The Migration to Montauk
By alexandra peers
Montauk residents have always prided their home on being something of an anti-Hamptons with a different vibe from other East End towns, its exclusivity arising out of geography, not income. Andy Warhol felt the countercurrent when he and confidant Paul Morrissey drove out to the Hamptons to look for a summer home in 1971. According to biographies of the Pop artist, Warhol was unimpressed—until he hit the wide-open spaces of Montauk. He and Morrissey went on to buy a compound of homes, paying $225,000, a ridiculously low price in retrospect. (The compound sold to J.Crew’s CEO Mickey Drexler for a record $27 million a generation later.) The Warhol party house played host to John Lennon, Lee Radziwill, Halston, Liza Minnelli, and The Rolling Stones, who wrote “Memory Motel” about a spot of the same name in Montauk.
A decade earlier, another sort of hipster, Dick Cavett, then a writer for Johnny Carson, fell under Montauk’s spell. He bought Tick Hall, a Stanford White-designed home, then purchased another 77 acres of Montauk moorlands, which he sold back to the municipality three years ago to protect the region from developers. You can even go back further, to iconoclast White himself, who explored the bucolic region in the 1880s and brought his signature summer style to it with shingles, airy indoor spaces, and wide front porches the size of living rooms.
Montauk has long been an acquired taste, preferred by the kind of people who like to live at the very end of the road. Multimillionaires were a century late to catch on to its charms but seem to be making up for it in enthusiasm. Why now? Between the increasing ease of telecommuting, the local surf boom, Montauk’s more-beach-for-the-buck real estate prices, and a rise in Hamptons popularity in general, The End is turning moguls into locals.
The semicircle tip of Long Island already hosts Paul Simon, Ralph Lauren, Julian Schnabel, and Robert De Niro, but a new migration seemed to occur about four years ago when Adam Lindemann, art and design collector and Madison Avenue art dealer, moved out, adding a summer home at the tip of the island. Steven Roth, CEO of Vornado, bought Bernie Madoff’s beach mansion for $9.41 million in 2009. In October of 2009, Rolling Stone cofounder and publisher Jann Wenner bought on Old Montauk Highway. The following year, Drexler doubled down on The End when he bought Deep Hollow Ranch for about $12 million.
The End’s homes are a bargain, given Hamptons’ prices as a whole. Currently, there are 360 homes listed for sale in Montauk at an average listing price of $2.15 million, according to trulia.com. That compares to $2.47 million for East Hampton, $2.72 million for Amagansett, and $2.9 for Southampton. (That gap may be narrowing: The median house price in Montauk jumped to $852,500 this year from $726,250 in 2010, according to Town & Country Real Estate’s biannual reports.) But for this crowd, savings aren’t the real draw at all.
Lindemann had been summering in Southampton for more than a decade, but he switched to Montauk a few years ago. “You keep trying to get away from the crowd, so you go to The End,” he says from his cliff-side curve of land hugged by the Atlantic Ocean. “Once you get here, it’s empty, it’s half park, it’s very beautiful. Montauk has a certain authenticity.”
But, what, exactly, are relatively new arrivals buying? Old and new residents agree that rugged, rustic Montauk, which used to have more in common atmospherically with Maine than Main Street has changed a lot. At about the same time the moguls came to town, the local scene was evolving. A weathered Montauk property with the unromantic name of Shepherd’s Neck Inn was retrofitted to become the Solé East Resort. The Surf Lodge, a hugely popular hotel that opened in 2008, has since shown it knows how to draw attention to itself: It’s received numerous citations from the East Hampton police and even hosted an incident of nude sunbathing by rocker Courtney Love in July. Gurney’s Inn Resort Spa & Conference Center, founded in the Roaring Twenties, updated its image with appearances on a reality TV show. A chic Cynthia Rowley boutique came to town, then a Momofuku Milk Bar, with its addictive “crack pie,” recently joined it—just the latest evidence of a busy Montauk restaurant boom. Last, but not least, Lindemann placed a glorious 23-foot-high sculpture of a 35,000-pound lemon-yellow teddy bear, Urs Fischer’s Untitled (Lamp/Bear) on his spit of land as a deterrent to a next-door neighbor bent on expansion. (It worked.)
No, Montauk is not the same as it used to be, notes broker Ed Bruehl of Distinctive Properties. “There is more action, life buzz, more chill,” he says. “It’s the surf culture.” You move to Montauk, frets Lindemann, “and then everybody joins you, and you didn’t get away at all.” Still, there remains a certain laid-back graciousness to the town. Chef Marc Murphy, a judge on Food Network’s Chopped, surfs the Montauk waves regularly and named his West Village and Upper West Side restaurants Ditch Plains after the beach. He says he’s been surfing the area’s “really good break” for six or seven years. In that time, the surfing scene, well, “It’s gotten a little bit more crowded,” says Murphy, “but it’s never really competitive.”
Montauk was “founded,” if that’s the right word for it, by visionary real estate developer Carl Fisher, aka “Mr. Miami Beach.” (Will Rogers once said that Fisher was the man who discovered “that [sand] could hold a real estate sign.”) After his success in Florida in the early decades of the 20th century, Fisher came to Montauk to create something of a Miami of the North. Buying thousands of acres, he began construction of an ultraluxury resort area in the style of an English seaside village, complete with a casino and yacht club. Fisher soon was drawing swells—the kind that arrived in limousines—to the beach. Then a brutal 1926 hurricane destroyed much of downtown Miami Beach. That, and the stock market crash of 1929, sent him, like an unlucky Monopoly player, back to Go.
And so Montauk was left to fishermen and true believers until the Cavetts and Warhols started coming, and after them the hipsters and the moguls. But for all that turnover and turmoil, some longtime Enders say not much important has changed at all. By and large, “Montauk is the same as it’s always been—the current popularity and hype is part of the natural generational change that has occurred here several times in the past,” says Gurney’s president and local Chamber of Commerce head Paul Monte. The “new group,” he says, will “discover the magic and many will become second homeowners.... They will marry and have children and will take their families on vacation to Montauk.” Just as people have always done.
According to The New York Times, “the sudden interest in Montauk” is, pure and simple, the result of “high prices in the fashionable Hamptons resort villages” to the west. And that was written in 1981.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DOUGLAS LYLE THOMPSON (SURF LODGE); COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (FISHER); SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES (SURFERS) TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES (FISHERMAN); ROB LANG (SURFBOARDS); PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM (SCHNABEL); RON GALELLA/WIREIMAGE (RADZIWILL); JASON SHALTZ (DITCH PLAINS); COURTESY OF BHS REAL ESTATE (GREEN MANOR)