Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Elaine Benson Gallery House

The Elaine Benson Gallery House
Over the past few weeks so many people have called, written, emailed, and stopped me on the street, that I feel I owe it to the community to provide information and to respond to the questions, tears, love, and public outcry, over the loss of my family home, located next to the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton.
Elaine (my mother) and Emanuel Benson moved here in 1965 from Philadelphia where they both had worked for the Museum College of Art. The following year they bought the property at 2317 Montauk Hwy across from the Post Office in Bridgehampton. The gracious house was large enough to house the couple as well as visiting artists, and was the home of the original Benson Barn Gallery. The house was unlike any house I had known from Philadelphia. It was built in the 1800’s and there were architectural details that fascinated me. The ceilings upstairs weren’t flat. The angles came in from different directions and there were old curved glass windows upstairs and in the front door. There was “gingerbread” trim around the eaves and a curved staircase with an amazing banister. The floorboards had been painted which seemed sad but you could see they were wide and old. In my room there was a huge walk-in closet. It was my favorite house of all time. That first year they put a swimming pool in the yard. My stepfather planted a vegetable garden in that rich Bridgehampton loam. In 1966, the barn and out buildings were renovated and added on to.
In the time that this house was built, Bridgehampton had relatively few houses. The old timers picked the best places to build. They avoided the beach and low-lying areas because of floods and storms. The sight they chose for the old “Sayre house” was breezy and cool in summer. There is an amazing maple tree that is fortunately unharmed even now, after the bulldozers have destroyed the old house.
This was a much smaller community in 1965 and although the Hamptons were clearly established as an artist colony, there were no galleries where those artists showed their work or congregated.  In 1971 Emanuel Benson died of lung Cancer. I moved here to be with my mother shortly after his death. I finished high school and went on to open a boutique on Main Street in 1974. It closed in 1986 and I went off to Mexico to be with my husband.
In 1993, after some years of living in Mexico as a painter, I came back to Bridgehampton, moved back into my mother’s house, and went to work as her apprentice. She was incredibly generous with her information, her friends, her time, and her house. I had a separate entrance, bathroom, and my own kitchen upstairs. The house was set up as two completely independent apartments. My mother and her third husband, Joseph Kaufman lived on the ground floor and I had the upstairs to myself unless they had houseguests.
As it happened my mother was widowed again in 1996 and I was widowed in 1997. My mother had already been diagnosed with cancer but chose to keep it a secret. She wanted to tell no one. She said it would hurt the gallery and she didn’t want anyone to look at her with pity.
The Gallery centered our lives in the Hamptons. It was never very profitable but my mother lived in the house and loved her life there. She died at home surrounded by three of her four children and some of her ashes were buried under a cherry tree in the front yard. The tree lives on in a new location with a view of the water.
My mother entrusted everything to me but also said, “Give it a try. Give it three years and see what you think.” I gave the gallery eight years after she died. In that time, we renovated the house and gallery completely. The grounds were gorgeous. It wasn’t anywhere near as interesting or as much fun without Elaine Benson and I didn’t have a partner so I had no time to pursue anything else. She was the life of the place. I could not and would not ever fill her shoes. Hundreds of people came by and admired thousands of works of art. People told me Elaine Benson stories. So many people came and told me how she had helped them. They thanked me for continuing. Even after her death, tens of thousands of dollars were raised for charity. Many emerging artists got their start and we had two “Hampton Art History Shows”. I followed the same formula as my mother did for most of that time. I cleaned the place up, repaired the old buildings, got rid of all the bramble and overgrowth, and painted the house and galleries. I replaced the roof of the gallery and the ceramic shed that was falling apart. As always we had openings every three weeks in the summer with preview benefits for local charities. We helped many charities with these benefits. The Bridgehampton Child Care Center, CMEE, the Retreat, and The Nature Conservancy, The Group for the South Fork, Hampton Shorts, the Meet the Writers Book Fair for Southampton College, ARF, EEGO, and LTV are among the many organizations that held their fundraisers in a tent, in the sculpture garden, and in the buildings of the gallery.
