By Emily J. Weitz | May 22, 2015 | Lifestyle
Founded in 1640, the town of Southampton turns 375 this season. The milestone event makes us marvel at how much has changed and how so much has stayed the same.
Founded by a group oF 20-somethings fleeing puritanical Massachusetts, Southampton overcame the struggles of the revolutionary war to build a vibrant summer and year-round community.
Three hundred seventy-five years ago, a dozen young English settlers, all under the age of 25, fled from the oppressive Puritan ideals dominating Massachusetts society. The group headed across the Long Island Sound and, eventually, landed at Conscience Point in Southampton. “They were young and energetic,” says Tom Edmonds, executive director of the Southampton Historical Museum, “and they got to work farming right away.”
Two of these original English settlers were Thomas Halsey and his wife, Elizabeth. Twelve generations later, their descendants are among the most notable conservationists in the region. “My roots run deep here,” says John Halsey, founder and president of the Peconic Land Trust, whose mission is to protect the farmland and wilds of the East End, “and that is a responsibility, which is one reason I do what I do as the president of the Peconic Land Trust and why the organization was founded in the first place.”
The original settlers nestled in to life in Southampton, building dugout homes and small cabins in the area just south of what is today Southampton Hospital. According to Edmonds, they worked out a treaty with the Shinnecock people, agreeing to protect the Shinnecock from a rival nation in exchange for land and goods.
However, the Shinnecock story doesn’t paint the English settlers in such an altruistic light. “In June of 1640,” says Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile, Shinnecock elder and historian, “[my ancestors] looked up and saw this boat coming. Nowedonah, our leader, was aware of the English with their guns and agendas, but our people didn’t know about negotiations and papers. They knew the [settlers] were making changes, and they were cautious.”
The settlers learned how to live on this land by observing the practices of the Shinnecock, who had been there for thousands of years. States Halsey, “Early on, the settlers got assistance from the Shinnecock, who grew corn, beans, and squash. It was subsistence farming, and of course the soil was (and is) fantastic.”
The first meetinghouse, which served as a multipurpose gathering place, was built on Old Town Road in 1640. Eight years later, the settlers built a new one to the north on what is now Main Street. “Main Street was the main route between the Atlantic Ocean and Peconic Bay,” says Edmonds. “It was popular 10,000 years ago, when the Paleo Indians first came here, because it was a great place to move the tribe.”
With its rich soil and convenient ports, the Southampton settlement thrived very quickly. North Sea, then called Feversham, was involved in trade routes with Virginia, Barbados, and England. “Feversham was the Ellis Island for the East End of Long Island, and it was the third-largest port in the colonies until the 1750s,” says Edmonds.
The area was bustling, with warehouses and taverns, none of which are still standing today. But as New York City grew, and as Sag Harbor established itself as a deep-water port for large vessels, Feversham began to decline. Then came the Revolutionary War, which was devastating to the town of Southampton—the settlers here were strong supporters of the Boston rebels and the Boston Tea Party. Says Edmonds, “Revolutionary families were formed in Southampton.”
The British militia invaded Southampton in 1776, and the town was occupied for seven years. “It was a time of deprivation. All the families in Southampton supported the revolution, so they either had to flee to Connecticut or be tried for treason,” says Edmonds of the town, which was deserted except for the British army, which set up a fort where the town police station is now, and those who were unable to leave. The British raided the village, raping and stealing. “Many people died, families were dispersed, and many left and didn’t return. It was a disaster.”
After the war, the people who remained or returned to Southampton sealed themselves in. Says Edmonds, “It became insular. If you lived in East Hampton, you didn’t marry someone from Southampton.” Those who were young and ambitious moved out west, but when the railroad extended to Southampton in 1870, it forever changed the course of the town’s history.
Wealthy New Yorkers took to the charming, New England-esque town. Dr. Theodore Gallard Thomas, a gynecologist from New York, built the first mansion in Southampton on Gin Lane. He recommended that his patients come to the East End to recuperate and attended to his clients at his home while they rested in the healing salty air. His house, which was wrapped in porches and locally referred to as “The Birdhouse,” collapsed in the hurricane of 1938.
Dr. Thomas’s wealthy summer visitors and others like them built “cottages” (mansions), and came back with their friends. Says Edmonds of the influx, “Farmers had new places to sell their vegetables. Coal merchants had new places to sell their coal.”
