By Claire Walla
The unremarkable white building sat on the property at the northeast corner of Montauk Highway and Bridgehampton Turnpike for years. Most drivers probably thought nothing of it when they drove past. In fact, Southampton Town Historian Zach Studenroth said even he probably never would have known about the 18thcentury warehouse, which stood on the site of the Bull’s Head Inn, had he not been asked to go to the site to officially survey the scene before its scheduled demolition.
“It was almost an afterthought,” Studenroth said of scrutinizing the small, two-story structure behind the Bull’s Head Inn.
He was walking the grounds with the property’s current caretaker when, as Studenroth put it, “I said, while we’re here, let me just poke my head into the barn in the backyard.”
There was nothing about the exterior that indicated the building had any historical significance whatsoever, he said. The outer walls had been constructed as recently as 1907. But on the inside, the building’s story suddenly gained depth.
It had oversized timber framing that protruded into the room inside. Right away, Studenroth noticed it bore the characteristics of “post-and-beam” architecture, a style dating back to the early 18th century. According to Studenroth, it was the first style of architecture seen here on the East End that was built by European settlers..
“It appeared to be in pretty good and complete condition,” Studenroth continued. “So, when I got back to the office, I fired-off a quick email to the powers that be in town hall saying, yes indeed, the building is of historical significance” and was worth saving.
Property owner Bill Campbell had submitted a demolition application to the town regarding two smaller structures adjacent to the Bull’s Head Inn, including this building. But, part of the application stipulated that Southampton Town officials the right to lay claim to any part of the property it deemed historically significant. While the building was certainly old, as Studenroth determined, it was worthy of saving for reasons beyond merely its age.
Based on architectural design elements, Studenroth said it was probably used as a warehouse, adding that, “We don’t know of any other warehouse that’s left standing of this type — that’s what makes this so exciting.”
In fact, Studenroth believes he can date the building back to 1730, to the Hulbert family, who traded rum, whale oil and perhaps even furs out of Bridgehampton nearly 300 years ago. This information has not exactly been confirmed — Studenroth is still working to date the building more precisely — but this aspect of his analysis comes by way of Hampton Library, which has in its possession a ledger from 1760. The book documents trade items, like rum and whale oil, which were traded in Sag Harbor by the Hulbert family.
Studenroth and local builder Robert Strada — who supervised the deconstruction of the building — worked together to identify the historic aspects of the structure.
“The big thing that distinguishes a barn from a house is the chimney,” Studenroth explained. But, this building’s roof and floorboards do not appear to have ever been fashioned to make room for such an imposition. “The building does not appear to have ever been heated.”
What’s more, he added, “Barns have a distinctive way of being framed. This is considerably smaller than a barn.”
“It could have been a carriage house, but that’s not something you’d expect to see at that time,” Studenroth noted. “If someone were wealthy enough to have a carriage, they’d probably have stuck it in the barn.”
Studenroth continued, “This kind of building is so over-framed. The floor joints were very closely spaced — doubling what you’d expect to see in the period — so the building was constructed to support something very heavy above. It was over-engineered to carry heavy loads.”
According to Strada — who has done restoration on old homes in the past — the building’s overly sturdy construction speaks volumes to its presumed history.
Not only did some of the wooden beams still contained an outer layer of tree bark, a detail that would have been sanded down had the structure been intended for a home; but, Strada said, the “joists” (or wooden beams), were fashioned so close together because the building owners “were storing rum on the second floor and they didn’t want the floor to break.”
Strada and his crew, with help from building owner Bill Campbell, took the structure apart by hand, making sure to remove each outer layer carefully “like an onion” so as to keep the original building frame intact.
Now, Studenroth said, the challenge is to find a new home where the town can reconstruct the building as it stood 300 years ago.
“We want it to be protected, and enjoyed by the public,” he said. “So far, it’s been disassembled and it’s tarped,” he continued, quickly adding that it’s in good standing.
“It came through the hurricane this weekend, so we got it that far!”