Landmarks May Make It Official

Art Barge and D'Amico house could become town landmarks
For nearly 60 years, the Art Barge at Napeague Harbor has been providing classes in a variety of mediums in a one-of-a-kind setting. Judy D’Mello

In March 1960, Victor D’Amico, the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s education department, saw his dream of creating a dramatic East End venue for painting classes become reality when a retired Navy barge made its way from Jersey City to its current site at Napeague Harbor. Almost 60 years later, the East Hampton Town Board is considering a historical-landmark designation for the Art Barge, as the structure is known, and for the modernist house that Mr. D’Amico and his wife, Mabel, built at Lazy Point in 1940.

“Victor wanted to make art more approachable,” Christopher Kohan, the president of the board of trustees of the Victor D’Amico Art Institute, said last week. In the late ’50s, Mr. D’Amico had held painting classes, open to all, at Ashawagh Hall in Springs, but he wanted his own permanent facility, one that took advantage of the area’s natural attributes, “the sky, sea, and salt air,” as he put it. The Navy barge, to which Mr. D’Amico added a second floor after it was anchored at Napeague, has provided that atmosphere ever since.

Victor and Mabel, who was a high school art teacher, had originally planned to build their house on the site of the Art Barge, said Mr. Kohan. The couple, he said, did not like the idea of having a home on the Atlantic because they found the ocean “too monotonous.” While exploring Lazy Point, they became enamored of a Shore Road property across from Hicks Island, which offered sprawling views of both Gardiner’s and Napeague Bays. 

“Fishermen’s families lived there, so there was a lot of boat activity, nets being pulled in, and there was lots of bird life,” said Mr. Kohan. “That gave them something to look at.” 

The early makings of a home, some concrete blocks and timber framing, existed on site, and the D’Amicos took over from there. “They were early American modernists, so they wanted a dwelling that reflected modernist sensibilities,” said Mr. Kohan.

Their arts educations came in handy as the couple tackled all the elements of construction. They poured concrete for the floors, installed the plumbing, and built a fireplace and hearth as well as an outdoor patio. “Art making is nothing but problem solving and working with tools, so to them, this was the same, just on a larger scale,” said Mr. Kohan. They lived in the house until Victor’s death in 1987 and Mabel’s in 1998.

The property also contains a cottage, built in the old Montauk fishermen’s village and moved to Lazy Point after the 1938 Hurricane, as well as a small structure that had been used as an oyster warden’s hut. The D’Amicos used the former as a guest house and the latter as an art studio. 

Their main house, which is open to the public by appointment, displays all the earmarks of the midcentury modern aesthetic: glass walls, open spaces, and a focus on functionality. They built pull-out kitchen cabinets into the stairwell to the second floor; they kept their dishes and glasses on open shelving, which made the tableware both easy to reach and elements of décor; instead of tile, they used linoleum flooring as a backsplash. 

Found-object artworks made by Mabel are scattered throughout the house, and Victor put his mark on a 1950s addition, a large open living room with a wall of windows. “That was Victor’s answer to Philip Johnson, his architect colleague at MoMA,” said Mr. Kohan. “A glass house, but without the budget.”

The D’Amicos filled the room with collectibles, Eames furnishings, and a long table that MoMA’s board of directors had used in the 1930s. Even a potted jade plant in the corner of the room comes with a story. “Mabel would joke that she’d had the plant ever since Roosevelt was president,” recalled Mr. Kohan. “And because she was born in 1909 and Victor was born in 1904, he used to say, ‘Which Roosevelt?’ ”

The house and the Art Barge are indeed historical landmarks, said Mr. Kohan, because they represent “two people’s legacies, what they believed, and how they lived.”

The East Hampton Arts Council, an advisory group appointed by the town board, agrees. In a Dec. 5 letter to the board, Jane Martin, the council’s co-chair, described the D’Amicos as an important part of East Hampton’s long history as an artist destination, and urged the board to designate the properties the couple “lovingly created” as landmarks.

 “I knew who they were, and this shouldn’t be lost,” said Mr. Kohan of the D’Amicos’ legacy. “My desire is for it to be preserved beyond my tenure. It needs to be looked after in the future.”

Victor D’Amico in 1953, building an addition to his Lazy Point house as Jackson Pollock looked on.
Today the D’Amico house is a study center containing the art collection, archives, and personal artifacts of its former owners. Jamie Bufalino