It was the beginning of a relationship that exists to this day: one where the year-round community is dependent on the surge of wealth that comes in with the summer community. Lyda Ely has been coming to Southampton all her life, but generations prior, her great-, great-grandparents would travel east from the city for the duration of the summer. “People would bring an entire entourage to run a house,” says Ely. “They’d have grand parties, and there was a sense that everyone knew one another.”
The family, who were some of the original “cottagers,” moved from one house to another in and around Southampton. Ely’s great-uncle had a place on Gin Lane, and her grandfather was born in a house on Lake Agawam, where Ely learned to swim and ride a bike. “With all the fanciness of Southampton, it’s still a place for family,” she says. “I’ll always remember the time I spent here with my grandmother and my mother and uncles. That time in life when things were easy and carefree.”
One thing that was unique about the summer community of Southampton was its preponderance of women. In New York society, men ran the show, but in Southampton, women started art clubs, athletic clubs, intellectual societies, and committees. Women were responsible for the founding of Southampton Hospital (circa 1909) and the Art Village (circa 1892), which heralded the beginning of an important artistic component in the history of the town. “American Impressionists were following French Impressionists by painting outdoors,” says Edmonds, “and William Merritt Chase was brought out here to give art lessons in the summer.”
“He would say there was gold to draw from the Shinnecock Hills, and he went on to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt,” says Alicia Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish Art Museum of William Merrit Chase, whose work, and the work of many of his students, has become a visual history of Southampton.
Art Village, located in the Shinnecock Hills, was aimed at people coming out for the summer and modeled after art colonies of Europe. Within Art Village, there was a studio building where classes were taught by William Merritt Chase, and the wealthy built homes of various architectural styles. William and Janet Hoyt were among the first New Yorkers to summer in Southampton in the 1870s and 1880s. The husband and wife developed Art Village to capitalize on the idea that New Yorkers should get out of the city in the summer. Their own home on Lake Agawam featured large, breezy spaces open to the ocean. “It was a marketing technique,” says Longwell. “The Hoyts were progressive people and looked at Southampton as a summer place.” ( Janet Hoyt, too, was a prime example of a woman ruling the roost—after the Hoyts built their mansion, which caused much controversy among locals, William’s poor business decisions and heavy drinking led him to Puerto Rico, where he died of unspecified causes. Janet, however, was a forward-thinking, powerful woman. She was the daughter of former US Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, and it is believed that she, rather than her husband, had the foresight to invest in real estate in Shinnecock Hills.)
Once these wealthy summer people started coming east, the landscape of Southampton began to change. New businesses started cropping up, and Main Street became a retail hub. Up until the latter part of the 19th century, Main Street consisted of small farms and farmhouses surrounded by picket fences. The billboard barn, which stood at the corner of Main Street and Hamptons Road until 1951, was a place for people to gather. “If a slave ran away, you put a poster there,” says Edmonds of the structure, which was moved in 1952 to its current location on Meeting House Lane, on the grounds of the Southampton Historical Society. “If you were selling a farm or the circus was coming to town, that’s where you posted [a notice about] it.”
Yet no matter who was living, working, or relaxing in Southampton, yearround or just during the summer months, one thing everyone could agree on was the area’s natural beauty, which has lured people to this region for thousands of years. “People come here for the same reasons the Paleo Indians did 10,000 years ago,” says Edmonds. “The abundant wildlife and lots of sun. Southampton is a beautiful place: a place for privacy, to get away, and to relax.”
Once the railroad and Long Island Expressway stretched across the East End, Southampton became a destination for wealthy visitors yet still held on to its rural heritage.
When the Long Island Railroad extended its reach towards Montauk in the 1870s, it was providing transport to a world that was still somewhat sleepy and untouched. Southampton was not yet considered fancy. But over the course of the 20th century, when access to the renowned sandy white beaches and bucolic landscape became more robust, an almost insatiable fever overcame New Yorkers desperate to visit.
In the 1900s, established families would arrive in Southampton by railroad in a big procession. According to Tom Edmonds, executive director of the Southampton Historical Museum, a big household would rent out entire railroad cars for their servants, children, baggage, and furniture. Often local crowds would gather to watch these families disembark. “The Biddle Dukes wanted to avoid embarrassment in having all of their luggage inspected by onlookers, so they built Elm Street as a back road to their house so they wouldn’t have to be an object of public spectacle,” Edmonds recounts.
