Dan’s House: Vintage Hamptons Real Estate Stories

About two weeks ago, someone stopped by my house to drop off a thick folder of documents. I wasn’t home at the time. The cleaning lady took the folder when the man appeared at our front door and she set it on my desk.

“Dan,” it read on the cover. “I thought you might want to look through this file, especially part where Gardiner wanted to charge me for keeping a sailboat on his land. Keep all this or throw it away. Best regards, Dick Levin.”

Inside this folder were about 50 documents, some legal, some newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, bills and copies of checks, all arranged chronologically and all about the house I currently live in. But these papers covered the years 1970 to 1977 — 1977 was when Dick Levin sold the house to me. Hmm.

The house sits on a hillside facing a sunset over boats. The land behind the house, just under half an acre, extends to the top of the hill. In front is the road. And in front of that is a narrow park with benches facing the boats and boat slips and beyond that, across the harbor, the sunset. All together, it is a very pleasing place to live. Or, as Dick Levin wrote in an ad in The East Hampton Star when he put the house up for sale in 1977 for $45,000, this is “the prettiest view in the town of East Hampton.”

I did not, at that time, see the property advertised in this way. What I did see was a flier with a photo of the house, tacked up on a telephone pole at Damark’s Deli down the street. I was looking to buy a house. I called the phone number. And Dick Levin came and showed me the property. I had thought he might be a local. But he was a summer person. We negotiated in the backyard. We agreed on $41,500, all cash. And that’s what I paid him. In this file is the paperwork. Also my first town tax bill, which was $552 (it’s now almost $11,000).

What’s more interesting, however, is what happened between 1970 and 1977. Levin had rented this house with an option to buy from a local man, Reilly, in 1969. The rent was $2,000 for the summer. He liked it. So he bought it for $25,000. (I guess he made out pretty well when he sold it to me seven years later for $41,500.)

Not so easy was his relationship with perhaps the richest man in the Hamptons at that time, millionaire Robert David Lion Gardiner, who owned the marina just across the street. Just outside the southern bulkhead of his marina, local Bonackers kept clammer rowboats, five or six of them, floating a few feet offshore of a little no-man’s land of reeds and wetlands. They were tied to stakes. The clammers would splosh through the wetlands with their rakes and clam baskets to get to their boats. And so, upon arrival, Richard Levin put a little sunfish sailboat, eight feet long, in the water there for his family.

Thus began a correspondence. On August 14, 1970, Levin received the following letter from Russ Crandall, the manager of Gardiner’s Marina with a “cc: Mr. RDLG.”

“Dear Mr. Levin: As you realize there has been a certain amount of responsibility incurred in the keeping of your sailboat and its high pole directly on the property of Gardiner’s Marina. Please show your appreciation with a ‘dockage’ payment of $25 per month of June-July-August-September or $75 full coverage payable to Gardiner’s Marina c/o Mr. Robert D. L. Gardiner.”

Levin replied, also with a cc: to Mr. Gardiner.

“Dear Mr. Crandall: I received your note in regard to my Acqua Cat sailboat. While I do appreciate your tying down my sail earlier in the year, I regarded your act as one of neighborliness, for which I thank you once again. Now that I am better acquainted with the craft it will not happen again, and you should feel no further responsibility for it.

“I do not wish, however, to pay a storage charge for my boat. I have been informed by the previous owner of the house that the boat is not on Mr. Gardiner’s property, but if either he or you can show me a survey of the property, as I had previously suggested, and if I am indeed trespassing on your land, I shall then remove the boat from inside your property line.”

The next letter, on higher quality paper, came from RDLG. It’s dated August 19. Mr. Gardiner, by the way, was the direct descendent of Lion Gardiner, the first English settler in the State of New York, also the Lord and owner of Gardiner’s Island, the Gardiner Manor Shopping Center in Bay Shore, and various other holdings. He lived in a three-story stone mansion on Main Street in East Hampton, which had, at one time, been the summer White House for President John Tyler, he had an apartment in Manhattan and he had another mansion out on his island.

“Your boat is definitely beached on my property,” Gardiner wrote. “As you can see, I have just put down all the cattails on my bank, which extends up to Hog Creek Road at Three Mile Harbor. My property line extends to the point where the town bulkheading ends. I pay taxes on this land and rent space to boats in my marina as a business.”

The next two documents are a sheet from a waitress’s pad dated October 7 from the Marina manager thanking Mr. Levin for removing his aqua cat sailboat on October 4, and requesting once again the $75, paper-clipped to a letter from RDLG dated October 7. It repeats much of what went before. Then there is this.

“There is a cement monument showing my property boundary and the town boundary. I am a taxpayer and am in business there. I therefore feel it is an imposition for you to use my property and not pay for it. I am sure you will agree that this is only proper and that the bill is not exorbitant.”

Levin responds five days later.

“In response to your note of October 7, I maintain that in good conscience I do not owe you one cent. I have been a real estate broker for 15 years and certainly do respect property rights. With this in mind, I wrote you on August 17 when first informed of my alleged intrusion, that you show me a survey of your property or otherwise indicate the dividing line between your property and that of the town, so that I might remove my boat if it was on your property. You wrote you would come to my house for a drink and I presumed you would at that time show me your property line. However, you did not at any time come to my house, just across the street from your marina, or even when you saw me on the Labor Day weekend, when docking your boat, did you take the opportunity to show me your boundary, the first mention of which is made in your October 7 letter.”

RDLG fires back two days later. He attaches a survey of the property made in 1969 from which—and I have looked it over carefully—it is not clear whether the boat was on his property or not. He writes “…as you see, your boat was definitely stored on my property all summer long. I therefore feel that I am perfectly justified in charging you $75 for the season because of the principle that you were using business property. You were not a guest at my home.”

And with that the correspondence ends, the bills sent repeatedly and with the balance unpaid, perhaps to this day, 42 years later.

There is much else of interest in this folder. And perhaps the most interesting of it is a flier for “a new concept for summer vacations in the Hamptons.” It’s dated 1971, and it is headlined SUMMERLONG. Basically, you join Summerlong by buying “shares” in the summer. There are many homes participating in different towns in the Hamptons. For $650, you get to share a bedroom in one or another of these homes for the full summer, or $325 for half a summer. But you don’t have to stay in any one house. “Summerlong members may elect to spend all summer at a particular house or to move from house to house on a weekly, monthly or periodic basis. The scheduling of houses, all of which are coed, is handled by telephone and a minimum of one week’s notice is required.” Join up. Then you get a map of Summerlong’s houses. And rates include maid service, local telephone, electricity and lawn and home maintenance. They do not include guest fees, linen, laundry, long distance telephone, breakage, transportation or food.

Happy days in the Hamptons. And thank you, Mr. Levin.

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