There can be few homes in America that have been as well loved as Montauk’s Tick Hall.
“There are bigger houses, and houses with more bells and whistles. But there is not a more magical place in all the world,” says Dick Cavett, who has owned the house since 1966.
It’s never been on the market before, not once in its 135-year history. Owners sold to people they knew would love the place as much as they did.
Over the years, it’s hosted some notable people, including Robert Vaughn, Jack Paar, John Simon, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, Mary Tyler Moore, Dustin Hoffman, Julian Schnabel, Lauren Bacall, Alec Baldwin, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Javier Bardem, Nicol Williamson, Christine Baranski, Teller (of Penn and Teller), Stephen Fry, Percy Heath, Robert Redford, and Muhammed Ali. Woody Allen came to visit and was overcome by the beauty of the place. He said, “Cavett, this is a storybook setting.”
It all begin in in 1879, when a real estate developer named Arthur Benson (known for Bensonhurst) bought virtually all of Montauk. He decided to turn the best area of it into a private hunting and fishing enclave for his friends. Benson hired the premier landscape designer of the day, Frederick Law Olmsted, and a young architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White, whose most famous member was Stanford White. Seven houses were built for Benson and six friends, along with a central clubhouse, where food was prepared and laundry done. Today, the Montauk Association houses (known as the Seven Sisters) are considered important examples of the Shingle Style, a distinctive American architecture. These are restrained modest vacation houses, a cohesive group where each house is distinct but where none stood out as being more important than its neighbor.
Tick Hall was built for Alexander E. Orr, a businessman who was president of New York’s Transit Commission. It wasn’t called Tick Hall until after it was purchased by lawyer and civic leader Harrison Tweed in 1924. Six friends also purchased the house, putting in about $2,000 each. They all had enjoyable weekends together: men in the group were called Ticks, wives called Tickesses, and children were called Tickettes. Harrison’s wife, Barbara, added to the house: the bell tower was moved from her childhood home and she placed the anchor,
given by Harrison Tweed’s yacht captain, on top of the chimney.
“It’s the only one of the Seven Sisters with oceanfront because in the 1920s, then-owner Harrison Tweed bought all the available land down to the ocean and some behind the house,” says Dick Cavett. “His friends thought he was mad to squander five dollars an acre, saying ‘who will ever come out this far on Long Island to this “wild and inconvenient” place to bother you.’ True then, Tweed’s smart move became the envy of the less visionary. The property is now nearly 20 acres, surrounded by conserved land.”
As the years went by, the Tweeds decided to downsize a bit and rent out Tick Hall. That’s when Dick Cavett first saw the place. “I had already rented a shared house for the summer in East Hampton when I heard Tick Hall was available. I said to a friend, ‘Let’s drive out to see the house I missed.’ At the end of a winding unpaved road, the house loomed into view and my friend started to get out of the car before it had come to a complete stop, yelling ‘Get it! Get it!’ When it was built, it was called ‘a summer cottage.’ But it struck me as majestic, romantic, a storybook house by the sea. It made me gasp.”
Dick’s late wife Carrie Nye said in the documentary “From the Ashes,” “I found where I lived. Not just where I hang my hat but where I lived.” The house was “a mess” when they moved in, but the young couple renovated and fixed it up. Dick says, “One of the best spots was among the treasures in the old attic. I remember unfolding a bunch of cardboard pieces up there and finding Diana Barrymore’s dollhouse.”
Some favorite memories of Dick’s from this time: “One night a huge lobster boat from Nova Scotia broke loose from its night anchor and floated ashore onto my beach, miraculously missing all the rocks. One of the fishermen from the boat, not suspecting there were any actual trails up to the house, just fought his way through the brush and woods and finally knocked on the door, muddy, dirty, dripping with seaweed, and more than a little scary at 3:30a.m.—a character from a ghost story. Luckily no one was hurt, but they had some great stories. And I got a big cage of lobsters in exchange for the use of my phone.
