The Sum of Its Parts
A 165-year-old house reclaims its architectural integrity after
decades of additions.
East Hampton, New York, is well known for its starring role in gossip columns and as a summer refuge for the likes of Martha Stewart and Steven Spielberg. But this small hamlet on the eastern end of Long Island also has an exceptional historical
legacy that dates back to its founding, more than 350 years ago. Originally a rural town of fishermen and farmers, by the early 20th century it was a burgeoning beach resort for artists and well-heeled city-dwellers alike. Grand seaside retreats appeared behind tall privet hedges, sharing the streetscape with small shingled cottages and clapboard farmhouses. Thanks to the community's preservation efforts and vigilant building codes, much of this distinctive architectural character remains today.
The East Hampton home of Hollis and Jim Forbes is a fine example of how an old house can return to its historic roots despite having been expanded and revised by successive generations of owners. An early black-and-white photograph shows the original 1840 Greek Revival farmhouse with a gracious columned porch across its front. Town records reveal that a century later, in 1940, the house was moved down the road to its current location, and about the same time gained two single-story wings, one for a living room, the other for a family room. By 2000, when the Forbeses first saw the house, it had lost its front porch and gained an attached garage, added in the 1980s.
In spite of the exterior hodgepodge, the interior of the house felt seamless. "We were impressed by the fact that the wide plank floors, the stepped casings crowning the door and window frames, and the six-over-six windows had been faithfully replicated in the newer parts of the house," says Hollis. "And we were charmed by the fact that the original parlor, dining room, and upstairs bedrooms all had working fireplaces."
But with just two bedrooms, and a kitchen that had last been updated in the 1950s, the place did present some drawbacks for the couple, who had a young daughter. "We knew when we bought it that we were going to have to add on to suit our family's needs," says Hollis.
A new portico (top photo) was created from elements of the 1840 house's front porch (lower photo) that had been stored in the basement. The front door, sidelights, and transom are all original; the sconces were a later addition.
To create a graceful transition between the existing house and any new additions, Hollis and Jim turned to East Hampton architect Erica Broberg, who had done a sensitive restoration on their friend's historic home. To fill the couple's need for a master suite and extra bedrooms, Broberg developed a plan to expand the second story. She placed a master bedroom and bath above the living room wing, to be accessed through a bedroom in the original house that would be turned into a sitting room/home office. The other existing bedroom, which had its own bath, became their daughter's room. Above the family room wing, two more bedrooms with a shared bath were added—a good thing, since another daughter soon arrived. To balance the living room wing, Broberg extended the family room wing 6 feet to the side. This also added precious square footage to the downstairs space for more built-ins and seating.
Broberg's goal was to keep the original facade distinct and make the additions look like they had always been there. To that end, the renovated two-story wings were kept stepped back as well as down from the 1840 house. "You can clearly see what is the original house, which helps preserve its architectural lineage," says Broberg. "But it also meant that we had to really shoehorn in the new bedrooms so that they fit beneath the lower roofline."
To keep the visual focus on the old part of the house, she gave the additions less exterior detail, with smaller windows. "In working with period architecture, what's important is not necessarily to match the overall size of the windows," she says, "but to make sure the muntin and mullion patterns are the same, as well as the size of the individual panes."
Details in the adjacent master bath evoke an earlier era, including handmade white wall tiles, a black-and-white tile inset in the steam shower, basketweave-pattern marble floor tiles, and a curvaceous porcelain console sink.
A Stylistic Fit
Broberg's second major challenge was to create a state-of-the-art kitchen whose look was in keeping with the rest of the house. Staying within the existing footprint, she gutted and completely refurbished the space with simple milk-painted maple cabinets and beadboard wainscoting. She chose honed black granite for the countertops. "It has the look of soapstone—which would have been truer to the period of the house—but with far less maintenance," says Broberg.
Providing something of a template for the new cabinets, Hollis and Jim decided to keep and refinish an existing painted pine, glass-front hutch from the old kitchen. It was separated into upper and lower cabinets, which were stripped of layer upon layer of paint, stained a warm chestnut, and reinstalled across from the sink. "We don't know if they were original to the house, but they were certainly old," says Broberg. "It was another way to preserve the history of the house through various eras."
Rather than take the kitchen's upper cabinets to the ceiling, Broberg filled the space with a soffit and double crown molding appropriate to the period of the house. "While your first impulse might be to extend the cabinets all the way up, we shortened them and used the decorative molding to draw the eye upward," she says. "This actually makes the room look taller."
To give the walls of the galley kitchen more height, the white upper cabinets are tied to the ceiling by an elaborate soffit with double crown molding. A windowed bay, added in the 1940s, opens up the long, narrow room and accommodates a small eating area.
Salvaging some apparently original front-porch columns and moldings that they found in the basement, Broberg and local contractor Larry Zimmerman created an elegant new portico over the house's existing raised-panel door, sidelights, and transom. "The town historian classified the porch that had been there as Greek Revival, which dictated the new design," says Broberg. "But we decided not to take it all the way across the front, as it had been, because that's one of the features that makes old houses dark inside." The new entry also incorporates a pair of old sconces and a pull-style doorbell that came with the house. "We're not sure when these things were added, but they are a charming part of the house's past that we wanted to preserve," she says.
Broberg also relocated the garage doors—they are now on the side of the house—and in their place added a pair of six-over-six windows, matching the house's originals. She rerouted the driveway as well, so it no longer monopolizes the front yard.
With the exterior (roof included) finally clad in period-appropriate cedar shingles, the house—and the architect—were put to the test at a party the couple threw to celebrate the project's end. "All night long, people kept asking me, 'Which part of the house is old and which is new?'" says Broberg. "For me, that's the biggest compliment I can get."