First Dan’s Papers Office, Montauk Developer, Museum

The first office that Dan’s Papers ever had was all five upper floors of the big six-story building in the center of downtown Montauk. That building is condominium apartments today. But back then, in 1962, it was, except for the first floor, abandoned. The first floor was occupied by the owners of the building, a real estate firm that was selling lots for summer homes. It went by the name of the Montauk Improvement Company. Improving Montauk meant turning it into houses.

Letter by Carl Fisher to Tom RIngwood

Letter by Carl Fisher to Tom Ringwood

I was a graduate student at the time. I had, by myself, run Dan’s Papers for my summer vacation for the prior two years out of the bedroom of my parents’ house. Now I thought I should have an office.

I stopped in to see Frank Tuma, the general manager of Montauk Improvement. The upstairs five floors were not in use. There was, I knew, everybody knew, no electricity, no phone line and no heat up there, and though there was still an elevator, it was broken. Could I rent it? For free?

“Who else would be up there? Frank asked.

“Just me.”

“Take your pick,” Frank said, pointing up.

I bounded up the steps two at a time. Each of the five floors was filled with cobwebs, dust, old wooden desks, chairs and typewriters, filing cabinets and telephones that were moldy and broken. There were calendars on the walls. And from them I knew that these offices had been abandoned in September 1938. The staff—for this was the staff of the entire Carl Fisher enterprise that had been trying to develop Montauk as a resort city since this building was built in 1927—had simply walked out, leaving everything as it was that day.

Rescued artwork from Wolfsonian

Rescued artwork from Wolfsonian

Carl Fisher, the fabulous developer, had the penthouse at the top of this building for his own private use. It had a grand bedroom with a huge fireplace and ceilings with huge beams. There was a giant living room. Windows led to a terrace that wrapped all the way around, and it was from here Fisher often took guests, both male and female, for either pleasure or business, the business being to help build other new skyscrapers that would comprise the city of Montauk he had planned.

From up on that terrace, you could see all the roads he had laid out for such a project, going all the way down to the ocean three blocks away. Fisher had, in fact, bought practically all of Montauk, 12,500 acres of it. So he had a lot to sell. Among those who were up there were Harvey Firestone, Victor Kleissath, James A. Allison and Barney Oldfield, all rich from the automotive business, as was Fisher himself. (He had a patent on auto headlights.)

But because of the Crash of 1929, this would be the only skyscraper built. As for the rest of the resort development, the Montauk Manor, the Montauk Surf Club and boardwalk, the racetrack, the Yacht Club, the polo fields and all the rest, they closed, too. But the office workers in this business continued with it in bankruptcy. They tried mightily in the 1930s to revive Fisher’s plan. Fisher, broken, had retired to Miami Beach. But on that day in September of 1938, they gave up. And, as a matter of fact, Fisher died the following year of cirrhosis of the liver at the age 62.

I very much enjoyed my time working in that building. I decided, as much as I would have liked to make the penthouse my office, it was too far of a walk. Instead, I chose a spot on the second floor. I wrote stories from there. As for a telephone, Frank helped out by putting an office extension up there to my desk, the wire going out the window downstairs, up the wall, and into the window on the second floor—so that if I wanted to make a call I could, and if anybody came into the ground floor looking for me, a secretary could send them up. I put a little sign alongside the entrance announcing the paper was there. And so that’s where I was.

Sometimes I’d riffle through the papers left on some of the desks, or I’d rummage through the filing cabinets. There was an awful lot of stuff. As it happened, it seemed, I had chosen a desk used by a secretary to the general manager of Carl Fisher’s enterprise in Montauk, Tom Ringwood. In the files near to my desk were all sorts of correspondence between Mr. Ringwood and Mr. Fisher, who was down in Miami Beach serving his retirement in exile. Some of them were carbon copies—Mr. Ringwood would send the originals to Carl. And some of them were originals, which Carl would send to Ringwood, keeping the carbon in Florida.

Mostly, Carl Fisher was trying to run the enterprise from afar. He’d make suggestions, ask what happened to the suggestions he made last time—“I’d like to get Robert Moses to come down here to Florida to discuss some things,” he wrote at one time.

I had my office up there for two summers. After that I moved to a new office in East Hampton on Gay Lane. Soon after, the big building in Montauk became fully abandoned. Even the “Montauk Improvement Company” had left.

In 1982, however, 20 years later, I learned that new developers had purchased this building and would be cleaning it out, renovating it and reconfiguring it into condominiums for sale. There would be a lobby, all new elevators, several apartments on each floor and at the top, the prize, the most expensive, of course, Carl Fisher’s penthouse. I believe this was priced at about a million dollars.

The very next day, concerned about the historic documents in this building, I got in my car with an empty cardboard box, drove to the building—which was still abandoned—and went up to the second floor without anybody knowing I was up there. (There were ways to get in.) I gathered up as many documents as I could fit in that box, came back home and, fearing I might be prosecuted for stealing this stuff, hid the box in my basement.

Sure enough, in the weeks that followed, the construction crew came, put a fence up around the building and did what they had to do.

In the end, the condominium project was a big hit. All the apartments were sold (exclusively by Keeshan Real Estate), including the penthouse, which went last. The building is a proud structure, although out of place in a town of just one- and two-story buildings. It does serve as a symbol of downtown Montauk.

