Among Southampton’s architectural treasures are 34 mansions of various styles, built between 1877 and 1927, along a three-mile oceanfront strip known as Gin Lane (not after the alcoholic spirit, but from an old English term for grazing area). This splendid collection of homes, with evocative names like Nightbrink, Sandrift, and Happy Go Lucky, and especially the people who built them, are the subject of a new book, The Southampton Cottages of Gin Lane (History Press, $21.99).
This week, columnist Cara Greenberg speaks with author Sally Spanburgh, a preservation advocate and part-time program coordinator at the Bridgehampton Historical Society, whose 4-year-old blog, The Southampton Village Review, gave rise to the book.
The dictionary definition of ‘cottage’ is a small frame house used by a farm worker. It always makes me laugh when the term is used to describe these immense mansions. How large are they, anyway?
“Cottage” was the old word for a summer residence or second home, even it was in Newport or Jekyll Island or Southampton. Some of them are as large as you can imagine. I don’t know the square footage or number of bedrooms, except for Dr. Thomas’s Bonito and Sandhurst, which were built as rental cottages and were pretty modest for Gin Lane. It’s a valid question, but that would be a real estate broker’s perspective. I’m not sure how I would have known, especially for houses now torn down, unless floor plans were published in old magazines. One was a lifesaving station, so it’s quite small. The largest of them -- Dr. Wyckoff’s -- came down in the ‘40s because of tax reasons.
You write that the original owners were “not the most affluent among the social elite but just below them” ? doctors, lawyers, judges, stockbrokers, bankers, and so on. So these were not built by the robber barons of the 19th century?
No, the upper echelon was in Newport. This was the second tier, but they did very well for themselves. They were from all over the world, not just from New York City.
What were the main architectural styles? I like the windmill myself.
They range from Queen Anne to Mediterranean, Italianate, Arts and Crafts, Colonial Revival, Tudor, French eclectic? The windmill was from Hampton Bays. The owners were antiques collectors and what better antique to collect than a windmill. They dragged it to Gin Lane and turned it into an adorable cottage. It’s one of 11 surviving authentic windmills on Long Island.
How long is the whole strip?
About 3 miles. Other houses are interspersed in between. I wrote only about the original cottages ? the first homes on the property of Gin Lane.
In your intro, you call the book “an elaborately narrated walking tour of Gin Lane.” What can you actually see, and is the view of the houses better from the beach or from the road?
They’re all placed differently on the property, some nearer the road and some nearer the beach. Fair Lea is hard to see at all, but you can see Overlook from the beach very well.
Nineteen of the 34 original cottages are still standing. Are they protected in any way?
They’re in the historic district. Permission to tear them down would have to come from the Southampton Village Architectural Review Board. Every board varies. Sometimes it’s strict and sometimes more lenient. Members are appointed by the mayor; it’s very political. The carriage house at Sandhurst was approved for demolition last year. The main house is not there anymore. The Duer cottage at 240 Gin Lane wasn’t torn down, but remodeled beyond recognition. To me, that’s a teardown. I didn’t show new pictures of it, there was no point. You can’t find the old house within the new house.
Was your intention in writing this book to increase the likelihood these houses would be saved?
Yes, to increase public awareness of their value and history. The book is an extention of my blog about old village houses. The book is all Gin Lane; the blog is everything else.