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Hamptons Life

Jan 14, 2019 12:54 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Nathaniel Rogers Reopening Pushed To 2020

The south wing needed to be built again from the ground up due to a weak foundation. JD ALLEN
Jan 14, 2019 1:37 PM

The bones of the Nathaniel Rogers House in Bridgehampton are strong, despite the wintry wind blowing hard against its almost two centuries-old face. With considerable preservation work, the iconic Greek columns in the front of the white house look new again.

After a decade and a half of construction and funding headaches, John Eilertsen had hoped that the restoration of the circa 1820s house would be completed in 2019. The historic house—owned by Southampton Town and bearing the name of the 19th century miniature portrait painter and former owner—would serve as the new headquarters and exhibition space for the Bridgehampton Museum.

Sadly, Mr. Eilertsen, the museum’s executive director, said it will not be open to the public until the summer of 2020.

“We are trying to preserve as much as we can,” Mr. Eilertsen said. “With that being said—while you don’t want to correct the mistakes of the past when you are preserving—for safety and the integrity of the building, we have had to make some changes.”

Construction crews are continuing their work in January to restore the interior, room by room—with some difficulty. Built at a time when construction knew no bounds, today it appears the home was jigsawed together using an assortment of types of timber of all shapes and sizes. It’s up to Mr. Eilersten and workers to restore the home with period-specific design and supplies.

“There is a big difference between restoration and preservation,” said John Byrnes Jr., the project superintendent from Lipsky Construction in charge of the project’s third construction phase. “Here we are trying to preserve the historical nature of the building and restore it to its original unpreserved appearance. It is a complex move. You don’t want to take the ding out of the wall because it takes away from its beauty. So it’s time consuming to go back and decide what is worth saving.”

The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is designated as a Town of Southampton Landmark.

Upon retirement in 1839, the Bridgehampton-born Rogers purchased the house and built the front four rooms in the Greek Revival style, ornate door frames, two-story columns, rooftop balustrades and a fourth-story cupola. It looked marvelous, Mr. Eilertsen said, but the planning and execution was shoddy work. Using thin planks, Rogers didn’t account for the added weight the cupola was going to have on the third floor. The cupola and heavy furniture made the third floor wavy under toe.

“It looked like you were in the middle of the ocean,” he said.

Going deeper into the house, through the original front door, the walls and ceiling are covered in wainscotting from the 1880s. The rooms and ceiling heights vary dramatically. No two fireplaces on the main floor are alike—one made entirely of stone is speculated to have been won in a trade with Lion Gardiner.

“We have seen doors where windows ended up and windows where doors were installed. The house has evolved overtime,” Mr. Eilertsen laughed. On the second floor, there are closets that have passageways to other rooms of the house.

The entire south wing needed to be torn down, and construction crews are trying to replicate what was there. The original doors, windows and staircase are being kept off site for restoration.

Mr. Eilertsen said he expects the final cost of the project to exceed $11 million.

“The building had greatly deteriorated over the last century, especially over the past 40 years,” he said. “There were issues with structure and the substructure—we found an 8-foot section of foundation missing. Because of the fragile nature of the building and its very poor condition, it was very complicated trying to figure out how to stabilize the building.”

“It took a lot more time and effort—and money—than what we anticipated,” Mr. Eilertsen continued.

Rogers, one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design, lived in the house for only four years before his death in 1844. After several owners, it was purchased by the Storms family, which opened it as a hotel and bar called The Hampton House in 1885.

The house reverted to a private residence in 1949, but fell into disrepair after Caroline Hopping, the last innkeeper, died in 1952. She had even leased the front yard to a gas station. Her nephew, Jim Hopping, lived in the house until 2004.

In 2003, when Southampton Town purchased the property for nearly $3.1 million with assistance from the museum, the restoration was projected to cost about an additional $3 million. Planning for the house started in 2005. Work didn’t begin on the house until 2010. A construction firm was hired to disassemble the historic walls, doors and trim, as well as replace the roof and patch up the exterior.

Construction was set back a year later after Hurricane Irene dumped several inches of rain, which found its way into the building. Mold infested moist, dark spaces in the treasured plaster walls. By 2015, and after two construction phases, the restoration was on track to cost $9 million.

“Various parts of the house are being re-plastered because that was what was there originally,” Mr. Eilertsen said. “Other parts of the house, we can do things that are easier and cheaper, especially the spaces that are not for the public.”

Meanwhile, the Bridgehampton Museum funds the work of architects and structural engineers, and contributes to the construction costs, but the town pays the lion’s share of the restoration cost using Community Preservation Fund dollars.

“Because the property is owned by the town, bidding requires prevailing wage and that makes the cost very much higher than if, say, I owned the house and wanted it to be restored. It would have been cheaper,” Mr. Eilertsen said. The pace of the construction, he added, has been dictated by the availability of funds.

While this is the final phase of construction, he added the town may have to go to rebid this spring for work to be done on the balustrades, cupola, trellis and shutters.

When the house eventually opens, the museum will rotate donated local artists’ works, whaling artifacts, street racing memorabilia and age-old toys in four exhibition spaces on the first floor. The second floor will be used for administrative spaces, and the third floor will be for storage.

And Mr. Eilertsen will have the corner office.

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