With the new wealth came the arrival of private clubs, where the rich could pursue their hobbies and sports. The Meadow Club, with beautiful grass tennis courts, was founded in the late 1880s. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (“Shinnecock”) was founded in 1891 and is one the oldest incorporated golf clubs in the US. The National Golf Links of America (“National”) was founded in 1908, nearby. The Bathing Corp., known as the “Beach Club,” was established on the ocean on Gin Lane in 1923. All of those clubs exist today and are considered amongst the most exclusive enclaves in the world.
It was in the 1920s that a new breed arrived in Southampton—the Irish Catholics. Morgan J. O’Brien— known always as Judge O’Brien—bought a grand oceanfront estate called Villa Mille Fiori from the Boardman family. According to historian Stephen Birmingham’s book Real Lace, “the Irish would not be accepted in Newport and they knew it…. It has been said that Southampton was colonized in reaction to old-line Newport… newer rich families who, if they wanted a strip of Atlantic seashore for themselves, they had to look elsewhere.” And so they did.
O’Brien, who helped establish Shinnecock golf club and later became its president, introduced his friend Thomas Murray to Southampton. Murray, considered one of the most prolific inventors (he had 1,100 patents to his name, second only to his friend and former colleague Thomas Edison), had eight children, making him the patriarch of the massive and legendary Murray/ McDonnell/Cuddihy clan. The clan’s offspring ultimately resided on 30 acres of shorefront in Southampton village and Water Mill, erecting garages, stables, boathouses, and pools. (In fact, legend has it that the only reason the selective Southampton Bathing Corp. admitted Murray as a member was because he had invented a filtering system to keep sand from flowing into his pool along with ocean water; eager to do the same with its pool, an exchange was made.) Though the families were close, there was often infighting, and Squabble Lane is said to have gotten its name because it was the road that separated two factions of the families, who were notorious for their spats.
The event that made the Murray/McDonnell family rise to prominence is the undisputed “wedding of the century,” when Thomas Murray’s granddaughter, Anne McDonnell, wed Henry Ford II at Sacred Heart Church in Southampton in 1940 after he converted to Catholicism. “That put Southampton on the map,” states Anne Vose, Judge O’Brien’s granddaughter, who was friends with Anne McDonnell’s younger sisters and was in town at the time of the wedding. “It was covered by all the press; Edsel Ford and the old man [Henry Ford] came [as did] photographer’s from all over the globe. It was a big deal.” Indeed, the world breathlessly devoured every detail of the wedding—from the large bridal party (with all those relatives, of course, it would be) to what everyone wore.
Indeed, the wedding was a happy respite after a decade of hardship. The 1930s saw many estates broken up after the Great Depression and the 1938 hurricane, known alternatively as the Great New England Hurricane, the Yankee Clipper, and the Long Island Express, remains to this day one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the East Coast. There were 21 deaths on Long Island alone. Many of the houses in Southampton were destroyed, and surging water carved out a large section of the barrier island separating Shinnecock Bay from the Atlantic, creating what we know today as the Shinnecock Inlet.
Southampton of the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed a bit of a renaissance and was, by all accounts, very festive. “My sister and I had a lot of fun times and a big social life,” explains Charlotte Ford, daughter of Henry and Anne. “There were lots of wonderful people and wonderful friends.”
“In the 1950s it was very hectic, and oh, God, we never stopped! I went out to breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” confesses Anne Vose. “In fact, T. (Tommy) Markoe Robertson, who was married to Cordelia Biddle Duke [and who also was the architect of Southampton Hospital] said, ‘I feel like an Arab, I’ve been living under a tent all summer!’” Vose remembers the nonstop parties and dinners at Herb McCarthy’s Bowden Square and the Post House. (East Hamptonites were not as charitable about their neighbors’ partying: “We called it ‘Souse-hampton,’” quips one.) Saks Fifth Avenue was the clothing purveyor of choice, but there were also a lot of fancy boutiques in Southampton Village. And, Vose adds, “There was one man named Lupe who had a place on Job’s Lane in the summer and a place on 72nd Street the rest of the time, and it was a nightmare on weekends—everyone had to get their hair done there. You just weren’t anybody if you [didn’t go] to Lupe’s.”
