Teardown: It’s Only a Problem if the House Torn Down Is Yours

There’s a certain comfort I find driving up and down the Montauk Highway from East Hampton to Bridgehampton and every day passing the first house I ever owned. I have so many good memories of that house, and when I drive by, the memories flood back. There was the time that I converted the garage into a studio for my wife, the photographer, for her birthday. There was the time I went up into the attic crawl space and found souvenirs from the First World War brought home by an army veteran. My first child was born while I lived there. I recall going to the John Drew Theater and, after a summer stock performance of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, inviting the whole cast and crew over for a big afterparty. All these memories and more come to mind when I drive by this house. It fronts on the Highway. I must go by it 300 times a year. It’s been nearly half a century since I owned it.

Yesterday, I looked over at it and all I saw was the raw land, a rectangle 77 feet by 350 feet, now as empty as farmland. Not a bush or tree remained. A backhoe was there. Earlier in the day, it had plowed up the earth. The property was getting ready for whatever would happen next. My house was gone.

HOUSE HISTORY

When Woodrow Wilson agreed to send an American army to France to stand up to the Kaiser, a huge number of young American men volunteered to go. Here on Long Island, they were trained at an Army base in Yaphank called Camp Upton. Then they were gone. A year and a half later, they returned to the States, victorious. Since there was no war anymore, Camp Upton shut down. And in a sort of shout-out to the veterans, the Army offered up one barracks building to every veteran who could show up with a dollar and agree to have it towed off.

I learned this from a Mrs. Collins, who, when I moved into the house, owned what was then the North Main Street IGA with her sisters and lived in the big colonial house next door with her family. She’d brought me some cookies as a housewarming gift. She said the house had been towed by mules from Camp Upton in 1919. She’d seen it herself.

A Lieutenant James J. Keeler had done it. I found that out when I went up through a trap door into the attic. He was quite a dancer, and up there I found three solid silver trophies he had won for the Charleston First Prize in 1921 and 1922, and then Second Prize Waltz 1921 at Roseland in New York City. (I still have two of them.) Also up there I found a towel with crossed American and French flags on it beneath the words Vive les Americains! Also up there I found an artillery shell about the size of an umbrella stand. It was made of brass, and someone had hammered one side of it into the shape of a flower. Also up there I found some old 78 RPM shellac records. Three of them were recordings of songs praising Charles Lindbergh—“what a flying fool was he, flew o’er the ocean to live in history.” These would have been from 1927. Nobody had ever cleaned out that attic.

A First World War army barracks measures exactly 20 feet wide by 40 feet long. It is one story high, has a crawl space of an attic, has no central heating, and, by the time I got this one in 1968, it had one bathroom and three bedrooms and also a dining room, a kitchen, a breakfast room and a living room—all very teeny tiny rooms, except for the living room, which was the full 20 feet wide, 10 feet deep and on the highway side. Everything sat on cedar posts. Meanwhile, cars would roar by 50 yards away.

Should I tell you that I paid $9,250 for this house? Back then, the value of a house was 10 times what it could be rented for. This 800-square-foot house would rent for about
$90 a month. This was just about the time that the phrase “South of the Highway” came into use. Yes, this house was “South of the Highway.”

My wife and I threw a number of big parties for our friends during the five years we lived there. The first was a covered dish, loud music, house-painting party that lasted from dawn to dusk. The cedar shingles became beige. The trim around the windows, white. I recall Mrs. Collins coming over to tell us to turn the music down but ending up joining the party.

The cast of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying did the theme song dance number in our living room, stomping around to the music. After that party ended at about 1 a.m., I walked around cleaning up paper cups and plates—no catering company then—and discovered that the floor in the center of the living room sprang up and down as I walked upon it. Something underneath had given way. Outside, I wriggled through the dirt under the house and learned it was a cedar post under the very center of the living room that was the cause of the problem. The dancers, stomping in unison from above, had hammered this cedar post down with the long wooden 2 x 20 floor beam resting upon it. There was now a half-inch space between the top of the post and the floor beam. So it bounced when you walked in the living room. I solved this problem by sliding back under the house with an axe head that I hammered into that space with a sledgehammer.

I wish I could tell you that five years later I sold the house for $250,000, but the house only fetched one tenth of that. Still, from $9,250 to $24,000 in five years made a handsome profit.

In the years that followed I watched as the price this house sold for went up and up. Ten years later, it sold for $250,000 and that axe head was still under there. I knew that because I looked. I couldn’t imagine the price could have risen so high, but of course, that was only the beginning. This most recent sale—with the house as a teardown—was for $1.6 million.

I drove onto where the short driveway used to be yesterday when I saw that all was gone. I parked next to a van belonging to the Soshi Building Company. I presume some new glass-and-concrete architectural masterpiece has now been approved for that site, probably with four bedrooms, five baths, a gym, a media room and, overlooking an infinity pool, a waterfall.

I got out and looked around. Lo and behold, there was a building standing from my time there. It was the garage I’d turned into a studio. I peeked in. It had been much improved, with a skylight and cathedral ceiling. I suspect the garage was spared because one whole side of it—this is a 20 x 15 garage—runs right smack along the property line between my property and Mrs. Collins’ house. So it’s grandfathered in. No setback needed. A free perk from the past if you leave it standing. I looked for Mrs. Collins’ house. What a shock. That was torn down, too. You learn something every day.

I prospered running the newspaper soon after buying the house. And as there were now two little kids, I came to appreciate the dangers involved in being so close to the road. As a result, I bought a magnificent three-story, six-bedroom house on Lumber Lane in Bridgehampton for $70,000, which, at the time, real estate agents told me was the most ever paid for a house in that Bridgehampton.

That big house, a 4,000-square-foot structure, was built about the same time as the rickety barracks building from Camp Upton that I’d owned just before. There are lots of stories from my time in Bridgehampton, but that’s for another time.

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