By Helen A. Harrison
Moving here in the 80s — when it was still country and every town a hamlet and not a “Hampton” — nothing was better than exploring the area. I drove every dirt road, explored every inch of every beach, took photos of old barns and rusting tractors. When the South Fork had been exhausted, I headed over to the North Fork where there were more small farms and fresh eggs, and the incomparable wetlands of East Marion and Orient. I found and loved Love Lane. I discovered local pottery and the place to get great sweet corn. I sampled wines from the early vineyards, and considered buying ( for a studio I didn’t need) one of the little one- room log cabins for sale along the North Road. But further along I saw and settled for a pink birdhouse with a yellow “porch”; a much more practical purchase which has now housed generations of wrens in the backyard.
I explored Shelter Island; its serpentine roads and dark woods. I stopped at the Ram’s Head Inn and sat out back, looking over Coecles Harbor. I found parts of the original brick foundation for a waterfront estate, a skeleton of a barn on the water that once housed supply boats from New York City to Shelter Island in the early 1900s. Then there was the unexpected Shell Beach, off a rutted dirt road and feeling awfully like it belonged on St. John’s in the Virgin Islands. And most recently I found barbecue to rival award-winning North Carolina barbecue. I passed by the life-size figures of ghosts and goblins and witches that someone (with a real love of Halloween and a great sense of humor) puts up every year on his or her front lawn.
And then another property with more white sheets: small ghosts rising out of waist- high weeds; a run-down shack in the yard and not a pumpkin or cornstalk in sight. A less whimsical approach to Halloween.
Finding over many years about everything I could find — a surprise down some private or dirt road, any road off the main drag — I stopped roaming and went into real estate and found it offered the same sense of discovery that out of the way places and small dirt roads had.
In the process of previewing houses for customers, we realtors go into someone’s house and see how the house is furnished, what paintings hang on the walls, how the grounds are landscaped, and without the people there but with all that represents them, we imagine who they are and what they’re like.
Every house is a surprise.
A builder puts up a house that looks like it could live happily in New Mexico. Among all the traditionals that surround it, it’s a shock and delight. Unless you’re a realtor, you might not know of its existence.
An architect brings back mid-century modern and designs a one-story house, glass windows front and back; every single window looking out to sea. It’s down a dirt road off Mecox and can’t be seen from the road.
Roaming around to look for houses, you come upon extraordinary properties. There’s a house in the Springs that is right out of Harry Potter. Another just outside the village of East Hampton that belongs in LA.
A mid-century house is filled with colorful retro furniture and in a traditional house, linens so beautiful and luxurious they could have come from the House of Windsor instead of a house on Parsonage Lane.
Small cozy houses make a come-back and finally you see rooms where you could easily curl up in a corner and read.
A house just built and at the far end of a road looks like a railroad station, except instead of trains and tracks, it looks out at water and the windmill on Gardiner’s Island.
And then, most interestingly and cutting edge, there’s the Watchcase’s 64 residential condominiums, “a village within a village”; its architecture every bit as sleek and modern as some new New York City high- rise overlooking the High Line.
Real estate is, as it turns out, a form of traveling to “places unknown.” “Going,” like the bear did, “to the other side of the mountain, to see what he could see.” Traveling the blue highways by staying put.