Slowly Done: Nathaniel Rogers House & More Hamptons Projects That Took Time

Nathaniel Rogers House
Nathaniel Rogers House

I have been keeping track of how long it takes for public-spirited people in the Hamptons, having decided upon some new project for the public good, to get the project done. Some go from idea to ribbon-cutting in a half a year. Some take two or three years.

Two projects stand out for the extraordinarily long period of time it has taken them to get done. And in this column I intend to salute them and honor them with the titles of Runner-Up and Winner.

The Runner-Up is the three-story 19th-century Greek Revival mansion known as the Nathaniel Rogers House in the center of downtown Bridgehampton. It is expected to have its grand opening as a historic museum around July 1.

In the 1960s, when I first took notice of it, it was a falling-down wreck of a building with its grand two-story front portico columns held up by wooden bracing. It was in terrible need of painting, there were broken windows, and, amazingly, the family owning the house still lived in it.

Their income, it seemed, came from having rented out their front lawn years earlier to Sunoco, who then built a busy gas station there. It, with the wrecked mansion behind it, faced the war memorial that sits in the center of Main Street. What a picture. Meanwhile, at night, a single naked lightbulb would get turned on in the living room of the mansion. That it had been built by a prominent businessman in 1824 didn’t seem to matter much.

The Nathaniel Rogers House restoration is underway in Bridgehampton
The Nathaniel Rogers House restoration in process in Bridgehampton, Photo: Brendan J. O’Reilly

Because this shabby situation marked the very center of town, there was sometimes talk in town of getting the family in there to sell. But since a man’s home is his castle, this didn’t get very far. So time went on.

Finally, the family began to talk about selling the place. And the deal to buy it with the Town of Southampton occurred in 2003. The Bridgehampton Historical Society occupied an overflowing home at the other end of town. They would oversee its restoration.

An inspection of this property to see what had to be done began later that year. It was suggested it might not only be a new history museum, but it could also be a working farm. Sheep and lambs might be in pens outside. There’d be a garden. Plans were drawn up. I think the announcement of the first fundraiser took place in 2007.

Work on it began with the bulldozing of the gas station. Then the front columns were repaired. Then signs went up on the lawn naming the firm that had won the bid to rebuild it.

Unfortunately, the work proceeded only in fits and starts. Every year or two, the big billboard sign naming the builder was taken down and replaced by a new billboard naming a new builder. Sometimes nothing would be done for a year, then some work would be done on the roof. A year later, a still newer contractor would plant a new billboard. Free advertising. Then a chain-link fence went up around the project. It was coming soon. The working farm idea, however, was scuttled.

It was only in 2021 that a beautiful white picket fence, built in sections elsewhere, was installed to replace the chain-link. Shortly after that, a clerestory, also built elsewhere, was brought in to adorn the roof as a widow’s walk. And so now, a generation later, here we are. The new director of the museum is Nina Dec, who is aiming for a grand opening in the first week in July.

First prize, however, has to go to the East Hampton Historical Farm Museum that occupies the corner of Cedar Street and North Main Street in East Hampton across from the firehouse.

For a long time, between 1960 and 1990, I didn’t even know a building existed at that corner. I’d drive by it every day on my way to work. The lot at that corner was a thicket of foliage.

But then, one day around 1993, I saw a very elderly man kneeling on the sidewalk with hammer and nails building a vertical wood-plank fence along the property line to hold in the foliage. He started at the north end of the property on North Main Street, and, over a series of months doing a few planks at a time, built the fence in a straight line to the corner, then around the corner and up to the end of the property on Cedar Street.

When he finished, he went back to where he started, this time with a bucket of white paint and a brush. I’d drive by. He was doing this at his leisure. I’d only see him every once in a while. Mostly it was pretty slow.

Then one day, he stopped showing up entirely. He’d painted the fence white halfway from the property’s northern end to the corner. The rest remained bare wood. And it stayed that way for years. My guess was, only a guess, that he had died. I never did learn what happened.

But about 1998, I learned that this property was now owned by the town. During the following year, much of the foliage was cut away, to reveal a very old modest saltbox farmhouse on the property. There was also a barn.

Lovingly, the town began making improvements. It seemed there was no budget for this. It was just that the builders in town had agreed to show up for an hour or two on weekends to re-shingle a wall, or frame a window, remove the rest of the foliage, take out the partially completed fence, plant a tree or seed the lawn. The work proceeded sporadically. In 2009, I noticed that new shingling which had been done four years earlier had weathered so much as to be indistinguishable from the shingles alongside still needing to be re-shingled.

In 2019, there was a soft opening. A lecture of some sort, I think. In 2020, a sign went up on the lawn and today in 2022, it is a bustling restoration of an old Bonac farm circa 1890 with displays of buckboards and wagons out front, benches to sit on, tools in the barn, photographs and memories of those descended from East Hampton’s first white settlers.

It’s taken almost 30 years. Started when Bill Clinton was president. The winner. And congratulations.

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