Montauk Association Historic District
The Montauk Association Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Situated on a ridge east of Ditch Plains are seven large frame dwellings which originally comprised the Montauk Association. Though the Montauk Association no longer exists, the houses continue in use as private residences which retain their sense of interrelationship. The Montauk Association houses were designed and built between 1881 and 1864 above the bluffs which line the rocky Atlantic coast of Long Island's Montauk peninsula. Besides the seven Association houses of 1881-1884, the Montauk Association Historic District also includes the sites of two former structures which were part of the original complex, a community laundry and a stable. Though little visible evidences of these buildings remains, they were in fact built, and exist as archaeological sties.
Two modern residences are presently located within the Montauk Association Historic District. The Wright House stands in isolation on a tract northwest of the Association cottages. The one-story Tweed House, located near the center of the cottage complex, occupies the site of the former Association casino and clubhouse, the focal point of the colony for many years. The clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1933. Neither of the modern houses visually intrudes upon the setting of the historic district. Several small dependencies, primarily modern sheds and garages are also encompassed within the boundaries of the Montauk Association Historic District. These structures are unobtrusive in their scale and fabric.
The boundaries of the Montauk Association Historic District approximate those of the original complex of 1881 except for the area southwest of the present DeForest Road, where public recreation areas, private beachfront development, and a trailer park have encroached upon former Association property during the twentieth century. The Montauk Association Historic District, encompassing approximately 100 acres, is bounded on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by the hamlet of Ditch Plains, and on the north and east by marshland and coastal scrub growth.
The site plan for the seven summer residences takes maximum advantage of surrounding natural features. The houses are widely and randomly spaced on high ground above salt marshes, and are connected by unpaved roads and trails which conform to the undulating topography of the area. Little formal landscaping was attempted, and the former Association properties retain the natural environment of low tangled scrub growth and marshland incorporated in the original design for the site. Architecturally the seven extant houses, which were the original and only documented residences of the colony, are a response to their natural surroundings: each is situated and planned so as to take advantage of ocean views and prevailing sea breezes. The stylistic freedom displayed in the architecture of each "cottage" compliments the overall setting of the Montauk Association complex.
The individual houses of the Montauk Association group follow no common plan, though all are rambling, gable-roofed frame structures characterized by wide verandas, balustrades, and shingle covering. The general horizontal emphasis embodied in each cottage is relieved by one or more transverse gables or dormers. Decorative elements such as raised rectangular porches, polygonal bay window and porch projections, and patterned shingle and lattice details give variety to the elevations and wall surfaces of the cottages.
The interiors of the Montauk Association houses epitomize the cottage architecture of the 1980's, and represent what Vincent Scully has called "an orchestration of space and light." Interior spaces open on the south (seaside) elevations onto wide verandas giving access to broad ocean vistas and cooling winds. The interior configuration of the cottages is generally dictated by placement of the fireplace masses around which the hallway, living and dining areas are arranged. Continuous decorative moldings appear to flow from one room to the next giving a sense of overall unity to each cottage. Stairwells are generally well-lighted by large windows at the upper story level, and most of the staircases are richly paneled and decorated in dark wood trim. Fireplaces mantels vary from richly carved examples in the lower story rooms to those having simple moldings in the bedrooms of the second story.
Established as an exclusive resort community by a group of wealthy New Yorkers in 1881, the Montauk Association complex is a site of profound significance in the development of American landscape architecture, community planning, and architectural design. Occupying a ridge east of Ditch Plains are the seven cottages which comprised the original dwellings of this summer colony. The houses were designed between 1881 and 1883 by the noted architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, and were situated according to the site plan prepared by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1891. Varying in size and detail, the cottages are superb early examples of American "shingle-style" resort architecture. The rambling style of the Montauk Association houses and their natural surroundings reflect the sensitivity of Olmsted and McKim, Mead, and White to the interrelationship of environment and architecture. Encompassing 100 acres of the original complex, the Montauk Association Historic District retains its key elements and preserves a sense of the leisure life enjoyed by Montauk's wealthy seasonal residents during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
The first permanent English settlement on the south fork of eastern Long Island occurred in 1648 when emigrants from Lynn, Massachusetts established a community at East Hampton. From that date through much of the nineteenth-century, the Montauk peninsula was used by area farmers as summer grazing land for livestock because of abundant salt hay growing there. The Town of East Hampton remained predominantly rural and agricultural until the last quarter of the nineteenth century when a number of wealthy New York families discovered the pleasant alternative to hot city summers offered by Long Island's seashore areas.
A prime mover in the seasonal exodus to eastern Long Island was Brooklyn financier Arthur W. Benson, who purchased much of the Montauk peninsula for $151,000 in 1879 as a speculative venture. Benson envisioned an exclusive resort colony of summer cottages to be developed at Montauk Point, and toward this end interested several of his New York associates in the enterprise. Benson's group, which included lawyers Robert DeForest and Henry DeForest, in 1881 commissioned noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to plan the site. Other New York friends soon joined with the original group to form the Montauk Association the same year. The membership included businessmen Henry Sanger and Alfred M. Hoyt, author William L. Andrews, merchant and financier Alexander E. Orr, and Cornelius R. Agnew, a prominent opthamologist.
