Dan Rattiner's Stories

Concer Redux: Freed Southampton Slave’s Home May Survive

I think one of the saddest things that happened in our community last year was the tearing down of the historic home of Pyrrhus Concer.

Pyrrhus was born a slave in Southampton, and, after the slaves were freed in 1827 in the State of New York, traveled around the world as a mate on a whaling ship, sought fortune in the California Gold Rush, then returned to his historic home to run his own business for the rest of his life—a water taxi service that took the summer people across Lake Agawam from Monument Square to the beach where the Southampton Bathing Club is today. He was a town character during those later years, and he died in 1897 at the age of 83.

It seemed inconceivable, in 2014, that such a bad thing could happen after all these years under the very noses of the very historically aware Village of Southampton. But now there’s salt being rubbed in that wound. The man who bought the property and tore the place down and vowed to the mayor that all he wanted in life was to have a mansion overlooking the pond has, after getting approvals, put the property up for sale for almost double what he paid for it a year ago. It’s called a “flip.” That’s a real estate term. It means buy a distressed property cheap, and then soon thereafter sell high—and make a quick buck out of it, in this case about $2 million.

Call this flip the worst thing that could happen in the month of January 2015 in Southampton.

I spoke with Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley, who’s battled tooth and nail to not have this happen. He’s still battling. And he’s pretty bitter about the situation.

“We’ve lost some battles,” he told me. “And the worst of it, though it’s not a lot of money, is that having lost, it turns out we have to pay this man back all the money he’s paid us to get the permits we fought so hard to have him not get. It’s a state law.”

Battles are lost. But the war is not over. Pyrrhus Concer’s house, torn down as it is, may be a town treasure yet.

And it may be like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Wait till you hear this story.

Pyrrhus Concer was born in 1814 in Southampton, and was owned by a man who had a farm here. New York State did not wait for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. New York did it on its own in 1827, when Pyrrhus was 13. Pyrrhus stayed working on the farm for a couple of years, but then went to Sag Harbor, a whaling town at that time, and got a job as a mate on a ship. The ship went around the world in search of whales. At one point, Pyrrhus and the rest of the crew came ashore at a port town in Japan. Japan was closed to the outside world. So Pyrrhus was very likely the first black man to set foot in that country.

When the whales got fished out around the world, and when kerosene and oil began to light people’s homes and businesses, the whaling industry came to an end, and all the whaling boats at Long Wharf in Sag Harbor left town and headed to San Francisco to participate in that town’s gold rush of 1849. Pyrrhus went too, but failed to strike it rich, and returned a year later to his beloved Southampton.

From about 1850 until 1897 when he died, Pyrrhus ran a water taxi service on Lake Agawam during the summertime. He surely had many tales to tell to those he ferried over. He lived at 51 Pond Lane, on a slight rise, directly across the street from Agawam Park on the west side. He’d walk a few hundred yards from his house to the dock and his small boat. No one really knows if he rowed people across, poled them across or took them across by raising a sail. It’s about a mile down to the beach.

In recent decades, the Village of Southampton has conducted a number of surveys of where the historic houses are. If anybody owns such a house and wants to make changes to it, the fact that it is historic will immediately be brought to the attention of the community who can then stop such a thing from happening.

In 2013, this .82-acre residential site with Concer’s house, burdened as it were by its historic building—from a real estate perspective—was sold to our flipper for $2.75 million. This could be considered a bargain, considering the location overlooking the pond, but then there was the problem of the historic Concer house.

The flipper immediately announced he wanted to build a summer home on this property for his family. He approached the architectural review board with a plan for his home. It would include seven bedrooms, six bathrooms, a pool and pool house and a 496-square-foot guest house. He’d also need a demolition permit to clear the site. Permission was denied. He sued.

In his lawsuit, our flipper noted that the Pyrrhus Concer house was not on any list of historic places the village had ordered up. It apparently had been overlooked.