About 2005, I was invited to have dinner with Carl Spielvogel and Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel at their home on Lake Agawam in Southampton. They had another guest at this dinner, a man named Mitchell Wolfson, who had built a grand museum in Miami Beach called the Wolfsonian. This museum had an enormous collection of eclectic early 20th-century Americana. After dinner, I sat with him and we talked. And of course I asked if he had any material about Carl Fisher, who not only retired to Miami Beach after the disaster in Montauk but had also had been the developer of Miami Beach, from stem to stern, in the first quarter of the 20th century. He said he had a great deal of material about Fisher. He mentioned two books written about the man, one by his wife Jane, written after he had died, and the other more recently by Miami Beach historians, and I said I had read the first but not the second.

When he told me he would see that I was sent a copy of this second book, I couldn’t help myself.

“I have about 200 pages of original correspondence between Carl Fisher and Tom Ringwood,” I told him. “Would you like it?”

“I sure would.”

“I was thinking to give this material to the Montauk Library,” I said, “but I could make copies of everything and send you some of each and them some of each. You’d both have everything.”

I then told him about how I had come about these papers. And he promised not to tell anybody.

A few months ago, my wife Chris and I took off for a 12- day vacation “someplace warm.” We have friends in Miami Beach and so considered spending three days there. I hadn’t been to Miami Beach since the 1980s. The other nine days we would be in Turks and Caicos, and, indeed, I am writing this story there.

While in Miami Beach, I suggested to Chris that we visit the Wolfsonian Museum.

“I’d like to visit the papers I donated,” I said.

And so we went. The museum, at 10th Street and Washington Avenue, is five stories of galleries filled with incredible stuff, as advertised, from the first half of the 20th century. We saw the television set that was introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. We saw this huge aluminum sculpture of a muscular robot Wolfson had rescued from the front lawn of a going-out-of-business aluminum plant. There is, just inside the entrance, a two-story-high art deco frontispiece from a movie theater that was about to be torn down in rural Pennsylvania to make way for a Burger King. There are enormous panoramic paintings from that art deco period, posters of Nazi propaganda and Soviet propaganda. There are fliers supporting the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and even Huey Long. Wolfson, who is very rich, goes around saving things.

He saves works of art from this period that involve themes or activities that
promote ideas.

Francis Luca, the chief librarian of the Wolfsonian Museum, brought out from the archives the boxes of material about Fisher I had donated to their collection. And we sat around a table and talked about Fisher.

Carl Fisher was born in 1874 in Indianapolis and went into the bike repair business as a teenager. He also became a car-racing driver—he held the land speed record in a car for a mile at a certain point—and he bought the patent for sealed car headlights from the inventor who had created it. By the time he was 30 years old, he had built the Indianapolis Speedway (a statue of him stands at the entrance to the speedway), had developed the Lincoln Highway (the first cross-America highway), and was a millionaire with many houses and a giant yacht.

At that point, around 1905, he “retired” to Miami, but could not keep still. There was this long, slender island of scrub plants and mangos just offshore Miami that he imagined as a great beach resort. So he bought it and developed it as Miami Beach.

The legends of Fisher are well known throughout Miami Beach. To promote his giant resort under construction, he got President Woodrow Wilson to one of his hotels and played golf with him. He invited photographers to the first tee, luring them there because he had a circus elephant rigged up as a “caddy.” He and the President would be getting their clubs out of this golf bag sitting side-saddle on the elephant.

Carl did all sorts of interesting things. He liked “to make the dirt fly,” as he said. He developed many of the original hotels, laid out the roads, named them, and built the causeway to the island, which included not only the road but railroad tracks for trolley cars to take people out there. Electric lines were also thus brought out to the island.

In 1926, in Miami Beach, he decided to buy Montauk and develop it as “Miami Beach in Winter and Montauk Beach in Summer.” And up he came to Montauk to make the dirt fly.

I told Dr. Luca something he didn’t know about Carl Fisher. He told me some things I didn’t know about Carl Fisher.

What he told me had to do with this great hurricane that struck Miami Beach in the summer of 1926. It did change my perception of things. My belief had been that the Miami Beach development was a huge success for him and he was branching out to Montauk.

I had just assumed that the hurricane must have hit Miami Beach about 1928, after everything was open in Montauk but before the crash of 1929, so it was like a double whammy, wiping him out not only in Montauk but Miami Beach.

The fact is that the hurricane wiped out Miami Beach BEFORE Fisher began building Montauk. It devastated Miami Beach, crippling Fisher’s operation there. Montauk was therefore something of a last chance or Hail Mary, and the Crash of ’29 simply sealed his fate.

What I told Dr. Luca that he did not know was that Jane Fisher, in her book The Fabulous Hoosier about her husband, described her wedding to him when she was just 15 years old. They met when she was 14, she said.

I told him I had heard she had HAD to say that. Everybody knew the year she married Carl Fisher, but now, later on, writing the book in Palm Beach, she had begun to lie about her age, claiming she was younger than she was. The truth was that she was 19 when she married Carl.

Accompanying this article are four photographs. One is of Carl Fisher sitting on a bench in Montauk, taken in 1926. The second is the office building in Montauk. The other two, which I took in Miami Beach, are a page from one of the letters written by Fisher to Tom Ringwood and a photo of the big aluminum sculpture of the muscular man that Wolfson rescued from the aluminum factory that was going out of business.

You will find many of the letters or copies of the letters between Fisher and Ringwood in both Miami Beach and in the archives of the Montauk Library, if you are interested.

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