After a long-anticipated historical and architectural assessment of the Springs house and studios of the late Abstract Expressionist artists James Brooks and Charlotte Park was delivered to the East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday, the board signaled that it was ready to embrace the site’s restoration and conversion into an arts and nature center.
Michael Devonshire and Kurt Hirschberg from Jan Hird Pokorny Associates of Manhattan, and proponents of the effort, described it as an admittedly costly endeavor but one that is worth the expense.
Mr. Devonshire and Mr. Hirschberg described to the board deterioration of the structures ranging from mild to severe, and an estimate of just under $3 million to restore the four structures and perform minimal site work. The board had approved a contract for up to $21,000 for the assessment and recommendations in December.
Mr. Devonshire said the structures were “a case study for deferred maintenance and lack of care.” Nonetheless, according to the consultants’ written report, “it is our opinion that the rich cultural importance of the Brooks-Park association with the site renders it deserving that a restorative approach” be taken “in order to retain as much as possible of the artifactual remains of the buildings.”
The house, which was moved to the site in 1957, “is in remarkably good condition structurally,” Mr. Devonshire said, despite damage from deteriorated roofing, vandalized doors and windows, and damage to cladding. Exterior conditions can be addressed and cured, according to the report, and the interior, which retains vestiges of the artists’ residency, “is serviceable” despite vandalism and deterioration, though the mechanical and electrical systems would have to be entirely replaced.
The Brooks studio may be the most problematic in terms of preservation, given advanced deterioration of the roof assembly and partial collapse of its one-story addition. Roof leakage has resulted in serious interior damage. “An attempt at supplemental structural steel shoring following Brooks’ death has proven useless due to the leaking roof, and presents the greatest safety hazard on the site,” according to the report. Exterior wall cladding sheets contain asbestos and would have to be eliminated. Elements of the structure coud be salvaged, restored, and reused, but the studio’s restoration will be expensive. It is this structure that would be the most likely space for public programming if the site is restored and opened to the community.
The Park studio’s exterior has been damaged by vandals, and the building’s foundation will have to be improved. The roof sheathing and skylight assembly must be replaced, and windows, a door, and roof sheathing and a skylight assembly must be repaired or replaced. A guest cottage must be reset on an improved foundation, and the structure will need new roofing and restoration to windows, the door, and wooden facade cladding.
The town acquired the 11-acre site on Neck Path in 2013 using community preservation fund money. The initial plan was to demolish the structures, but a group of Springs residents formed the Brooks Park Heritage Project and lobbied for their preservation. In 2018, the town board approved a management and stewardship plan for properties acquired with C.P.F. money, but in 2019 the town’s property management committee recommended the structures’ demolition, having deemed them deteriorated and damaged by vandalism, and the cost of restoration prohibitive. The architectural review board approved a demolition permit in 2020, spurring a renewed push for a not-for-profit entity to manage the property.
Last year, the effort to save the structures gained momentum, with the Preservation League of New York State naming the structures to its Seven to Save registry and the National Trust for Historic Preservation including the site as one of its 11 most endangered historical places in the United States.
A committee has been working with the town to develop a management and maintenance plan for the property. Last year, it launched a website for the Brooks-Park Arts and Nature Center with the hope to bring a multi-use community center into being.
On Tuesday, some members of that group addressed the board. Marietta Gavaris, a Springs artist, said that “the preservation story of this important site has gone national, and history will carefully record those among us today that either hindered or helped preserve this culturally important site for future generations.”
Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, described Brooks and Park as “local artists who contributed significantly to the development of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-20th century” and said that the property “is a treasure and should not be allowed to just fall into disrepair and go away.”
Irwin Levy of Springs conceded that “$3 million is a heavy lift,” but added that the town has achieved lofty restorations before, citing the Gardiner homestead and the Moran House in East Hampton Village, and what is now the Arts Center at Duck Creek in Springs. “We are at a crossroads here, and Brooks-Park is a metaphor for it,” he said. “We either embrace and celebrate and preserve our history and our rich sense of place, or we don’t.”
Jess Frost, executive director and one of the founders of the Arts Center at Duck Creek, cautioned the board to proceed with eyes wide open. Ms. Frost, who is also on the town’s property management committee, said she is “not for or against” using the Brooks-Park property as an arts center, but “having worked through the development of Duck Creek, which was restored before we moved in,” she is acutely aware of the challenges such a site can present. “I think it’s imperative that everyone in this community understand the ramifications of spending that money . . . and also that we are really focused on the purpose of its restoration and the sustainability of that building. . . . Fund-raising and managing a space like that can be unruly.” If the town is going to spend the money, it should be sure that the site will operate “in a way that’s really going to be helpful for local citizens,” she said.
As for next steps, the consultants said that securing the site is essential to preventing further vandalism, or theft. “The fact that Charlotte’s smock is still hanging from the door is really amazing and extremely evocative,” Mr. Devonshire said. “There are paint cans lined on a shelf within Brooks’s studio that any museum would want to get a hold of. . . . So securing the site, absolutely securing the site, to me is the next step.” There is a six-foot chain-link fence around Brooks’s studio, but it has been breached, he said.
Mr. Hirschberg suggested a phased approach to restoration. Stabilizing or removing the roof structure from the Brooks studio “would be coming up early in the process,” and temporary roofs on the other structures would be wise “just to keep the elements out and keep the deterioration from getting any worse.”
“I think the town is committed to this project, as it should be,” Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said. She recalled something that the artist Mike Solomon, whose father, the artist Syd Solomon, was a contemporary of Brooks and Park, had told her last fall: “ ‘There are three things that are uniquely American: jazz, baseball, and Abstract Expressionism.’ We are at the forefront in East Hampton of being part of that history and we should embrace it.”
Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc noted that “a couple of important things have changed” since the town had first decided on demolishing the buildings. First was “a group coalescing around saving this property.” Another thing “that’s changed somewhat recently,” he said, “is that there has been a determination that historic structures can house individuals.”