Monday, September 20, 2010

The Reproduction Trend in Southampton Village

something made by reproducing an original

any close or exact copy or reproduction

The amount of reproduction/replica architecture taking place in this village is embarrassing and wrong. This is not Disneyland (no offense), this is the Village of Southampton, where authentic and masterful architectural creations abound. Yes, many historic beauties have been lost, but we still have plenty (although we need to guard them fiercely) to be inspired by and which set the standard for architectural character and integrity in the community, both in the estate and ‘local’ areas. We do not need to accept a tendency or acceptance toward reproductions; not now, not ever. This is not about the construction of houses that look like they might have been built many years ago, the currently popular trend of building ‘New Old Houses.’ This is about replicating houses rather than saving them, about taking the easy way out, about our community presenting false history to itself and those who visit, and about filling our neighborhoods with fake copies of originals rather than clever and inspired re-interpretations of them. “Architecture, as distinct from building, is an interpretive, critical act. It has a linguistic condition different from the practical one of building. A building is interpreted when its rhetorical mechanism and principles are revealed.”[1]

“Situations in which the use of replicas seems least justified are those in which they are not really essential to the aesthetic enjoyment or intellectual comprehension of the architectural complex to which they belong.”[2] Examples are the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee (at top) and the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building in Shelburne Village, Vermont (below).
Originally built in 1897 for the city’s 100th birthday, the full scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennesse houses the city’s collection of 19th and 20th century American art. Originally constructed, not of stone, but of wood, brick, and plaster it rapidly deteriorated and was rebuilt in 1920 with concrete. Still not able to last more than a few decades, it underwent a major restoration in 1988. Nashvillians are quite fond of it apparently.
The Electra Havemeyer building, was built in 1960 as a memorial to the Shelburne Museum’s founder (in Vermont) and serves as one of the museum’s exhibit buildings. It is a duplicate of the 1843 Greek Revival style Wilcox-Cutts house in Orwell, VT. Electra founded the museum in 1947 and relocated many historic structures to the 8 acre property. Perhaps the Wilcox-Cutts house is one that she could not save.

The most recent approval for a replica in Southampton Village was for “The Moorlands” at 477 Halsey Neck Lane after it was illegally demolished last May. After the slow and arrogant dismantling of that historic structure, the Board of Historic Preservation (huh?) and Architectural Review ultimately gave permission for the owners to reproduce the house. No doubt the builder, architect, and owners were driven in their pleas by a strong desire not to have to scrap the foundations they had already installed….but it’s worth remembering that the architect and owners wanted a far less “Moorlands” looking house with symmetrical composition in the beginning.

If an owner today chooses to have a noted historic design copied for their own use, they are “ruining a beautiful model by arbitrary enforcement of its form upon a totally unsuitable “replica,” or pseudo-adaptation.”[3]
The second most recent approval for a reproduction was for the carriage house at 101 Great Plains Road. There was nothing wrong with this structure except that it may have been more expensive to renovate it than to knock it down and build anew. It wasn’t suffering from neglect; it wasn’t falling down. The historic consultant to the village gave his consent because, in his opinion, it has been altered significantly compromising its architectural integrity. But look at it. It was practically unaltered except for small additions to its north and south ends. And its carriage house interior – believe me, I saw it – was the same, completely recognizable.

“The past century has taught us that reconstructions and reproductions of vanished buildings are culturally hazardous. There is a growing recognition of the fact that, in the last analysis, it is all but impossible to produce permanently convincing fakes. Time has its own merciless way of exposing them.”[4]
The third most recent replica approved was “Tenacre,” except this time, the original still exists in all its exceptional and, until now, unique glory. The original is on Ox Pasture Road. The reproduction is underway on Meadowmere Lane. The original was built for Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Knapp in 1920 by architect John Russell Pope. The reproduction is being built for Mr. & Mrs. Gary Garrabrant by architect John David Rose.

The last example of reproduction in our village that I will mention is that of the “Red Maples” estate on Ox Pasture Road (postcard image courtesy The Eric Woodward Collection). Beautifully published in Houses of the Hamptons, the estate was designed by Hiss & Weekes for Alfred W. Hoyt and modeled on the Renaissance villas of Italy. It was completed in 1908, but demolished in 1947. It has now been recreated for Mary Ann Tighe.

A passerby will have no idea that any of these replicas are not original because they are not as iconic as, say, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. What’s next, Villa Mille Fiore? Dragon’s Head? Meadowmere? Is that what this village wants, to replicate houses long gone and recreate the village aesthetic from years ago? Houses come down due to hurricanes, fire, neglect, and foolishness. The last we can prevent, and should do so ardently. The other losses provide us with windows of opportunity to sensitive and contextual architectural exploration, not reproduction.

[1] Introduction, Architectureproduction, Beatriz Colomina
[2] Chapter 9, Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World, James Marston Fitch, p. 208
[3] “A Country House in the Italian Manner,” Matlock Price, Architectural Record, May 1922
[4] Chapter 9, Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World, James Marston Fitch, p. 189

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sally. I'm not sure if you'll see this because I'm commenting on a post that is over four years old, but I have frequently wrestled with the reproduction question, and I don't think it's entirely clear-cut There are instances where a reproduction does not seem objectionable, but I'm not sure where to draw the line. For example, what if a charismatic, early 1880s shingle-style house (think Ochre Point) had been largely destroyed by fire in 1890, and the owners immediately demolished and rebuilt it using the same architect and builder. I think it would be difficult to find fault with that. Now, what if the house burned in 1925, by which time residential architecture had evolved and become less exuberant. The owners remain the same, but the architect and builder are no longer. Would it be inappropriate for the owners to replicate their beloved home from the original plans, which survived? Taking it a step further, what if the house burned more than 100 years after its initial construction, and the original owners, architect, builder and plans are long gone. I can think of two instances on the East End -- Tick Hall in Montauk and the Edward Cockroft house in East Hampton. For the former, the owners relied on old photographs to replicate the house as best they could, and even sanded the centers of stair treads and door saddles to simulate patina. For the latter, the owners rebuilt the house so that the exterior looked much as it always had, but some liberties were taken to update the structure. I find the false historicism of the first approach troubling, but setting that aside, is either case truly objectionable, particularly if no one tries to pass either house off as a work of the original architects? Here's another one -- what if the house burned 100 years ago, and was never rebuilt, but the stone foundations, chimneys and some masonry walls remain as ruins, and someone today wants to incorporate the ruins into an accurate reproduction of the original house based on detailed surviving plans? That doesn't feel right, and plunking a new glass box on the ruins somehow feels better, but would the reproduction really be worse than clearing the lot and building a soulless McMansion? And in this age of new traditional architecture, is it so different from building a new house "inspired by" an old house? As we all know, many great late-19th and early 20th century buildings were inspired by European precedents, and in some cases verged on being copies, yet we still regard them as great works of architecture. I agree that some cases are slam dunks, e.g., building a new house that replicates a currently existing historic house, which is really just plagiarism, or tearing down an existing historic house and reproducing it because a proper restoration would have been too much trouble, which is just sad. As always, though, the grey areas are tough. Any thoughts on where to draw the line?