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A 17th-Century House Meets the 21st Century

The house was extended to the rear, and the attic was removed to allow the second-floor master bedroom to soar behind double-height windows.
The house was extended to the rear, and the attic was removed to allow the second-floor master bedroom to soar behind double-height windows.
Transformation Informed by a Minimalist Sensibility
Mark Segal

Don and Kathy Ashby first saw the house at 177 Main Street in East Hampton in the spring of 2012 as prospective buyers of what they might find at a tag sale. Mr. Ashby, a fashion photographer, collects books and photographs, and the house, which has been known as Congress Hall for more than a century, had been vacant for about two years after the death of its last owner.

At the time, the couple were living in a house they had renovated seven years earlier on Bluff Road in Amagansett. When they learned that the East Hampton house was for sale at a price they considered reasonable, they took the plunge, outbidding a number of other potential buyers even though they had no experience with such an old building. The Ashbys closed on the house on just over a quarter of an acre in the middle of 2012 for $900,000.

“A friend of ours who’s a professional builder took at look at Congress Hall and said, ‘There’s no way I can make the numbers work,’ ” Ms. Ashby recalled. “It gave us pause, but we went ahead.”

The original house was a colonial saltbox, dating to 1680. (It may be worth remembering that East Hampton was settled in 1648.) A flat-roofed, two-story wing, visible from the front of the house, was added about 200 years later, while a long, narrow one-story addition held the old kitchen. The house got its name in the mid-19th century when it was a gathering place for men of the community, who were known to discuss politics both local and national.

The Ashbys’ reconstruction has transformed the house so that movement from the oldest part, facing Main Street, through a new wing to a sitting room at rear is seamless, while original beams and posts help make clear exactly where the two parts of the house meet.

Mr. Ashby has taken more than a thousand photographs of the house showing its condition when they purchased it and the yearlong construction. “At first it was like an archeological site,” he said. The house contained thousands of books, furniture, stained and peeling wallpaper, exposed lath, clothing hanging in closets, even a walker propped against a counter in the old kitchen, whose walls were yellowed with time and smoke.

The huge number of books in the house, many of them damp and damaged, had weighed so heavily on the main floor that it sagged. When the books and the rest of the contents were removed, the floor rose and the original locust posts on which the house was built tipped over.

Because the house is in an East Hampton Village historic district, nothing visible from the street could be changed. The builder, William Hugo, who is based in Amagansett, worked with the Ashbys to figure out how the interior could be entirely redesigned without changing how the house looked from Main Street.

Ms. Ashby confirmed that everything within the house had been reconstructed. “We kept the old wood and the old structure, and put some steel in to make sure it would last another few hundred years. We basically lifted it up and put it down on a new foundation,” she said.

Numerous divided-light windows were removed, reconstructed, and reinstalled in original locations. The master bedroom, however, now has an extensive wall of double windows while new ones have been used in the new part of the house.

The contractor “had to work around all these 20 and 30-foot beams that were misshapen, curved, and bent,” Ms. Ashby said. “The old wooden beams are really hard, like stone. He did have to put in new joists so the floors could withstand the lifting and movement of the structure.”

Except for signing off on the plans for the village’s Building Department, the Ashbys hired neither a lawyer nor an architect. They made all the decisions, from the floor plan to the fixtures.

“We didn’t want to eradicate the oldness of Congress Hall. We wanted to build on it. We’re modernists and like things that are minimal, so the goal was to combine the old with that modernist look,” Ms. Ashby said. “We love thinking about spaces and their potential. It’s addictive, actually. You get a really emotional response when you feel you’ve got something right.”

That they accomplished what they set out to achieve is clear from the moment you step inside. An uncluttered center hall runs to large windows in the new wing. The brick wall behind the existing fireplace in the living room was retained, as was the staircase leading to the second floor. “Bob Hefner, the village’s historical preservation consultant, didn’t think the staircase was original, but it’s old,” Mr. Ashby said.

Similar contrasts of old and new, rough and smooth, dark wood beams and white walls in the house make moving through it full of surprise encounters. The floor of the living room was lowered to allow the ceiling to be higher, but an original post and beam bisect it. The attic floor was removed so that the ceiling of the second-floor master bedroom could be raised; it now soars more than 14 feet while several of the old attic joists hover over the space.

During the reconstruction, subflooring discovered in the attic had some boards that were 2 feet wide. They were milled, refinished, and used in the new part of the house, which includes the kitchen and dining area. The walls in this area are white wallboard but the refrigerator and wall cabinets are faced with wood. New hardwood flooring was installed in the original rooms.

The Ashbys tore out the old kitchen wing at the back of the house. At the center of the new kitchen is a large island with a glass counter and cabinets. A wooden tabletop rests on the counter, but it is not attached, so it can be moved.

Several steps lead down from the kitchen to a dramatic sitting room at the rear of the house. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the backyard and a small L-shaped pool. The walls and ceiling here are painted a glossy black so that the ceiling reflects the windows below and makes the room seem twice as high -— “like a tower or a spaceship,” Ms. Ashby said. “We like doing things in an unusual way rather than in the standard way.”

The pool is surrounded by a stone patio that slopes gradually into the water in one place so swimmers can enter it as they might go into the ocean. “Because it wraps around the rear of the house, the pool feels a bit like a moat,” Ms. Ashby said.

The house is now 5,470 square feet; 3,870 square feet are on the first and second floors and another 1,600 square feet of living space is in a new lower level. All this space was made possible by lifting up the existing house and putting in a new, 11-foot-deep foundation that extends the footprint dramatically to the rear of the new wing.

Hundreds of books, many on photography, share space on shelves throughout the house with Mr. Ashby’s sizable collection of framed photographs. “He doesn’t like having his own pictures on the walls,” Ms. Ashby said. “Much of what he does collect are fashion photographs, since that’s his business.”

One of the surprises in the house — a wooden sculpture that bears a striking resemblance to Brancusi’s “Endless Column” — is in a sitting area on the lower level. Ms. Ashby explained that her husband had made many versions of the famous sculpture, some small, some large, all proportioned exactly as the original. The Brancusi might not be an original, but images by Cecil Beaton, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Andre Kertesz, and Helmut Newton, among many others, are the real thing.

Congress Hall is the fourth or fifth house the couple have done, they said. Their previous home was “a 1970s house that looked like a motel,” according to Mr. Ashby. “It was clearly a share house, with bars everywhere, a ping pong table, beer bottles in the bushes around the pool. It was the bane of the neighborhood. We ripped out everything on the second floor and made it like a big loft.”

“We usually do houses that need help. We don’t tear them down, just pull out the problem areas, restructure them, and add on a bit to make sense,” Ms. Ashby said.

The couple moved into Congress Hall with their 41/2-year-old daughter, Domino, in September, in plenty of time to spend Christmas there.

“Now that this is pretty much finished,” Mr. Ashby said, “all the real estate people are telling us how much we could sell it for. But we want to stay here a while.”

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