A Home Is Not a House…Or Be Careful What You Wish For

Written By: Ellen Margolin

A Home is not a House or Be Careful What You Wish For

I discovered the East End in the mid seventies visiting my brother in Bridgehampton. Where now there are lots lined up with beautiful well landscaped homes, at that time there were just a handful of farmhouses on Paul’s Lane stretching from Montauk Highway to Ocean Road; potato fields on both sides as far as one could see. By the 80’s I was married and began coming out during summer months in group rentals. Building lots were getting pricey but still affordable for hard working professionals like myself and my then lawyer husband. We scored a lot that abutted a working farm and now some 30 years later, I still have my little slice of heaven.

It’s what would be considered a modest contemporary barn that looks like nothing much from the front, but each summer from the back that special light that artists discovered decades ago illuminates a field of sunflowers and dahlias that can take your breath away. I still picture my children, now grown, running in the front and back yards, learning to ride their bikes on the cul de sac, years of weekend guests sharing meals at the picnic table out back. More than any apartment in the city, this has been home to me.

One raw weekend in March of 2015, I was reading the local paper as usual when an article startled me to attention. There was a picture of a house with a headline above that read: Here’s the Beautiful Old East Hampton Mansion That Burned Down Yesterday. This “news” was of interest since driving around the East End to look at beautiful, unaffordable homes is a pastime for many more modest second home owners. I suppose it’s a particular kind of voyeurism, a coveting that is part architectural and historical appreciation and part fantasy. What might it be like to actually inhabit such a home? My husband who dabbled in real estate speculation took special delight in driving down the wide roads that were lined with outsized, perfectly tended estates and it amused me that they were generally located on “lanes”…Egypt, Further, Lily Pond. Occasionally, it was even possible to explore the interiors as when some homes were opened for house tours to raise money for local causes or for estate sales when ownership changed. These opportunities afforded the special treat of seeing the personal touches; the furniture, the art, the books, those things that allowed you to imagine what the people who called these mansions home might really be like.

My shocked reaction to seeing the headline and accompanying photo that March day did not, however, stem from a general fascination with this world, or a memory from my car, a tour or a house sale. It was far more personal. I knew this house because I lived in it for one month about 15 years earlier, mostly alone, in a summer when my children were away and my husband commuted from the city. The house was at the center of a vicious and ongoing litigation between two moguls, billionaires who will go unnamed. Both believed the house belonged to them because both entered into a contract with the owner having exchanged money to ensure their rights. The problem was there were two different people who believed themselves to be the rightful owner. Just as Solomon had to decide which mother was the real mother of a single baby, the Court would have to decide which of these two moguls was the rightful owner of the mansion. Needless to say, neither of these men were going down without a fight and both had the means, the temperament and the tenacity to fight it out as long as it took. Apparently, billionaires are not used to taking “no” for an answer so it took a long time….years of litigation, hundreds of motions, personal accusations, even threats.

For me, though, there was a silver lining because one of the lawyers for one of the parties was my then husband. Their years of acrimony and legal bills meant years of added income for my family. One could say these two intractable and entitled billionaires made a significant contribution to my children’s education. But that’s not all. During the legal battle, neither of the parties could reside in or make any changes to the house until the matter was settled. However, one of them, my husband’s client, did have the right to sublet and thus, for that one month in July, I was able to live in the mansion.

Let me take a moment to describe this house. It was huge, built of stone and stucco with turrets and fireplaces that were almost too numerous to count. The fireplace in the living room was big enough to moor a boat. Marble and intricate tiling lined the many bathrooms. There were stone staircases that went to wings of rooms…so many rooms some of which I wouldn’t know what to call….not bedrooms per se, or dining rooms, or maids room, or studies or libraries, or pantries, or even billiard rooms or mud rooms. There were rooms from another time that no longer have relevance….like drawing rooms, or conservatories. I felt like I had entered the world of Clue. But the most amazing thing about the house was the views. Set high up, the back of the house faced the ocean with its own private access from the sprawling back lawn. The front of the house had spectacular views of Georgica Pond. Every morning brought a sunrise from the back and a sunset from the front too spectacular for words. There was no house across the road of this dead end street so there was also a small boathouse with private access to the pond as well. It was like being in a movie….Citizen Kane or Great Gatsby.

The first night alone in the house, I wandered around just trying to get my bearings and of course make sure that I was, in fact, alone. Over time I got more used to the house, not really afraid, but I could never get comfortable with the vastness of the space and I ended up closing off big areas, living in the center with easy access to the master bedroom and kitchen. I did marvel at the views and the outdoor spaces. The windows from my bedroom looked out to the ocean. At night I would sometimes talk to my husband or friends from the big window seats. This was a different world and I needed some contact with the world that I knew, a world that felt real. One night, very late, after midnight, I heard noises and saw unusual lights coming from the ocean. I looked out to see beautiful young lithe women, brightly lit in flowing gauze caftans lolling on the rocks of the jetty. Was I dreaming? Then I saw cameras and some dozen people setting up this surreal scene…which turned out to be a photo shoot. Apparently Calvin Klein owned the house next door.

Even when my family and friends would come for short visits, the wonder and sheer spectacle of the house had worn off and it felt like a kind of gilded prison. Maybe it just needed a few scores of people to feel like home; for me, it never was more than a house. I wasn’t sad to leave and return to my little slice of heaven. Soon after, my husband shared an anecdote from Court. Apparently, the billionaire who was not my husband’s client had been using surveillance to spy on the house, believing that his adversary was secretly living there against Court orders. My husband was called up to the Bench and shown a picture of a woman in a robe standing on the back lawn looking out to the sea, a woman the opposing lawyer said was surely the wife of his adversary. My husband immediately recognized me and without hesitating said, “Your Honor, I can assure you that this is not the woman counsel is alleging her to be”

Eventually, after years and a fortune of money spent, the case was decided in my husband’s client’s favor. The house had not been enjoyed by either of them for years and so not maintained. I understand that after living in it for a few years, the owner embarked on a massive renovation to address the years of neglect. One March day a crew was working on the roof when a fire ignited and within minutes, the house that had consumed so much time and money and energy for these two moguls was completely gone. There may be many cautionary tales to take from this true story, lessons of ego, pride, and indulgence. For me, it was a lesson of appreciation. I no longer care to spend time looking at other houses and find my greatest joy in being home.