The fate of a town-owned property in Springs where two important modern-art painters once lived and worked has been a question for close to 10 years. On one side are preservationists who would like the dilapidated studios and residences there to be saved, and on the other, town officials rightly worried about the massive potential cost of their restoration. We believe that a middle path should be sought.
In the late 1950s, the Abstract Expressionists James Brooks and Charlotte Park relocated from Montauk to an 11-acre property on Neck Path in Springs. The Town of East Hampton purchased the site in 2013 for $1.1 million with money drawn from its community preservation fund. Neither Brooks nor Park were household names like some of the area’s famous painters, such as Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, but they were significant players on the New York art scene beginning in the late 1940s. Park, who died in 2010, is now seen as among her generation’s pioneering women painters.
Brooks’s reputation as member of the Ab-Ex movement’s first generation places him among the leading 20th century American artists. Before coming to the South Fork, he had the distinction of painting the largest mural ever commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, “Flight,” at the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport. His work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among others.
After initially deciding to remove the Brooks-Park property’s structures, the town board recently shifted course, commissioning a preservation architecture firm to take a second look. Brooks’s studio appears to be in worst shape, and the cost to restore or possibly rebuild it could be steep. One art historian has suggested incorporating its innovative roofline into a new outdoor pavilion and letting the lightly built original go.
The main house, if one could call it that, on the site is another matter; it could be stabilized for possible seasonal use for art classes. Its backstory is compelling, a portion of it having slid down a Montauk bluff during Hurricane Carol in 1954, after which the couple had it brought by barge to Springs. Added onto over the years, it should be appreciated as a rare remnant of an artists’ vernacular that once was prevalent here. Noting this, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has included the buildings among its endangered-sites priorities. In 2020, it wrote the town, saying that the site was “an exceptional example of an environment that reflects the artists’ domestic and creative lives and contributes to the Town of East Hampton’s larger history of being an artists’ enclave.” Subsequently, the Preservation League of New York State named the structures to its 2022-23 “Seven to Save” list.
It is exciting that officials have stepped away from their intention to remove all the Brooks-Park buildings. However, those pushing for their preservation should also be mindful that the town’s coffers are not bottomless and that some kind of give and take ultimately would be in the entire community’s best interest.