Saving a Mural Saved a House

Elements of the past are conserved in a bright, 21st-century makeover
Reflections in the glass wall of the late Costantino Nivola’s studio offer a playful look at the house, which his son moved and reconstructed. Durell Godfrey Photo

   When Pietro Nivola and Katherine Stahl decided to move and reconstruct the house he inherited on Old Stone Highway in Springs, they may not have anticipated how complicated the project would be or that it would take five years.

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    Mr. Nivola, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has spent all his summers there since early childhood. His parents, the sculptor Costantino Nivola and Ruth Nivola, a jewelry designer, bought the approximately 32-acre property, with a house and barn that date to the 1750s, in 1948.
    A large studio and a tiny building were added to the grounds, along with a free-standing fireplace, a bread oven, a grape arbor, gardens, a solarium, and three concrete walls, one with a drawing on it and one with a small window cut into it. Mr. Nivola had constructed then to evoke open air “rooms.”
    The house served them well over the years. It also was a magnet for visiting artists, including the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who, over a long weekend in 1950, painted a mural on two of the living room walls.
    But the house had one major problem: It was in a low-lying swale and subjected to regular flooding. Not only was this destructive of the building — one of the town’s most ancient — but mold had invaded the mural, which is the only one Le Corbusier painted in the United States. (Mrs. Nivola had it restored in 2006, but the flooding continued, and the mold came back.)
    The younger Nivola generation and their parents had discussed the future of the property, and how to preserve some of it, for decades. Not long after Mrs. Nivola’s death in 2008, they sold more than 20 acres to the Town of East Hampton as open space. A smaller parcel went to the Jewish Center of the Hamptons cemetery, Shaarey Pardes. Pietro Nivola and his sister, Claire Nivola Kiley, divided the remaining property, with Mr. Nivola getting the house, the mural, and two and a half acres.
    “It became clear that there was a limited range of options, arguably only one option,” Mr. Nivola said. To save the mural, they would have to save the house. The question became, “Do you rebuild it in situ or move it back and up?” An even harder question, he said, was whether to preserve additions to the house built over the years. A central staircase had been put in at some point and a renovation took place in the 1920s. The old floorboards were covered throughout the house, and a new kitchen and porches added. The front porch may have gone up even later.
    The decision made, Mr. Nivola said several highly recommended contractors turned the work down. Some refused to bid on the job. Others said it was “too far gone” and should be torn down. However, Tim Mott of T.S. Mott General Contracting, took it on and Guy Davis, whose company moved the de Menil houses that now form East Hampton’s Town Hall and the Amagansett Life-Saving Station, among scores of other buildings, was hired.
    The house was taken 100 feet straight back — a foot at a time to spare the mural — gaining six feet of elevation. Greg Condon, a landscaper and arborist, had several trees moved (that were recently replanted) and saw to the removal of 65 years of overgrowth to make way for it. The house was aligned with the senior Mr. Nivola’s studio at one end and the gardens and outdoor fireplace on the other.
    “Guy Davis is precision personified,” Mr. Nivola said. “The house was barely held together by its skin, and he managed to pull it off.” Mr. Nivola also had good things to say about Mr. Mott, who is from Sag Harbor, and his crew. “It was a high-wire act in extremis, and moving that house with the murals was hazardous,” he said.
    When it was decided that the old porches and the back end of the house, including the kitchen, were too dilapidated to be moved, Mr. Nivola said he asked himself, “Why put them back by rebuilding them like a Hollywood set?” Instead, a new kitchen and mudroom were built in a 23-by-20-foot addition, bringing the house to just under 2,000 square feet.
    One thing that had bothered Mr. Nivola about the house  was that the living room was rarely used, and, therefore, the Le Corbusier mural hardly seen. What Mr. Nivola wanted, and achieved, he said, was “one continuous, integrated space.” Now the mural can be seen from anywhere on the ground floor, which is open and airy and punctuated with brilliant color in artwork and furnishings.
    Whenever possible, changes were made to bring in more light. To that end, the dining room was designed to resemble a screened porch, with sets of  three French doors. Although the couple wanted a functional kitchen, they tried to capture the warmth and spirit of the old one. The sink is in an island with wooden shelves on one side and a breadboard holder, designed by Mr. Nivola’s father, at an end. The cupboards are wood, and the original kitchen table is in a sunny corner.
    Mr. Nivola, who had some training in design, worked with James Laspesa, a Sag Harbor architect, on the plans. “The thinking this thing through, and roughing out the design, we did together,” Mr. Nivola said.
    All the work was done with great care, Mr. Nivola said. Carpenters proceeded foot by foot on the first floor to make sure it was as level as possible and sturdy enough for the house to sit on. Cross-bracing was added where needed. Drew Bennett, an engineer for the job, told Mr. Nivola he was doing an honorable thing. 
    Original beams were exposed in the living room and, when the 20th-century flooring was removed, the old floorboards were found to be in good enough shape to be retained. Newspapers used as insulation between the floors of the two-story house, dating from 1917 to 1922, were found.
    Ms. Stahl, who has just retired from American University, where she was executive director of its career center, located pine floorboards salvaged from a 1780 house in New Hampshire for the new addition. There were enough to cover all but four square feet of the mudroom, so wood from old gutters was used to fill the gap.
    Two matching doors from the old house, with hand-blown panes, open into the kitchen from the mudroom. They add light to the kitchen, as does a skylight. A half-bathroom was put in under the stairs to the second floor. There had been four bedrooms upstairs but the space was reconfigured, which provided room for a second upstairs bathroom and a small study with one window facing north and one east.
    In the place of the original entrance to the house, which had been closed off when the 1920s porches were added, Mr. Nivola had a window put in. A door at the north end of the house leads to the arbor, next to the spot where the senior Mr. Nivola had a vegetable garden. The couple plan one there, as well.
    The original chimney was taken down and most of the old windows removed, but they are going to the barn, which the couple hope to make into guest quarters for their children and grandchildren some day. Tall windows replaced those removed, and one was added in the living room. A basement was dug and a gas furnace and central air-conditioning installed.
    The last thing to be done was the mural’s repair. It
developed a small crack during the move and was definitely looking tired. Catherine Myers, a restoration specialist, did an amazing job, Mr. Nivola said.
    Although delays caused the project to take longer than expected, Mr. Nivola is satisfied that he has completed his father’s vision of indoor and outdoor rooms. Now, even the new grassy glade in front of the house is one of them. “The idea was to bring the outside in and the inside out,” he said.