Olmsted's plan for the Montauk Association colony utilized existing contours, taking maximum advantages of vistas and prevailing sea breezes. The asymmetrical design placed individual structures in a natural setting along a ridge facing the Atlantic. Connecting the buildings of the complex was a maze of unpaved roads and trails. The natural coastal marshes and tangled undergrowth of the Montauk peninsula became integral elements in Olmsted's overall scheme. Despite the demise of the Montauk Association, the site today remains a significant example of Olmsted's pioneering design concepts in landscape architecture.
Soon after the Montauk Association was organized in 1881 the group contracted with the prominent New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White for a design for their clubhouse, the central structure in the summer colony. Begun in the fall of 1881, the clubhouse was completed in 1883 and stood near the site of the present Tweed house. The building accommodated fifty guests, and the seven member families dined there frequently. The clubhouse burned in 1933.
While the central clubhouse was under construction, each member of the Montauk Association commissioned McKim, Mead, and White to design his own cottage, to be built on one of the plots flanking the clubhouse in accordance with Olmsted's site plan. McKim, Mead, and White prepared plans for the seven Association houses in 1882, and all were built by the end of 1883. Ranging in size from the small, modest Benson and Andrews cottages to the large, imposing Hoyt and Orr residences, the Montauk Association houses share a similar spatial arrangement and large dominant gable. All are outstanding early examples of the innovative "shingle-style" resort architecture being developed by H.H. Richardson, McKim, Mead, and White, and their imitators during the early 1880's.
In their freedom of design and massing, the Montauk Association houses underscore the sensitivity of McKim, Mead & White, to the relationship between their architecture and its natural surroundings. Moreover, the textures created using shingle coverings and the decorative effects achieved with gables, moldings, pediments, and balustrades recall the vernacular architecture of colonial New England, a rich heritage rediscovered and revived by Charles F. McKim and Stanford White after 1878. McKim, Mead and White share credit for initiating the "Colonial Revival" in American architecture of the late nineteenth century: the innovative Montauk Association houses of 1882-1883 are significant landmark structures in the emergence of the "shingle style" and the transition toward modern architectural trends.
The Montauk Association complex, which ultimately included the clubhouse, seven cottages, a laundry building, a large stable, and private beaches, remained a haven for the sporting resort life enjoyed by its members for over forty years. Private yachts often transported the wealthy seasonal tenants from New York City to Montauk for the summer, while extra baggage was shipped by rail to Sag Harbor and hauled to the Montauk colony by wagon. Fishing, yachting, and other outdoor sports filled the leisure time of Association members during the four summer months, and the Montauk community developed as an exclusive resort area to rival the nearby Hamptons.
As the original members of the Association passed away or became less active, the Montauk properties changed hands repeatedly. The 1920's saw the arrival of Carl Fisher (1874-1939), a real estate developer and multimillionaire who purchased the former DeForest cottage. Carl Fisher envisioned and promoted a future Montauk as the "Miami of the north." Fisher and other property owners were ruined by the Great Depression of the 1930's, during which time many of the Association houses were closed up by their owners. With the return of seasonal vacationers to eastern Long Island following the Second World War, the cottages again became private summer residences.
The Montauk Association was symptomatic of changing economic and social conditions in America during the late nineteenth century: it represented a new response to nature and the out-of-doors, and was above all a significant attempt at resort planning, at constructing an alternative to the usual urban mode of existence. As an experiment in landscape architecture and architectural design, the Montauk Association was an unparalleled success.
McKim, Mead and White. Bill Book No. 1. Unpublished account books on deposit, New York Historical Society, New York, New York.
Marks, William D. :Topographical Map of the Grounds of the Montauk Association," 1882. Photostatic copy on deposit, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Albany, New York.
Momeyer, Arline B. "The Association Houses." Unpublished typescript on deposit, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Albany, New York.
Obituaries: Dr. Cornelius Rea Agnew (1830-1888), New York Times, April 19, 1888. William L. Andrews (1837-1920), New York Times, March 22, 1920. Robert W. DeForest (1848-1931), New York Times, May 7, 1931. Carl G. Fisher (1874-1939), New York Times, July 16, 1939. Alexander E. Orr (1831-1914), New York Times, June 4, 1914.
Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr., and Theodore Kimball. Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect, 1882-1903. New York, 1922.
Scully, Vincent J., Jr. The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island, 1640-1915. New York, 1967.
________. The Shingle Style, New Haven, 1955.
Wilson, Richard Guy. "Charles F. McKim and the American Renaissance: A Study in Architecture and Culture." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, 1972.
† Raymond W. Smith, New York State Department of Parks and Recreation, Division for Historic Preservation, Montauk Association Historic District, nomination document, 1976, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.