Wilson, Manager of Southampton Town’s Community Preservation Program, “and it should reflect our respect and appreciation of the Hamptons history.”
In a sort of brush with fate, this “Grey Gardens of Bridgehampton” was snatched from the jaws of the developer’s bulldozer just in the nick of time, but for years suffered from the neglect of its human occupants.
“It started out as a Federal-style family residence, built in 1820 by Abraham T. Rose,” says John Eilertsen, Executive Director of the BHS. “About 1839 Rose sold it to Nathaniel Rogers, a premier New York City miniaturist. Rose then built what became the Bull’s Head Inn, which is now the Topping Rose House.”
Rogers embellished the house, Greek Revival-style, starting in 1840, adding a portico, cupola, four columns and entablature of the Ionic order, and more rooms.
Rogers enjoyed his creation for a few years, but had long been suffering from tuberculosis and passed away. His heirs sold his house in 1857 to Sag Harbor whaling Captain James R. Hunting, who sold it in 1873 to the DeBosts of DeBost Brothers Dry Goods. The DeBosts’ claim to fame is that they were possibly the first to buy a second home instead of renting, allegedly starting the Southampton Summer Colony.
Hold on, we’re almost to the turn of the 20th Century. In 1883 the declining house was leased to E.P. Storm, who worked it as the unsuccessful Hampton House boarding house until 1888. A ray of light came in 1894 when the House was taken over by John Hedges and Frank Hopping, who cleaned up the Hampton House, transforming it into a successful, elegant inn until 1949. The last Hopping innkeepers changed it back to a residence.
The ray of light went out in 1952 when Caroline Hopping leased the front yard to a gas station, while her family still lived in the house. Her nephew Jim Hopping lived in a couple of rooms within the 8,000 sq. ft., 16-room structure, with his wife and two children, and ran a real estate agency there. He was given a year’s occupancy after the sale and lived there until 2004. He wanted to sell the house to a commercial real estate developer and tear the house down, but he was denied a variance.
“When we first walked in,” says Eilertsen, “we were dismayed. We saw that the columns were held up with two-by-fours. The interior was in the same disrepair: paint peeling, open roofs to the sky, water damage, raccoon droppings. We discovered this golden patina over the walls. At first we thought it was the paint, until we realized it was nicotine stains. Jim Hopping was a very heavy smoker.
“But we were also pleased,” continues Eilertsen, “because Jim Hopping did not alter the original historic characteristics of the house. At least it wasn’t destroyed.”
“Bridgehampton has a very rich history, and this house is an integral part of that history,” says Vreeland. “The significance of the East End of Long Island was to support New York City; it provided, in the early stages, the wood for fuel and building, then supplied the whale oil—whaling started here before Nantucket—then agriculture, and then the summer community. Bridgehampton’s part in this was that it was the only connector between Southampton and East Hampton, via the bridge at Bridge Lane. This house is reflective of all the different phases of our history, the way the house was developed and the way it was
“For the restoration, we picked the point in time when Nathaniel Rogers restored the house in the 1840s,” says Vreeland, “and that’s what it’s going to look like.”
In the years to come, perhaps you will pass the restored Nathaniel Rogers House and imagine you see ladies with parasols on the front lawn, as Nathaniel Rogers once painted them in miniature. Perhaps not, but whatever you see, it will be beautiful.
Jane Julianelli is writing her second book, “Three Tufts Men.” Her first book, “The Naked Shoe, the Biography of Mabel Julianelli,” is available online. Visit TheNakedShoe.com for more info.