Giving Thanks…Saving Bull’s Head Tavern and More

Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton.
Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton. Photo credit: Tim Street-Porter

The photo below (scroll down) is in the lobby of what today is known as the Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton. It describes how the Inn, built in 1843, was saved from destruction by the Committee to Save the Bull’s Head Tavern in 1967.

As the Committee to Save the Bull’s Head Tavern had only one member, which was me, I am proud to have this act memorialized on this plaque in this fine restaurant today. I visit it often.

The rest of this article is a rather personal account of my relationship with that building, with the buildings on two of the three other corners of this intersection, and with my desire to see that intersection made beautiful, which now, finally, is happening after all these years. It is also an article in which I would like to mention a number of people I was involved with regarding the architecture of the three buildings on these corners, and, in keeping with the season, give thanks for what they have done. There have been others, perhaps more important than these four people, who have done things. But these are the four people I knew and know and have worked with for this effort.

When I was first came out here as a teenager, when my dad bought the local drugstore in Montauk, I was astounded by the beauty of this place, not only with its beaches and dunes and harbors and ocean, but also with the serenity and beauty of the downtowns of these villages, all of which date back to colonial times. Southampton was founded in 1640. Bridgehampton (then known as Bulls Head) in 1644 and East Hampton (then known as Maidstone) in 1648. There was a governor who ruled here in the 17th century, appointed by the King of England. The settlers were all British subjects, just as they were in the rest of New England. (The Hamptons is the most southerly outpost of this development.) To the west were the Dutch developments of New Amsterdam and upstate near Poughkeepsie, but not here.

Each town, except one, was beautiful in its own way. Great elms arched over the road in East Hampton. There were colonial windmills in evidence throughout these communities. There were fishing villages and there were main streets with great white churches, town ponds and village greens.

A commemoration of the Bull's Head Tavern at Topping Rose House
A commemoration of the Bull’s Head Tavern at Topping Rose House

But then there was Bridgehampton. And here there was something very wrong. When I got here, the stunning 12’ high Founders’ Monument sat in the middle of the street in the very center of that town, as it does today. But facing out to it were a gas station on one corner (behind a sign saying this had been the site of a Revolutionary War tavern,) a broken-down mansion on another corner, another broken-down mansion on the third corner that had, astonishingly, a gas station on its front lawn, and a fourth corner of shops that were built where there had formerly been the mustering grounds of the Revolutionary War Bridgehampton Militia.

Although I am known today for having founded Dan’s Papers, before that happened I had studied to be an architect. This was at Harvard. I was in the Graduate School of Design there, and for three years I studied engineering, building design, city planning, art history and landscape architecture, returning every summer to my family’s home in Montauk. I never completed my studies. This was a three-and-a-half-year graduate degree program. But by that third year I knew my passion was for publishing, not architecture. I withdrew, and as a result have proceeded with my life as a writer.

What I learned about city planning and landscape architecture did not just go away, however. And though I loved everything about the Hamptons, both naturally and historically, I truly disliked what some uncaring people had done at that serious corner by the Founders’ Monument in the center of downtown Bridgehampton. It was, indeed, the only major mistake here that bothered me every time I came by it. How had this happened?

For this article, the story of how it happened is not important. The real story is how, over half a century since it happened, certain people in this community, sometimes prodded in this newspaper by me and by others, came to change it into the beautiful corner that is nearing completion today. Indeed, it will be possible in the next few years to consider Bridgehampton as one of the most beautiful villages in America, just as you might think of East Hampton or Southampton in that same way.

The first person I am grateful for is Lynn St. John of that town, and here’s why. The Topping Rose House was, back in the 1960s, known as the Bull’s Head Inn. It was derelict at that point. But whoever had owned it then had sold it to the Sun Oil Company. This company then announced it would tear down the mansion and build another gas station on the site. Imagine this. There were already two gas stations on these four corners, one of which was on the front lawn of another grand mansion. Now there would be three. I got wind of it. So I created an imaginary “Committee to Save the Bull’s Head Tavern” and I urged readers of Dan’s Papers to cut up their Sunoco credit cards and mail them to the president of Sun Oil, which had its headquarters in Philadelphia. As a result of this, Sun Oil came up with an alternate plan. They would tear down the historic building and replace it with a gas station.

This alternate plan was prepared in secret in Philadelphia. It was unveiled for the first time directly to me by two vice presidents who met me in the apartment of my Manhattan girlfriend at that time to seek the blessing of the Committee to save the Bull’s Head Tavern. With my blessing, it would be a cinch to be approved.

“We will not only not tear the building down,” they told me, “we will pay to move the Inn to the back of the property and build the gas station in front of it. The Tavern will still be there.”

