Losing Montauk’s History

Written By: Debbie  Tuma


Standing on top of rubble—cement blocks, slabs of wood, a pile of bricks, shingles, and mounds of dirt, I could hardly believe my eyes. What used to be my family’s home of 55 years, on the tenth hole of the Montauk Downs golf course, was now completely gone, except for the two-car garage at one end, and one small remaining wall of the bathroom, at the other. In between was nothing left, except the cold cement foundation. Now, from the road, you could look straight through which once was the house, and see the flag flying on the tenth hole of the golf course.

Our 2,000 square-foot family ranch, built in 1953 by my father, a charter boat captain of 60 years, and his brother, a local house painter, was now lying in pieces all around me, piled high in several long blue dumpsters in the driveway. Looking down into the gaping hole of the basement, I could still picture the playroom on one end, where my sister and I spent countless hours with our Barbie and Ken dolls, their houses, cars, and clothes. Where was my father’s workroom, with it’s woodworking benches, endless tools, decoys, and handmade fishing rods and lures? Where was my mother’s art studio, where she used to paint abstracts of boats and beaches? And the other part of the basement, where my Mom stocked shelves with her mason jars of home-canned tuna fish, bread and butter pickles, spaghetti sauce from tomatoes in the garden, and jelly from the beach plums along the sand dunes?

Now there was just a cavernous empty space, like no life had ever been there. Our brick-red shingled ranch, with its black shutters and white roof, with the striped bass weather vane on top, had disappeared into a vacuum, that years from now, no one will remember. I looked down at the pile of bricks around my feet and wondered to myself, is that the chimney, or the front patio? It was hard to determine, but the hardest part was not seeing the red chimney rising up in the middle of the house—from the fireplace, the focal point of our large living room. My Dad was always proud of his fireplace, which took up one whole interior wall, and where our family spent numerous hours huddled around during Montauk’s many blizzards, hurricanes, and power outages. He would build fires all winter, which would light up the bleakness of Montauk’s long, cold off-season. Every Christmas, my mother would decorate the mantle with pine boughs, holly, and ornaments.

We all loved the 15-mile view out our huge picture window in the living room, that looked out across the whole golf course, and all the way across the Long Island Sound to the shore of Connecticut, where on a clear day we could make out the tiny houses. We looked forward to watching a herd of deer prance off the golf course to peek in this window every late afternoon.

When my sister and I finally sold the house in 2009, after my parents both passed away the year before, we never imagined it would one day be torn down, to be replaced by a much larger, two-story mansion. As time went on, we heard rumors of a second story being added on, but at least the house would remain intact, we thought. Although the house was dated, the construction was solid and had withstood many hurricanes, snowstorms and Nor’easters. My Dad had meticulously selected only the finest woods, and carefully built knotty pine cabinets in the kitchen, which are hard to come by today. Building this house was his pride and joy.

But over the years, more and more out- of- towners began buying up local Montauk cottages and older houses, replacing their formica countertops with granite, and the old linoleum tiles with marble and stone. In more recent years, this trend has expanded to more drastic measures. Rather than simply renovating existing older houses and commercial buildings, new home buyers and corporations are choosing to tear down these structures, sometimes even historic ones. Every time an older home or business goes down, a bigger, more modern one goes up. But the character of Montauk is gradually being lost. From humble shacks in the old fishing village, to the old “Leisurama” cottages in Culloden Shores, to middle class ranches in the 1950’s and 60’s, to eventually and in the future, the mansions and mega mansions.

With so many of Montauk’s original and historic businesses being sold, or up for sale, such as Duryea’s Lobster House, ice house and restaurant, Shagwong Tavern, East Deck Motel, the Deep Hollow Ranch, and now Trail’s End Restaurant, what will happen to the culture and character of the Montauk we have known and loved? Will all the buildings be modern and generic? Will we lose our history? Is everything about money, the bigger the better?

I think the renovation of Salivar’s Restaurant and Bar, at the Montauk docks, is a good example of what can be done to renovate an existing structure, without tearing it down or losing the character altogether. I was scared when it was sold, that it was in bad shape and that we could lose it forever. For 60 years, my Dad sat on the same stool every morning at 5:00 a.m., next to his fellow charter boat captains, before going fishing. The place was always a funky half -bar and half -diner. The entire walls were covered with great old photos of the fishermen and their friends. After the renovation, the popular, red neon “Salivar’s” sign remains; it is still half -bar and half -diner, and although the photos are now online, there is beautiful wood throughout—a bit more modern, but the character is still there.

And Ruschmeyer’s Restaurant, one of the oldest around, has been sold, bought and renovated, but the existing building is still there, in most of its original state.

In the name of “progress,” and with new generations, things in Montauk must change, but there is a better way to do it than ripping everything apart, and tearing down the original buildings. If this were to happen to Trail’s End Restaurant, which was moved from the original Montauk fishing village, to its present location, many decades ago, it would be a shame. My parents met there in 1948, when the late Ed Ecker, Sr., former East Hampton Town Supervisor, was the bartender. It’s nice to be able to tell these stories to your children and grandchildren. But if all these places disappear, there will be no stories to tell.

I thought of all this upon leaving my parents’ house that day, in a surreal state of mind. I don’t want Montauk to become another homogenized, jet-set resort town of mega mansions and commercial, modern restaurants. “Next they’ll be putting in a boardwalk,” I thought, as I looked through the windowless hole of the remaining bathroom wall, where my mother’s favorite lilac bush used to flourish outside. I picked up some bricks from the chimney or the patio, I wasn’t sure which, and then I noticed a white sign, below, in the dirt. It was our house number, 116, ripped off in a small slice of wood. I stuck it in my pocket as a last keepsake from my childhood home and its memories.