Gwathmey Houses Hyped Hamptoms Modernism

AMADANSETT, NEW YORK -- Before Beyonce and Jay-Z, before the Kardashians, before the multi-million-dollar McMansions, the eastern end of Long Island was a flat farmland dotted with small country towns.

Its first settlers were colonists who had arrived from Massachussetts. For hundreds of years, the area resembled New England more so than New York.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network know this area as a summer destination for Jetsetters.

The village of East Hampton remained a provincial backwater until the mid-19th century, when the post-Civil War notion that fresh sea air was beneficial to health started to take hold. Boarding houses, summer colonies, and artists slowly started trickling in.

The first artists' summer colony formed in the 1870s with Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam and Thomas Moran. Wealthy New Yorkers started building sprawling shingle houses around East Hampton.

Today, these houses are as established as the Hamptons' architectural heritage as much as the New England farmhouses before them. But by the end of World War II, East Hampton was still worthy of the epithet 'sleepy', still able to be discovered.

The Springs hosted a new artists' colony: this time the Modernists, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Saul Steinberg. But even then, growth was slow. Agriculture and fishing drove the economy of the place; the local architecture, in turn, was defined by the barn and the farmhouse. In 1965, it all came to an end.

Robert Gwathmey House

One of the last houses built in Amadansett for painter Robert Gwathmey -- by his son, Charles -- was pivotal to a new era in the Hamptons.

Charles Gwathmey, at the time only 27 years old, was three years out of the Yale School of Architecture when his parents asked him to build them a house.

The small house, pictured here, constructed at a price-tag of $35,000, was designed with Le Corbusier's classical proportions, which Gwathmey had just finished studying.

It was a small, stark house, with spaces carved out of primary shapes: cubes, cylinders, triangles; and organized vertically, on three levels. Gwathmey's workshop was on the ground floor. The common areas of the house went to the first floor, and the second floor was where the bedroom was, creating a townhouse-like relationship of the building to the ground.

The house was constructed in wood and covered uniformly with cedar siding both inside and outside. At a time when modern architecture was still the domain of the creatives and the radicals, it was a stark little sculptural object in an empty field. It looked like a perfectly geometrical sketch of a barn, sitting on its side, with its sharply slanted one-sided roof sticking out like a rocket.

Elite Architect

Catapulted into early fame, Gwathmey spent the rest of his career balancing his immense talent and skill with the type of performance anxiety exhibited by child prodigies. A few years after the Amadansett house, he and his partner Robert Siegel designed an apartment on Central Park West for Faye Dunaway.

The duo became the architects of choice not just for any wealthy elite. Gwathmey-Siegel designed houses and apartments for Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld, Ron Meyer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Michael Dell and the industrialist Mitchell Rales.

They designed condominiums in Manhattan and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami; they renovated the Yale Art and Architecture Building and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum.

Gwathmey kept building residences in the Hamptons, and some of them were indeed very good, such as the small Sedacca and Cogan houses, and the significantly larger Cohn residence. Eventually, they got bigger, curlier, bloatier and busier.

In 1983, as Gwathmey finished the de Menil residence, it became apparent that Gwathmey had become a fine craftsman, rather than the avant-garde genius he may have been.

As for the Hamptons, the first fine modern house in Amadansett heralded a new era for the region, one of moneyed New Yorkers, Californians, Europeans and jet-setters coming to fill the fields and beaches of South Fork.

Wealthy Influx

Artists were replaced by people with expensive taste and even richer people after that. The Shingle style was replaced by mansions, and then McMansions.

Today, Joe Farrell's McMansions and the Kardashian Compound represent the latest wave of gentrification to besiege this overcrowded piece of land on the South Fork.

In 2013, the owner of Gwathmey and Siegel's 1972 award-winning Cogan residence had plans to demolish this very house -- for which he had paid $9.5 million -- to make space for a 1,858-square-foot residence. The local paper wrote about it unsentimentally: "The home may have history, but its value now lies in the 1 acre lot and 220 feet of ocean frontage."

Today's Featured Art Video offers an overview of the 40-year collaboration of the architect team Gwathmey-Seigel.