The Transformation of Houses at Sagaponac

In 2001 Harry Joe Brown, Jr., a real estate developer in his late 60s bought a 70-acre tract of woods north of the highway in Sagaponack with the hope of turning the development into a community of modern houses. This aim was in keeping with other “modern” projects like that in Radburn, NJ built in 1929, which sought to create a community that did not depend on cars. Brown (known as “Coco”) came from a prominent Hollywood family and had success earlier in his career as a producer, screenwriter, and novelist, making it high up in the ranks at Twentieth Century Fox. To garner a reputation for his project he enlisted the help of world-renowned architect Richard Meier as his creative designer.

Meier, who in 1984 won the Pritzker Architecture Prize and was then commissioned to design the one-billion-dollar Getty Center in Los Angeles, gathered some of the “most talented architects practicing at the time,” all of various renown, to design 32 houses in the subdivision on 1-2 acre plots. He was able to draw 34 architects in all, including legends like Michael Grave, Henry Cobb, and Philip Johnson, as well as lesser-known talents like Stan Allen, Lindy Roy, and Gisue and Mojgan Hariri. Brown and Meier even put together a coffee-table book of all the designs.

The goal of the project was to build homes that were “aesthetically fresh, sensibly sized, and relatively affordable.” But from its inception “Houses at Sagaponac” (the “k” is dropped) has been surrounded by speculation. While some have praised it for its ambition and importance to the modernist cause, others have dismissed it as a publicity stunt, lacking a genuine intention. As Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker wrote in 2004 “Underneath their flashy surfaces, these houses aren’t nearly as different from the banal McMansions as they aspire to be; they’re attention-getting structures disconnected from their surroundings.”

Brown had originally planned for each house to cost between one and two million dollars, but ambitious designs raised building costs. Then, with the downturn of the economy it became increasingly difficult to sell new houses at elevated costs. For this reason, only nine of the 32 properties have been built to this day. With interest for the project fading, Brown Harris Stevens was taken on to control the sale of the entire development.

In order to give the project a new energy, Ed Reale, the Senior Managing Director of BHS, felt that the current designs needed to be updated. They asked Nilay Oza, project architect for Houses at Sagaponac and a partner of Reinhardt and O’Brien, to put together a show to attract “fresh” talent. Oza, who was originally hired by Brown and Meier, was interested in seeing the development completed according to its original architectural goal and agreed to put on a presentation at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in 2010.

Although Oza was successful in attracting interesting architects, the project would still take years to complete. As a result, the owners of the land opened it up to new developers. Immediately, Joe Farrell began buying up plots in the area, and now owns nine lots. As the modernist development struggled to maintain funding over the years, Farrell had been purchasing properties in the same woodland area of Sagaponack and building his shingled homes. Now, most of the new houses in the development are being built in this traditional style. Farrell’s houses are also built speculatively, but his formula and architectural style has proven to sell, and quickly. “Houses at Sagaponac,” as it was originally planned, exists only in name.

Although Brown may not have been happy to see his project turn into a mix of “traditional” and “modern” styles, the fact is that Farrell’s investment gave the development the fuel it needed to cross the finish line quickly. In some sense building an artificial suburb of 32 modern houses in proximity to one another was always an experiment rather than a practical pursuit. Still, the disintegration of the project can be viewed as a symbol of the dying modern architectural aesthetic on the East End. This “disintegration,” however, is not unique to the Hamptons – it is indicative of the direction of architectural style across the United States. Practicality prevails.

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