Without this designation, the village now had no defense to stop a McMansion from being constructed on the site. The Mayor had to console himself that at least the applicant wanted to build a nice summer home for his family.

Some time in mid-summer last year, our flipper said he was ready to go with the demolition. Many in the community was outraged, but there was nothing to be done. There was, however, a consolation prize. Our flipper agreed to allow the village to come in to remove beams and pieces of the home’s framing for historical preservation. As I said, things get moved around, even these days, in our town. For example, nobody is really sure if either the Pelletreau Silver Shop or the Halsey House—the oldest saltbox in town—were moved around a bit. And so, down went Pyrrhus’s house.

Late last summer, beginning just at Labor Day, a new attraction was introduced for the Southampton community. A small dock was constructed just about across the street from where Pyrrhus’s house was. It would re-create the journey that Pyrrhus took every day in his latter years, bringing people across the pond in a boat. It was in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the year of Pyrrhus’s birth.

The inauguration of that service was scheduled for August 13, and it did take place, but not until three days later. At that time, Vice President Joe Biden was enjoying a little vacation as someone’s guest in a house overlooking the pond, and the Secret Service would not allow the ferry to go out onto the pond. But it did begin after Biden left, and it continued on into October, until the weather got bad. It is expected that this service will be back again next summer.

And now, to start the new year, here it is, the Pyrrhus Concer property on the market, listed at just $4.995 million. It’s just a “lot.” Here’s the listing:

“Amazing opportunity to build new construction on an elevated .82 acre lot with views of Agawam Park and Agawam Lake,” it reads. “Rarely does a property come available south of the highway in Southampton Village with so much potential and so close to the ocean….ARB approvals in place for 5700 +/- square foot home with pool, pool house and 496 square foot guest home.”

The obvious thing to do, at this point, is to pay the man the $4.995 million, get the property back, and put Pyrrhus’s house back up there. But that’s a lot of money for a small village. And the Village cannot use the Community Preservation Fund tax money set aside for open space.

“The CPF won’t authorize that kind of money for a property less than an acre,” the Mayor told me. But he has another idea, a better idea.

Pyrrhus’s house was located overlooking the pond from across the road on the west side. At that point, the pond ends with a 400-foot shoreline, with the War Memorial on the lawn to the north. But what’s on the east side of the pond?

The Village owns a 1.2 acre vacant property that fronts the pond adjacent to a small playground, and picnic area. In back of it is the public parking lot for the business district.

Mayor Epley wants to re-construct Pyrrhus’ house on that vacant 1.2 acres, facing the pond. It would be an accessible historic museum, visible from anywhere in the park and an even shorter walk to the dock where Pyrrhus had his boat than the walk across Pond Lane from where he used to live. Furthermore, it will face west. The sun will set across the pond onto the front entrance of Pyrrhus’ house.

Mayor Epley has met with State Assemblyman Fred Thiele about reconstructing Pyrrhus’s house there. He has talked to several other officials.

In prior situations where treasures in Southampton have been flipped—one recalls the Southampton Bath and Tennis Clubhouse, a Stanford White-designed building, which got flipped by Denise Rich around 20 years ago, and 10 years ago when the Poxabogue Public Golf Course got flipped—the buyers who paid the price were the club members and the Towns of Southampton and East Hampton respectively. The flippers walked away counting their money.

In this case, if this plan goes ahead, the Village will have its historic former slave museum by the pond and Mr. Flipper will have to find someone else to pay him the $4.995 million.

When he does, the new buyer can have his seven-bedroom McMansion with the pool, guest house and pool house, and, just across the way there, a view of the little 20’ x 40’ cottage where lived that famous former slave from the Village of Southampton, Pyrrhus Concer. And there, in the summer, will be, between them, a ferry boat, not like the one that Pyrrhus used, but one that meets all necessary public safety codes and inspections the Coast Guard requires for operation of a ferry boat offered up for public use.

And so there you go. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Pyrrhus Concer painting by Lynn Mara.
Pyrrhus Concer painting by Lynn Mara.
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