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What Now for Carl Fisher’s House?

Thu, 09/30/2021 - 09:47


Now that the East Hampton public is about to become the owners of an 11-bedroom 1920s mansion and guesthouse on 7.5 hilltop acres in Montauk, what should we do with it? Carl Fisher, the powerhouse Miami developer whose footprint remains on Montauk to this day, chose the site on the high point between Lake Montauk and Fort Pond Bay to build his own redoubt, all wood paneling and extraordinary views. It was completed in 1925. After Fisher came the Akin family, which has remained its owner to this day. Listed at more than $7 million, the town was able to reach an agreement for far less. It will be bought with $5.5 million from the community preservation fund. There are plans to designate it as a historic landmark, something that has plenty of support.

The purchase would appear to meet all the criteria for the preservation fund. It is undeniably of historic significance at least in terms of East Coast luxury of almost a century ago. Environmentally, had it remained in private ownership, its likely renovation could have increased its wastewater impact. And, as open space, a potential for a second house if the acreage were divided is avoided. So far so good. Now, as to the house itself. . . . 

Undeveloped land costs little on an annual basis, but property with structures on it gets expensive very quickly. Legal limitations in the preservation fund law would block its conversion to a hotel or bed-and-breakfast. And yet, the 100-year-old shingled dwelling will require daily attention to maintain. Fort Pond House, for example, a much-smaller town property also in Montauk, routinely racks up five-figure expenses, such as for a security system, roofing and siding, debris cleanup, and handicapped-accessible ramps and doorways. The town’s new obligation for its upkeep will be substantial.

Also, Montauk is already overloaded with historic properties, some of which welcome only a handful of visitors a year. Its use as offices for one organization or another is a possibility, but that would, in effect, make it off-limits as public space.

Though a portion of the fund’s annual income can be taken for maintenance costs, every dollar spent on paint, lights, or heat is one fewer available for actual acquisitions and other things. Some leeway in the C.P.F. law may have to be found for Fisher’s dream house to be used as an event space, as in for weddings, for which the town could command a generous price. This must be done very carefully to strictly constrain the commercial purposes preserved sites can be put to. It is a sticky dilemma that may require public support for what might otherwise be considered out-of-bounds solutions.

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