Celebrities were just starting to appear on the scene as well. In the 1950s, Gary Cooper could be spotted at the various clubs with his wife, Veronica (aka Rocky) or handing out Crutchley’s crullers weekend mornings at [Main Street’s former billboard barn] an antique shop in town. Zsa Zsa Gabor made an appearance, and in 1964 Charlotte Ford hosted a party for Lynda Byrd Johnson that brought Paul Newman to her mother’s famed house, Fordune. “There were a lot of people there that I didn’t know,” confesses Ford. (That’s no surprise considering estimates put the number of guests at 1,900.)
As the decade moved through the 1970s into the 1980s, Southampton’s profile was heightened in part due to a few salacious scandals. In 1979, Chestertown House, the 55,000-square-foot oceanfront estate owned by the duPont family, was sold at auction for $440,000 to a man named Barry Trupin, and thus began a multiyear construction project to turn a oncerevered and stylish house into a turreted castle to be called Dragon’s Head. Trupin, a somewhat mysterious figure, installed gold plumbing, a 16thcentury pub assembled from England, and an indoor swimming pool made to look like a pond, which was to be stocked with fish and sharks. Neighbors derided the outward appearance of the house, and scandal ensued when it was insinuated that the mayor of Southampton had eschewed any proposed restoration proposals because he was the plumbing contractor on the job.
Because Trupin was accused of not getting the proper variances, construction stalled, but when the homeowner learned that others had also bent the rules regarding variances, he successfully sued the village for $4.5 million for violating his human rights. Despite his win, Trupin was turned off by the community and sold his house to Francesco Galesi, who removed some turrets and lived there for years before selling the property to Calvin Klein in 2003. Klein eventually bulldozed the house and built a smaller, minimalistic residence in its place.
Despite the scandals, there was also much good news for Southampton in the 1980s. John Halsey, a 12th-generation Southamptonite, founded the Peconic Land Trust in 1983 in an effort to save the diminishing farmland. When Halsey learned that his neighbors—who had farmed their acreage for 10 generations— were forced to relinquish their land due to estate taxes, Halsey was motivated to make a change. He moved back from California to help conserve farms and land. The very first piece of property he salvaged was a six-acre parcel on Fowler Street that, according to Halsey, “would undoubtedly have two houses on it at least. It was given to us by a fellow by the name Burton Brous, and it was special to me because it was just down the street from where I grew up.” To date, the Peconic Land Trust has saved over 11,000 acres of farmland in the East End.
In 2010, Southampton finally received another distinguished honor: Coopers Beach was declared the “Best Beach in America” by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach.” He was only recognizing what generations of denizens already knew.
There’s a reason that Southampton has attracted such a variety of accomplished people, from tycoons such as the Vanderbilts, duPonts, Fords, and Bloombergs to the artists such as William Merritt Chase and Roy Lichtenstein and celebrities such as Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos, Beth and Howard Stern, and Rachael Ray. The light and the landscape are breathtakingly beautiful and the villages hold a charm that is unrivaled. “I have so many great friends who I’ve become acquainted with through my children, Hayground School and my other work. The honor and privilege of serving with and for the people in this community reminds me every day what a wonderful community and variety of people we are made up of out here,” says Southampton Town Supervisor, Anna Throne-Holst. “We live in one of the most beautiful places and all it has to offer provides a unique opportunity.”
photography by littleny/shutterstock.com; courtesy of southampton historical museum; ron EsPosito, courtEsy of st. andrEws dunE church (church); courtEsy of thE southamPton historical musEum (halsEy homEstEad, consciEncE Point, bEach scEnE); by thinkstOck/getty images (aerial); cOurtesy Of the sOuthamptOn histOrical museum (chase studiO); cOurtesy Of sOuthamptOn hOspital (hOspital); cOurtesy Of the sOuthamptOn histOrical museum (pelletreau silver shOp, hOyt hOuse); bert Morgan/getty IMages (beach club); Keystone VIew coMPany/FPg/archIVe Photos/getty IMages (lIrr traIn); Morgan collectIon/getty IMages (weddIng); tony roberts/corbIs (golF club); by Eric StrifflEr (aErial); JErritt clark/gEtty imagES (StErn); monica murphy/gEtty imagES (lifEguard chair); kEvin mazur/gEtty imagES for baby buggy (ripa)
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