Beach Houses

Written By: Douglas O'Connor

You move to New York City and find success in some industry and of course, you want to go to the Hamptons. You’ve read about it in the press, it has been featured in the movies and besides; you may actually want to take a dip in the ocean.

Not everyone out east is rich or a WASP as it has broadened its gene pool. There are locals, day-trippers and millenials. There is still, old money, but now, new money and BIG money. There are also the homeowners, people who rent for the season and people who rent and divide their rental into house shares. Many localities have outlawed these share houses since the homeowners don’t like them but they’re still out there. There are also movie stars, rock stars, newscasters, politicians, Doctors, lawyers, Surfers and the Hampton’s earliest indigenous natives on the Shinnecock Reservation.

As it turns out, I have been renting in the Hamptons for decades. Currently, I rent a small house with a friend and, as one can guess, all of our families, friends and work associates want to know when they can come out for a visit. This month includes my niece and nephew from Florida who are dying to visit the Hamptons as well as New York City. It can be exhausting.

My first time going out East was to Quogue as a teenager visiting family friends in the summer of 1968. Their home was on a quiet street within biking distance of the beach. My father commented on how splendid it was. The Hampton’s had working farms, plenty of elbowroom and beautiful beaches. I loved it as it reminded me of my days lifeguarding closer to the city. Back then; you could pay for your college education with a summer job.

It wasn’t until years later that I returned to the East End of Long Island. I was a young man finished with college and like everyone else, chasing a buck on Wall Street. I was anxious to join a group house and enjoy the revelry out East. The year was 1981 and I knew a lady who had a friend who had a sister who had a boyfriend who rented a house in Hampton Bays. I bought a full share, which meant I was out every weekend from June through September and I shared a room with a member of the Coast Guard. Lucky for me, he was never there as he was reassigned to Hawaii. Apparently he found that more attractive than Long Island. It was a great summer as we danced to the music at some crazy clubs called Neptune and Summers on Dune Road. A favorite dance tune was “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones. These two clubs are long gone and barely a memory.

I didn’t buy another share in a summerhouse until 1985. The house was located near Southampton College and provided student housing for their graduate students. These winter residents were studying Marine Biology and gave us a good deal on the summer rent which included access to the Tennis Courts. My housemates were affiliated with St. Bartholomew’s Community Club in New York City. I had my suspicions that it was going to be a dull group. However, they were fun loving, gainfully employed and competitive. There was a doctor, lawyers, real estate brokers, and an insane desire to network the party circuit. In all, the summer was pretty exciting and filled with much tennis and a continuous round of parties.

After that, my father’s passing and some financial struggles delayed my return to Long Island. My company was downsizing due to the crash of 1987 and I found myself taking on part time work while taking care of business. Then in the summer of 1989, I met some people renting a house on the bay near Ponquogue Bridge.

The house was filled with Wall Streeters, some FBI agents, and a schoolteacher. It was great. There were two catamarans and some experienced sailors. Most of the shareholders were members of the “Sandbar Beach Club” which was a private club for singles within walking distance to Hot Dog Beach. Privately, the rowdier members called it the “The Sand BRA.” but the club provided tennis courts, a lifeguard, lockers and a snack bar. Its members were very preppy and connected to an informal group of houses with names like “The Mansion,” “The Barn,” “The Quagmire,” “67 Beach” and “The Rat house.” They all hosted parties that provided a social calendar for the summer. House dinners on Saturday evenings were planned and prepared by rotating house members. This arrangement offered reasonably priced dinners for everyone without the hassle of dealing with overcrowded restaurants.

When it became time for our House to host a party, we rented the Yacht Squadron in Westhampton Beach and we invited the other group houses to join us for summer’s last hurrah on Labor Day weekend. It was a huge success as we danced to a five-piece band that played everything from ballroom to popular dance tunes. Unfortunately, the Sandbar was destroyed in the nor-easter of 1994 and the network of houses slowly evaporated as well. However, many marriages were born during this time period and many of those couples still reside in the area.

Among the more interesting houses, I joined, was on the Penn Craig estate in Quogue. This was the family home of Bill Swan, a local attorney. The 12-bedroom house was built in 1880 and situated on 17 acres. Mr. Swan received permission from the village of Quogue to rent this lovely estate for income upon return from World War 2. Mr. Swan had fought for Australia (a mystery to me) and survived with an injured leg, thus becoming a war hero in his hometown. A graduate of Columbia Law School, he initially rented to other Columbia Law alumni. Over time, the house was rented to other groups connected to St. Bartholomew’s Church. This church sponsored a community club for young professionals in need of a social network. As a facility, it also offered a basketball court, a fitness center, squash courts, a swimming pool and the well-known St. Bart’s Playhouse. Amazingly, church membership was not required and the club was open to all while maintaining a professional tone in its membership. St. Bart’s Community Club members organized ski houses in Vermont and summer shares at the shore. Penn Craig was one of these houses.

I was introduced to Penn Craig in the summer of 1986 and spent most of the nineties there. The people renting the house were a remarkable group. Many of them are still in touch with each other today. Not only were there the usual suspects from the world of finance and law; there were artist, actors, schoolteachers, office workers and writers. I fondly recall a family who rented a bedroom rotating it between the parents and their adult daughters every other weekend. My position in all this was that of the tennis manager, keeping the courts in good shape for weekend play. As a house, we also had a spot on the shore near Hot Dog Beach where we could park for free.

Many city people driving farther east on Friday nights would often stop by this large house for coffee and a break from the heavy traffic. This provided another network of interesting people. The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying the beach, playing tennis, and catching up on one’s summer reading. That was more than twenty years ago. Since then, the Penn Craig property has been subdivided into smaller homes with one-acre zoning but someone had the wherewithal to restore the original house to its former glory so that it is still a beautiful residence situated on Main Street in Quogue.

The Hamptons, like anything else is going through many changes. Some good, some bad but it is still a beautiful spot to visit. As I am now retired and approaching 70, I still spend wonderful summers out here playing tennis, meeting new people and enjoying life. I haven’t been on a surfboard in years, but I am thinking about it. Who knows?