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Design: Restored, Preserved, Cherished

Marjorie Chester | July 3, 1997

Frederic and Robin Seegal live in a place that might never be called the Seegal house. It is the "old" Simons house, which, as history buffs know, is in the Tyson compound. Also theirs, for that matter, are the Baker silversmith cottage, the Tyson studio, and the Perla Gray cottage.

The Seegals scarcely mind. It is with respect for the former owners, James and Carolyn Tyson, and their contractor, Bill Simons, and with reverence for the old houses and their architectural details that Mr. Seegal joyously guides a visitor around the oceanfront property that is now his.

In the late 1940s the Tysons bought 40 acres of potato fields off Further Lane in Amagansett. The couple had a passion for historic restoration and scouted for old houses that were being torn down. Altogether they presided over the rejuvenation and construction of six buildings, two complete restorations, and the others built from the ground up using old materials.

The most famous was the old Baker house, which dates from 1690 and still belongs to their son, David Tyson. But many consider the gem of the compound to be the circa 1940s Simons house, which the Seegals now own.

Legendary Tenants

Mrs. Tyson, an artist and poet, leased the other cottages on her secluded property, often to celebrities - Ralph Lauren, Calvin and Kelly Klein, Itzhak Perlman, Gloria Steinem, Jann Wenner. The Tyson complex became legendary.

In 1988, the Tyson heirs put the Simons house up for sale. The Seegals, eager for a larger home, fell in love with it and made an offer, but the deal slipped through their fingers.

Expecting a child, they decided to add a wing to their own residence, not an easy task. Their award-winning Chalif house, on Terbell Lane in East Hampton, had been designed in 1964 by Julian and Barbara Neski as two halves of a saltbox joined together at right angles. With the help of the Neskis they persevered. They gained a view of the ocean from an upper deck, and snuggled in.

Three In One

James Tyson named the house the "old" Simons house in honor of the builder. There is a center saltbox with a living room on the first floor and three bedrooms upstairs. An adjoining wing on one side has a kitchen and dining room, and there's a master bedroom wing on the other. There are views of the ocean from all but three rooms.

In 1991 the Baker house came back on the market and the Seegals leapt for it. "It was destiny," Robin Seegal said. "It was the only other house I ever wanted." In the following two years they purchased two adjacent parcels, a total of five acres.

The downstairs Norman-style dining room has an A-frame ceiling with hand-hewn beams, barn siding, a large wood-burning fireplace, and a Pennsylvania Dutch farm table bought from Nellie's in Amagansett. "This room is very comforting," Mrs. Seegal said. "We eat all our meals here."

Window Upon Window

The small living room has two overstuffed sofas that surround a raised cooking fireplace, and a stuffed pheasant hangs over the mantle. Seven windows face the ocean, all 15-over-15 or 8-over-8. With the low-beamed ceiling they give the appearance of running from floor to ceiling.

The master bedroom has been kept sparse: a country Chippendale dresser, bed, lamps, a Pritam and Eames rocking chair from the Seegals' former house. The room has elegant proportions: three exposures and 10 windows - all 15-over-15.

The children's quarters are upstairs. A corner room with an old painted door and four more glorious double-hung windows that face south and southwest is breathtaking. "The best sunlight in the house," Mr. Seegal said.

From Old Stuff

Following a winding old brick path, past the original "old Simons House" sign and the working well, one comes to the garage. With four double barn doors, each opening out to a post, it surely looks like an old stable moved from somewhere.

"Nope," said Bill Simons, age 91, who still lives on Miller Terrace, where he grew up. "I designed it and built it all from old stuff," he said.

"The garage was Carolyn's exhibition space," recalled Tina Fredericks, a longtime East Hampton resident and real estate broker who knew both the Tysons well.

"She had wonderful art openings, and she'd lend the studio space to other artists too. She didn't miss a beat," Mrs. Fredericks mused. "She loved to swim in the nude."

Private And Glorious

Behind the garage and also facing the beach is "the Perla Gray cottage." Mrs. Gray, an adopted niece of Mrs. Tyson's, grew up in the cottage, and now rents it from Mr. Seegal.

Farthest east on the property is the old silversmith cottage. Surrounded by grape arbors and wisteria vines, it is small, simple, private, and has glorious views. Mr. Seegal calls it the most spectacular part of the property.

"Just look up the beach," he exclaimed, pointing east over the vacant expanse of double dunes. "There's nothing for at least a mile until Amagansett Main Beach. It's so quiet here."

No Architect

The Seegals use the cottage primarily as a guest house, but they once rented it to Steven Spielberg for the editing crew of the movie "Schindler's List." "They were great tenants," Mrs. Seegal said. The couple also rented their house to Barbra Streisand for one July.

"We've made no structural changes in any of the houses - just replaced some cork tile floors with wood," Mr. Seegal said. Mrs's father founded Kentile Floors.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Tyson houses is that there was no guiding architect.

"I was the architect," Mr. Simons said. "Me and Jimmy Tyson together. I've been building houses ever since I was old enough to hold a hammer."

Rare Genius

"Bill and Jim Tyson went to wrecking companies on the North Shore and bought old doors, mantles, windows, wide boards, lots of old lumber," said Cora Simons, Mr. Simons's wife of 63 years. "Bill built Fred Seegal's house from the ground up," she said. A historian and artist, Mrs. Simons says she drew up the plans.

"Bill Simons was Jim Tyson's amanuensis," Tina Fredericks said. "He was the caretaker, the builder. He put in the gardens and built the stone wall. He did everything."

"The houses sort of grew by themselves," Mrs. Fredericks went on. "A tenant would complain that he needed another room, and so Bill would add it. And he'd do it so you'd never know it was new. He was one of those rare wonderful geniuses."

Never Give It Up

Mr. Seegal is president of the Wasserstein Perella Group. His partner, Bruce Wasserstein, also lives on Further Lane. "My career has been in advising media companies as an investment banker," Mr. Seegal said.

Last year he bought the East Hampton radio station WEHM from Michael Schulhof and Leonard Ackerman, and two weeks ago he announced that it would merge with the Amagansett station WBEA.

The Seegals commute to Amagansett with their two young daughters from Rye, N.Y., where they also live on the water. "We'd never give up this area," he said.

"We still call it the 'old' Simon house," Mrs. Seegal said. When visitors ask for directions, she said, "I first ask if they know the old Tyson compound."

"More often than not," she said, "the answer is 'yes.' "

 

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