Dan Rattiner's Stories

Road to Restoration: How the Bull’s Head Inn Was Transformed to the Topping Rose House

In 2006 while on vacation at the Mauna Kea resort in Hawaii, I received a hand delivered message from a waiter that a man named Lynn St. John in Bridgehampton was trying to reach me. We were, at the time, on the beach under an umbrella just in front of the unit that collapsed two years earlier when an earthquake slashed through, shutting the place down for a year. It had been quite something.
Lynn St. John has a house on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton and he was a sort of hero of mine. Together, 30 years before, we had fought off the Sun Oil Company, which at that time wanted to tear down the beautiful but abandoned Bull’s Head Inn, now still standing but in disrepair in the center of Bridgehampton. They wanted to replace it with a gas station. I had fought it off in the paper. He was part of that fight, but then he put his money where his mouth was and bought up the place. He’d kept it alive, at least on the first floor, for the next 30 years largely as an antique shop. It was still there, not torn down, now waiting to be restored by somebody.
At that time, the Mauna Kea did not have cellphone service. So I got back to him the old fashioned way, by calling him on the hotel phone in our room.
“The Bull’s Head is under threat again,” he said. “I need you to join up with me as you did before. We have to fight this off.”
I asked him to explain what was happening. He told me that a wealthy corporate executive who lived in town had taken an option from him to buy the place and restore it. But now it turned out that the restoration would just be part of a resort hotel he’d build alongside it. It would include a conference center, a spa, a swimming pool and about 20 new units in a separate building. Lynn’s biggest concern was that, attached to the back of the original building there would be an addition six feet taller than the original building.
“It will stick up. You will see it from the street. And he’s already been to the Town Board,” Lynn told me. “There’s a complete set of plans. You’ve got to see this. When are you coming home?”
“We got here yesterday,” I said. “We’ll be away for three weeks. Can you send me the plans?”
“Three weeks could be too late.”
The next day, from almost halfway around the world—and I’ve always thought this amazing—I received by overnight mail to the Mauna Kea on the Big Island, the plans for the restored Bull’s Head Inn. It did not take me long to have an opinion about it. I was on the phone to Lynn again.
“Lynn, this is the answer to our prayers.”
“You won’t join me in opposing this?” he asked.
“Lynn, I think this is a good way to save this place. I can’t oppose it. And with sight lines being what they are, you won’t see the attachment in the back of the building from the road.”
The home we had come to know as the Bull’s Head Inn was built in 1842 by Judge Abraham Topping Rose of Bridgehampton as the mansion he and his family would live in. A friend of his, Nathaniel Rogers, had already built his mansion across the street. Together, across from one another, their residences would mark the center of the downtown.
When my dad moved me and my sister and my mother out to Montauk in the late 1950s, we’d pass through Bridgehampton. One of the two mansions, Nathaniel Rogers’ house, was still being lived in by somebody, but  was already in disrepair. On its front lawn was a gas station. The owner had rented the front lawn to Mobil! Across the street, also abandoned at that time, was the other mansion. A sign on the street in front of it said Bull’s Head Inn, but the building was vacant. These two three-story homes were quite a mess. The center of Bridgehampton was a sorry place indeed.
I soon learned, especially after I moved to Bridgehampton in 1970, that this was not all there was to the broken down history of that center of town. On the third of the four corners there was a sign out front on the curb announcing that here on this spot stood Wick’s Tavern, an important meeting place for the patriots during the Revolutionary War. Behind the sign there was no tavern. There was a second gas station. Wick’s had been cast aside in the name of progress. On the last corner was a row of stores. According to maps I found in the library, that had been vacant land in 1776 and the site of the mustering of the Bridgehampton Militia.
The battle that came about to Save the Bull’s Head Inn across the way occurred the very first year I was in that town. And it was a stunner. The Sun Oil Company, parent company of Sunoco, wanted to tear down the Bull’s Head Inn and in its place build a Sunoco gas station. There would be three gas stations on the four corners of the center of town.
Sometimes newspapers can change things if they handle it right. The next week, in the newspaper, I announced the founding of the Save the Bull’s Head Inn Committee. The Town Board should not approve the application by Sun Oil Company. They should instead buy the Bull’s Head Inn and preserve it. I put a coupon in the paper. It asked you to cut your Sunoco credit card in half with a scissors, write your name and address on the coupon and send it to the President of Sun Oil Company in Philadelphia, Pa. This act of defiance was explained in the coupon. By enclosing it, you were demanding that Sun Oil back off. Give up on the idea of putting a gas station there.
Amazingly, three weeks later, I got a call from Sun Oil in Philadelphia asking me to meet with several of their executives in Manhattan. They had a plan they’d like to show me they felt might satisfy me and my Save the Bull’s Head Committee. At that meeting, they rolled out architectural plans to show me how they would move the Bull’s Head Inn back on the property and put their gas station where they wanted to, facing out on the Montauk Highway.
“So now, on two sides of the street,” I said, “there will be beautiful old mansions in the center of town with gas stations on their front lawns?”
“Yes. We’d pay to have it moved. And we’d have it set down so it faced the Turnpike on the side. You could enter it from there.”
I was speechless.
“What do you think?”
“I think I should take this set of plans out to Bridgehampton and present them to our next meeting of the Save the Bulls Head Inn Committee.”
“Any predictions?”
There was, of course, no Save the Bull’s Head Inn Committee other than me. And maybe one or two people who had written letters supporting the idea, one of which had come from Lynn St. John.
“I wouldn’t count on their approving it,” I said.
And so that was the end of that. And it was also the end of Sun Oil’s application. The Town Board refused to approve it. Sun Oil went away.
Last week, Bill Campbell, the former corporate executive of Lorillard now retired out here, took me on a tour of the completely restored and dazzlingly beautiful Bull’s Head Inn which, now re-named the Topping Rose House, will open for lodging and meals next week. On its second and third floors, it has seven rooms and suites, many with fireplaces. These rooms have the original floors, moldings, even the original blown glass from 1842 in the windows. On the ground floor, there is the parlour, a sitting room, a dining room and a grand staircase, all restored. The dining room will be open to the public. There are fireplaces in some of the rooms. The extension in the back is built with the identical material and design as the main building so it fits right in. And in its final incarnation the extension is no taller than the main building.
Along the way, Campbell introduced me to his business partner, Simon Critchell. I also met Tom Collichio, the judge of “Top Chef” on Bravo, who will be in charge of the restaurant. Jeff Morgan will be the manager.
We continued on our tour to the big old barn in the back, which has also been lovingly restored as a conference center. To the east of that are the foundations and walls of what will be the spa, pool and apartment units. But they are still under construction.
There never did get to be three gas stations on the four corners of the center of town of Bridgehampton. Indeed, today, there are NONE and there will continue to be none.
Across the street where the Wick’s Tavern once stood, the gas station there has been bulldozed down and the raw land awaits the construction of a beautiful three-story office building in the same Greek Revival style as the two other buildings.
Across the street directly, the gas station that was in front of the home of Nathaniel Rogers is all torn down and gone, and the main house, now under the ownership of the Town of Southampton, is being restored to shortly become a museum.
I feel very lucky to have lived to see this center of town transformed from a nightmare to a grand centerpiece for Bridgehampton. It’s a great and wonderful historic restoration in the Hamptons.
And it couldn’t have been done without the help of the town, Dan’s Papers, Lynn St. John, Bill Campbell and Simon Critchell.

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