East Hampton Architecture: Plain and Fancy

Paul Goldberger | August 6, 1998

Land matters more than buildings. If we preserve the land, then we can afford to start worrying about what buildings we build. If we do not preserve the land, it will not matter what buildings we build, because the East Hampton we love and cherish will be gone.

What is it that makes East Hampton East Hampton? What gives it its extraordinary character? How much of its character is a matter of history, coming from the past, and how much of it is made by the present? And - the crucial question - how much does the future of East Hampton depend upon the past?

I want to talk more about these general issues than about individual buildings, about the wholeness of this place and where it is going, about the connections between architecture and sense of place. That is the key issue right now.

The specific architectural differences between, say, the Schuyler Quackenbush House by Cyrus Eidlitz on Lee Avenue - one of the greatest Shingle Style houses of all, in many ways the Platonic Shingle Style house from the first great wave of resort construction here - and a neo-Shingle Style house built five years ago down Georgica Road matter less to me than looking at both of these buildings to think about the question of how old and new relate, and whether the best way to preserve those qualities of East Hampton that we value is by making more Shingle Style houses that resemble the great and beloved originals, or whether it is by doing something else.

There is no simple, formulaic answer to this question. This is too complex a town, and its architectural and urbanistic fabric too richly multilayered, for any neat and pat formula to get us through.

There is no place like East Hampton, anywhere. This is a remarkable anniversary, the 350th birthday, and before I say anything else I should state, emphatically and absolutely, how strong this town remains as both an architectural and a natural environment, whatever criticisms and fears about its changes and its losses all of us may have. It is astonishing to me that 15 years have passed since I wrote a long article in The New York Times Magazine entitled "The Strangling of a Resort," an article that was among the first to sound an alarm about what is happening here, and I am about to say something which will sound on its face very contradictory, which is that things were bad then, and they have gotten considerably worse since then - and yet they are still not nearly as bad as they could have been, or as other places are.

Land use - issues of zoning and planning - cannot be separated from issues of architecture. Now more than ever, we have to look at architecture in terms of land use, and not simply aesthetics. Once, East Hampton had the luxury of simply building, of building what seemed to make sense, and not thinking very deeply of the effect of each building on the whole. Each building could be a thing unto itself. Now we have no such luxury, and every building, every project, every possible building and project has to be looked at in terms of what it will mean for the community at large.

That is why, at this moment in East Hampton's history, I think it is fair to say that our planning boards may mean more for the future of our architecture than any architect. So, too, with organizations such as the Peconic Land Trust, the Group for the South Fork, and the Nature Conservancy - they will make this community safe for architecture, and without them it will not matter whether we make decent buildings or not, because we will not have a decent community.

Frankly, if we look at what makes the village of East Hampton the extraordinary place that it is, the good architecture is only a part of it. The landscape, the trees, the presence of the town pond and cemetery as both symbol and visual amenity, the beaches, the exquisite eclecticism of Main Street and Newtown Lane, and the magnificent way in which Route 27 passes through the heart of the village, democratically revealing its beauties for all - all of these things define East Hampton. It may be heresy for an architecture critic to say that these things are more important than architecture, but the truth is - they are. Land matters more than buildings. If we preserve the land, then we can afford to start worrying about what buildings we build. If we do not preserve the land, it will not matter what buildings we build, because the East Hampton we love and cherish will be gone.

Towns and cities have one great advantage over people: Change in towns does not have to be a series of steps toward inevitable decline. The city that evolves healthily lives, perhaps forever. The city that does not change is more often the city that dies. It is the opposite of the natural cycle we experience as people.

I am not suggesting I believe change is right for its own sake, just because it is change. No, no, a thousand times no. Probably 90 percent of the changes that have been proposed for East Hampton over the last generation are wrong, and destructive, and those of you who have been trying to stop them are probably right. I mean to say only that I hope you are not stopping them because you want to stop all change, and freeze this city in time. Cities are not meant to be embalmed - not that they should ever let down their guard about negative and destructive change.

History should not surround us so tightly we cannot breathe. That is oppressive in every aspect of culture, and not just architecture. But the opposite - the sense of being without a past altogether - is equally oppressive, in its way. As in all things, balance is the key. A place that changes not at all will die, and a place that changes too much, though it will live, will live an existence empty of meaning.

How easy it is to look around these streets and think that the more we wrap ourselves in the illusion that it is 1900, the better off we will be! And yet that never works. The only true, valid, lasting gift the preservation movement can give us is to integrate history into the normal, everyday life of a city and its citizens, to make it not just an occasional occurrence but part of the lifeblood: to help us live better today, not to create the illusion that we are living in yesterday. History should not confine us, it should not take us away from reality, and neither should it be kept to the periphery of our lives. It should liberate us, free us, to define a place on our own terms, with our own perceptions. We preserve not just to defer to the past, but to make a richer present.

Just what am I talking about when I say history in East Hampton? Whose history? The settlers' East Hampton of the 18th century? The first summer colonists' East Hampton of the late 19th century? The East Hampton of fishermen, of artists, of teachers and firemen and policemen and storekeepers who live every day of the year here, the East Hampton of investment bankers who stop here in between Manhattan and Aspen? The East Hampton of Childe Hassam or the East Hampton of Jackson Pollock?

To a certain extent I am talking about all of these groups, and a key issue East Hampton has faced for a long time is the tension between its different layers of history. This is not a pure New England village, and it is not just a fishing community, and it is not just a cultural center and it is not just a well-to-do summer resort, and it is most certainly not just a World's Fair of elegant architecture in various styles. It is a most astonishing hybrid of all of these things, and it is in the dynamic between all of these layers of history that much of East Hampton's uniqueness lies.

By that I mean to say that the presence of late 20th-century East Hampton, far from compromising the integrity of 18th and 19th-century and early 20th-century East Hampton, enriches it, for it takes it out of the realm of a make-believe place, and into the realm of a city that exists over time. The same is true the other way around - the presence of 18th-century East Hampton makes the newer buildings here something different from what they might otherwise have been. It shows us that they spring out of a community, however little architectural connection some of them may have to that community, and we cannot but think of them, at least in part, as saying something about their context, if only to reject it.

Is there an East Hampton style? The answer to that question is almost, but not totally, and I am very grateful for the "not totally" part of this equation, for the buildings that make this place less purebred, that show it to be of complicated and mixed architectural ancestry, are especially important to my vision of East Hampton.

This town is not only 18th and 19th-century architecture, rich though our inventory of such buildings is, and it is certainly not just Shingle Style, for all that East Hampton has some essential works of American architecture in this style, and it is not 19th-century industrial, or Gothic Revival, or English cottage, or mid-20th-century modern, or late 20th-century postmodern. It is something of all of these things, but no one kind of architecture controls all, and that is an essential fact of East Hampton architecture.

Paul Goldberger, whose architecture criticism for The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize, now covers cultural topics for The New Yorker. This is excerpted from his July 5 350th anniversary lecture, which was underwritten by Devlin-McNiff Real Estate.