“So what you’re saying,” I said, “is that there will now be two 19th-century mansions facing each other at the monument, each with a gas station on its front lawn. I will have to speak to the membership about that.”

And so they went away. And I consulted myself and let them know about the unanimous vote in the negative, and it never got built.

At that point, Lynn St. John, who lives in Bridgehampton, came to buy the derelict building with the intention of preserving it and keeping it maintained until a real angel would come along and provide the millions of dollars to do a complete renovation of it.

Lynn St. John did that for 40 years, on occasion leasing out the ground floor to people in the antique business. Nobody lived upstairs. And it was in that shape when the picture that now appears in the front lobby of that restored property was taken. The angel for this property was Bill Campbell of Water Mill, the former Chairman of Philip Morris USA, who in 2006 bought the place and spent millions of dollars, with partners, to restore the inn and its barn and then build on an adjacent vacant land he bought a spa, some hotel units and a conference center now known as the Topping Rose House. I am thankful for Bill Campbell.

The savior of the decrepit old mansion behind the gas station across the street from the Bull’s Head was, in my mind, Dennis Suskind, a former partner at Goldman Sachs who lives in Bridgehampton and New York City. At the time he became interested in that second mansion—12 years ago—he was a councilman on the Southampton Town Board, the town that has jurisdiction over Bridgehampton. Through his efforts, none of which were the result of anything I did other than write about that other eyesore from time to time, the Town got involved, purchased the property with just over $2.5 million of CPF money, the Bridgehampton Historical Society (now the Bridgehampton Museum) contributed a few hundred thousand dollars in funds and set out upon a plan to restore the building, with additional private funds needed. Today, that building, now known by its original 19th century name as the Nathanial Rogers House, is nearing completion. The first part of this restoration was, by the way, the bulldozing down of the gas station. The last part, now being worked on, is the interior. For steering this project through this complicated arrangement, thank you, Dennis.

The third of the four corners during this half-century was occupied by a Mobil station, which later was used as a wholesale beverage barn. During those years, this gas station building (they had torn down the Revolutionary War tavern to build it in 1941) fell into serious disrepair. Although the beverage barn inside continued, the building around it was owned by a landlord who never fixed what broke. If shingles fell off they were not replaced, if windows were broken, they were fixed with tape. If the roof gave out and the rain leaked in, they put down pails inside. What a mess.

Finally, about eight years ago, East Hampton developer Lenny Ackerman bought the property, tore everything down and announced his intention to build a commercial building on that property. His initial plan showed a simply designed building. I went to see him and urged him to change the architecture so it matched the other two mansions on the other two corners. I told him the town would be beautiful if he built his commercial building in that Greek Revival style and I would lend my support for it in the paper. He agreed to do that, it got approved, it survived numerous protests from people who wanted the old Revolutionary War tavern reconstructed on that corner, and in the end got underway. We shall have a third Greek Revival building facing the Founders Monument.

Every day or two when I happen to drive by the Founders’ Monument, I watch this new building go up. A drawing of what it will look like is on a big sign facing the highway. You can imagine what we will shortly have.

I give thanks to Lenny Ackerman for taking my suggestion.

You might be wondering about the fourth corner. It’s an attractive row of stores, faced in what appears to be white stucco, built quite some time ago. But the town, about 20 years ago, bought vacant land behind the stores and has since created there a small park that has a bench, a small monument and a perfect name—Militia Park.

A few things do remain to be done in Bridgehampton to beautify it even further. The electric and telephone wires should be put underground, as has been done in East Hampton.

And there needs to be more lighting on Main Street.

In nearly all villages on the East End, streetlights on a main street are placed at 100-foot intervals and the sidewalks and crosswalks and storefronts are brightly lit. In Bridgehampton, the interval is 200 feet, the same interval you see driving along the poorly lit rural roads that are between our towns.

New lights should be antique and quaint in keeping with the ancient age of this fine town. Such lights, which emit a warm glow, are in many of our other old towns.

Bridgehampton’s downtown is a gem. There are, along its three-block length, five churches all painted white, and they will match smartly with the three white grand mansions facing out onto the Founders’ Monument.

Finally, and I address this to whoever is finishing the renovation of the Nathanial Rogers House for the Bridgehampton Historical Society, there is a chain-link fence still surrounding that property as it enters its final stage of construction, but the mansion is not open to the weather anymore. Please take it down so we have this grand view of downtown Bridgehampton while everything finishes up.

What a wonderful new town center will soon be here. The moral of this story is, I suppose, study history and architecture and then open a newspaper. You will have an outsize voice. And sometimes you can make a difference.

Other than that, speak up, keep at it and volunteer to help out in whatever town you live.

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