Moving Town Hall

Posted on 22 July 2011


by Courtney M. Holbrook

When Zak Powers took on a job to photograph a collection of historic buildings, he may not have realized the long process he would undergo. One of the most ambitious and sensitive examples of preservation on the East End, the historic buildings of Further Lane have made the journey from old houses to hated memorials and, finally, to a sign of new beginnings.

The collection of 11 historic buildings has been reconstructed as the new East Hampton Town Hall. Stately, with deep brown wood and well-fitted beams, concerned citizens and politicians will now sit and work under these roofs.

“These buildings have been symbols of many things,” Powers said. “Unfortunately, because of outside circumstances, they’ve been a symbol of financial crisis … But now, they can be appreciated for what they are — these amazing historic artifacts that represent the town [of East Hampton].”

The result of Powers’ photographic record of the new (or rather, old) Town Hall buildings of East Hampton is the book, “Further Lane,” which includes a written introduction by the architecture critic, Paul Goldberger. On Saturday, July 23, the publishers of “Further Lane,” W.W. Norton and the Quantuck Lane Press will hold a Town Hall reception centered on the book’s release. The event will feature a book signing and exhibition. The community can tour the Town Hall structures from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at 159 Pantigo Road in East Hampton.

“It’s just so wonderful to be experiencing this, not just for me, but for the whole town,” Powers said. “I’m so grateful the book came together. But really, I’m thrilled that now people can have these beautiful historic records, so to speak, as their place of government.”

The 11 buildings have had fascinating histories — if not reputations — from the beginning. Years ago, Adelaide de Menil and her husband, Edmund Carpenter, began buying historic barns originally built on the South Fork and had them moved to their Further Lane property. Carpenter was an anthropologist and de Menil a history lover; both were fascinated by examples of the “first representations of the timber frame barn. And here they were, all but forgotten. They wanted to save them,” according to Powers.

After collecting 14 barns and houses, the couple’s 40-acre property on Further Lane became a “living museum” of historic architecture. According to Powers, de Menil and Carpenter wanted these structures to be “sanctuaries” for artists and writers in the community.

“Adelaide always wanted people to use these houses … she wanted to keep the property alive,” Powers said. “When she hired me to document them, she suggested I move here with my family to record everything, to keep the houses alive. Ed was an anthropologist as well, so this was incredibly important to him too — keeping these historic buildings.”

When the couple decided to sell the property, they wanted to give something to the town and thought of these buildings. They donated 11 of the 14 structures to the town of East Hampton. Thus began the massive “Town Hall reconstruction” process that often has been shrouded in rumor, anger and curiosity.

Moving the homes became a two-year process. Powers documented it all, every step of the way. His photos showcase the immense effort and planning that went into moving 11 historic structures. When they finally hoisted the buildings up, they moved them down Route 27 via remote control machinery.

“Adelaide and Ed just wanted to give something back,” Powers said. “Originally, the town was going to pay for the restoration, but [Adelaide and Edmund] would pay for all the expenses to the city [sic] for upkeep and maintenance. They also donated some money for the restoration.”

But then came the financial crisis of the previous East Hampton administration, and everything seemed to fall apart. The original intent was to use money from the East Hampton Community Preservation Fund in order to restore the buildings. However, that money was not allowed to be used for such a purpose. After years of alleged financial mismanagement, the homes were left next to giant holes, in a state of unfinished disarray.

In short, the town hall buildings became “symbols of the town’s financial crisis. It was easy for people to see this as government, you know, cutting school lunches and cutting the budget, while wasting money on this construction,” Powers said.

They became a horrible joke; one never intended by de Menil and Carpenter. When the new administration of East Hampton finally began the reconstruction process, Powers was thrilled.

“I wanted to tell the real story through my photographs,” Powers said. “Adelaide and Ed wanted these buildings to be a wonderful gift. It wasn’t their fault that everything just went bust.”

Powers believes de Menil, Carpenter and their properties became “scapegoats” in the turmoil of the financial crisis and the previous administration’s problems.

Now, with bonding and $2 million from De Menil, the Town Hall buildings have been restored. Eight of the houses have been placed in a tight formation, carefully organized as a testament to the new Town Hall. The large barn is being used as the meeting place for town meetings. Instead of sitting in a “courtroom, they’re sitting in this gorgeous, elegant structure,” according to Powers. The gala will be held in that large barn.

It is appropriate that the new structures have finally come to fruition, both for the town and for de Menil and Carpenter; Carpenter passed away last Friday.

“It is in some ways a memorial for [Carpenter] as well as a book launch,” Powers said. “He always wanted these buildings to be a gift.”

Powers noted that the current administration is pleased with the project and he has been speaking with East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson in preparation for the gala

“These buildings are beautiful, but I’m just glad the whole thing is over,” said Councilwoman Julia Prince who declined to discuss the details of the drawn out process. With the gala approaching, Powers is happy to have a record of the events surrounding the deconstruction and reconstruction of the buildings. To him, they are a testament to what de Menil and Carpenter originally intended — a gift to the town of historical importance.

“It’s been an unbelievable process, watching and photographing these homes and the people who worked on them,” he said. “Now, we can celebrate the book and the buildings as part of the community.”

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One Response to “Moving Town Hall”

  1. D. Shawn Beckwith says:

    Hats off to everyone. A similar story is the Customs House in Sag Harbor. Nancy Boyd Willey spearheaded this endeavor years ago. It is now a significant asset to the Village, adding to the ambience of Main Street and draws heritage tourist to the area. As I am sure your project will also!.
    D. Shawn Beckwith
    Historic Restoration Specialist
    (13 generation of the Cooper family)

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