“I had the most wonderful white horse—sure footed enough to conquer the moors and cliffs, and loved the beach. I didn’t like his name, though—Twilight Time—and once in a pique, when a mommy and little daughter asked my horsie’s name, I answered, ‘Piggy.’ I am not proud of this. Once I rode Twilight down to the beach in a fog, and since I knew no one was around and no one could see through the fog, I jumped off the horse, stripped down to nothing, and jumped into the ocean. On Monday, back at work at the TV studio, one of the ladies in the office mentioned with a grin seeing ‘someone’ get off a horse and strip naked before diving into the water.”
And then, in March 1997, it was gone. Tick Hall burned to the ground in a shockingly short amount of time. In From the Ashes, Dick says he learned, “You can lose everything you’ve got, everything you love. It’s over, that’s it—it’s gone.”
Carrie simply said, “Well. We’ll just build it back. it had to be put back. It was like the moon: you needed it back.”
“Everyone pulled together and truly rebuilt it as if original, even down to the fireplace tiles from Shropshire, England,” Dick says, “and the creak in the stairs.
“We asked the builders to sand down some of the door saddles so they’d look as though many feet had been crossing them for many years, and the porch sags just a little, as it did before. The ‘Wrightmoor’ stained glass was reproduced perfectly, from photographs. Stairbuilder James Dean reproduced the staircase with the exact balusters and newel post, all handmade. James Hadley, the forensic architect, said ‘If we are very close in what we build, the rest will be finished by God.’” Many of the things that gave the house its character were mistakes by the original architects; it was rebuilt with the same mistakes.
No plans existed for the house, so the architects and designers had to work from old photographs. And the house was amazingly intricate–each room had a unique molding profile, which were exactly reproduced.
“So now we have the best of both worlds” Dick says, “an exact reproduction that perfectly echoes the past glory and details of Old Tick Hall, but New Tick Hall hides excellent insulation, full central air and heat—although the ocean breezes mean we only have to use the AC a week or two every summer—and wiring for electricity and communication. The pipes and plumbing are all up to code. But the old touches are there. The old anchor, originally put there by Joe Emmerz, captain of Franklin Roosevelt’s yacht, is back atop the chimney, visible for miles.”
Dick and Carrie were married for 42 years, until her death in 2006. Dick remarried four years later. “I met my wife Martha 40 years ago, and then we met again, and married nearly 7 years ago. She loves Tick Hall and its mystery and history. I knew she was the one the moment I blurted out, ‘I hope you will come to think of Tick Hall as your home.’ Lucky for me, she said yes.”
A few years ago, Martha too added her touches to Tick Hall. The McKim, Mead and White part of the house has been left intact, but Martha worked with architect Nick Botta to revise a rear addition put on for convenience in the 1930s. She wanted to enlarge the kitchen (the Montauk Association houses all have small kitchens because the original owners tended to eat at the clubhouse) and add screened porches upstairs and downstairs and another bathroom. Dick says, “They are so in keeping with the original design that the historic approval board said, ‘Good. Now it looks as though it’s finished.’”
With such a spectacular home and wonderful memories, why are the Cavetts selling? “After 50w years here, it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. Everybody who comes here asks, ‘How do you ever leave this place?’ If I could live forever, I’d want to live right here, and my wife suspects this is exactly what anything like Heaven must be like. I’ve loved every day here, but now it’s time to open a new chapter. We’re both busier than ever in New York and need a shorter commute. It’s time for somebody else to get to love and care for the place.“
Dick adds, “There just isn’t a bad day in Montauk: rain is good, snow is charming, storms are spectacular, and occasional fog takes away first the horizon, then the beach, and finally the trees at the end of the lawn, leaving us in our own little world where we can hear the ocean waves but only know their direction from memory. And the perfect days are almost heartbreakingly beautiful. As the Bard said, ‘beauty too rich for use.’”
Tick Hall is for sale, listed by Tim Davis of Corcoran, asking $62 million. See the listing here.