I did not give up the gallery property and our wonderful Gingerbread Victorian without first trying hard to find a way to continue. Before my mother died she told me there was a problem with the Certificate of Occupancy. She thought it would be an easy thing to deal with but said she was too old and sick and she didn’t have time. She knew I had a lot of experience building and renovating houses. It was only after I purchased the property from my siblings that it became clear that although the house had its C of O, the barn was on the books as a “bar”. I was told it would cost me over $50,000- and three years to make it all legal. It would not pay for itself from sales. The business paid for itself  but there wasn’t much left over and the property was expensive to maintain. I was living in my own house at that time. I kept my mother’s house heated, kept it clean, and used it for entertaining. It was bitter sweet without Elaine’s presence.
After the first year, throughout all forty-two years of the gallery, it was made up of three unheated, uninsulated, single story buildings that could not be used on a year round basis. It seemed better to hire a great architect and try to build a new building. After many meetings with Preston Phillips, the most talented architect I know, we found the best solution to the problem of how to “save” the gallery: build a structure attached to the existent house that would mimic the original architectural elements and roof line and look like it had always been there. It took three years and a lot of compromise (the town wanted 26 parking spaces and a promise that the second story of the existent house could only be used for storage) but finally the building was approved 100% by the town board. We had their blessing and they said that Preston Phillips was the most polite person who ever presented a project to them.
After we had town approval for our new building I tried to raise the money to build the new gallery. By that time I had realized the project was too big for me alone so I tried to form a new organization called, “Friends of Elaine Benson”. I even tried to sell the concept and plans to a potential new owner. It had seemed to me we could make the Museum of Art History of the Hamptons. In my dreams I could be on the board in the beginning and ultimately the gallery/museum could live on without me. It could have income producing rental spaces, on the second floor of the addition, on a year round basis, as a part of the new plan. It would have been beautiful. It ended up as only a dream, but a beautifully designed one at that.
When Joe Farrell offered to buy the property, he said he would try to save the house. He suggested that because he is a builder, he would be in the best position to save the old structure. It was in good shape at the time so I was surprised when I read in a newspaper interview with Mr. Farrell that he was going to tear the house down. That was before the closing on the property. We had an agreement of sale only. There was a ‘follow up” article at the time where I admitted to being very upset and Mr. Farrell called me and offered to renege on the purchase. Unfortunately I felt I had to go through with the sale and I realized that the new owner would have the right to do whatever he wanted, in accordance with the laws of the town. I knew that the process of getting town approvals is a long and difficult one. I understood I couldn’t stop progress. I agreed to the sale and said I would be mature and understand that once I sold the property I would have no control over it. At least the Farrells gave me permission to take the front door, with curved glass panes, the banister, the decorative windows from the upstairs of the house, and the gingerbread trim that my mother and I loved. I couldn’t bear to see them destroyed. It was a part of the agreement that I could ‘save’ the things I cared about the most even though I couldn’t save the house. I admit this was not the most beautiful house of all time, it was simply the most beautiful old house I had ever known well. I wept at the idea of losing it. Even knowing the house would come down it was a shock when it was bulldozed. It had been announced in the papers many times. There were public hearings in front of the planning board. The plans were in the Press. The Farrells were very clear about their intentions.
Mother always said, “We are liberals who hate change”. What is done is done. I can’t turn back the clock. What I can do is stay positive. I have forty-two years of gallery archives to finish organizing, scanning, recording, and then find ways to make them public. I need more interns and even grant writers. My desire is to open the records to students and professors, to writers, and aspiring painters. There is a wealth of visual information and the excitement I feel about this part of this story/history cannot be taken away. There is enough information to encourage many books.
My mother lives on in the legacy she left, the friends and artists who remember her, and in the book she wrote. She lives on in the cherry tree and in the archives. She lives on in our hearts.
Post script: Preston Phillips wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in this paper on January 8th, 2009. He wanted to make it clear that the town did approve our design for a building that could provide office space, a gallery, and protect the old house. Fortunately he documented and measured our old house and took photos of any of the architectural details that were not recorded in the plans. These plans exist for posterity and can be made available for the historical society or to anyone who wants to build an exact replica.

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