The 10 Best Houses in the Hamptons

The weekend house is the sonnet form of American architecture, a proving ground for architects who then move on to skyscrapers, museums or other epic projects. It’s especially hard to conceal mistakes in a beach house, and few places have provided as clean a slate for experimental design as eastern Long Island, with its low-lying landscape and sea-flecked skies. Everything is revealed.

In this list, I have favored houses that evoke a sense of escape, closeness to nature, personal freedom and fun–elements that characterize the best in vacation architecture. I’ve skipped the kind of grandiose ego statement that has multiplied in the Hamptons in recent years. Of course, every Top 10 list is arbitrary and cruel ….

1) Montauk Association, Montauk, 1885, Stanford White, architect.

This is not a single house, but a grouping of houses built in 1880 above the bluffs of Montauk Point. They were some of the first on eastern Long Island to be built exclusively as seasonal escape houses, and they established a certain relationship between architecture and landscape that continues in the Hamptons to this day. Instead of being anchored to their site, the houses are seemingly disconnected, like ships floating across the rolling landscape. The Montauk Association compound comprised seven free-standing cottages situated on the high ground between Lake Wyandanch (now Fort Pond) to the northwest and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. Stanford White designed the houses (one is now owned by Dick Cavett). Frederick Law Olmsted did the landscaping and positioned the houses in a flying-V formation that made the most of the sea breezes and gave each house its own uninterrupted view of the ocean. New York entrepreneur Arthur W. Benson had the idea for the compound; he paid $151,000 for a large tract of land that began at Napeague in the west and stretched all the way to Montauk Point in the east. Benson (after whom Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, would be named) envisioned an exclusive little community devoted to sports and male camaraderie. As often happens, such idealized visions carry a social price. Benson wanted to create a rustic retreat of untamed beauty–minus the distraction of the scruffy-looking Montauk Indians, who were still living in the area. Thanks to friends in high places, Benson was able to have the natives removed from their ancestral lands.

2) Coxwould (the Erdman House), 1912, East Hampton, Albro & Lindeberg, architects.

If you are going to copy the past, do it right. In the early part of the 20th century, East Hampton’s summer colony spread out to the west of the village, along the banks of Hook Pond toward the ocean. Architects such as Joseph Greenleaf Thorp, Albro and Lindeberg, and Grosvenor Atterbury specialized in a kind of eclectic cottage style that evoked the spirit of the English country house. While several notable examples of picturesque country houses were built during this period, the Erdman House in East Hampton was the coziest and prettiest of the bunch. Architect Harrie T. Lindeberg designed Coxwould for New York surgeon John E. Erdman. It had stucco walls and small hand-split shingles that conformed to the shape of the roof, curving around eaves and openings in a sensual resemblance of straw thatch. There were no grazing sheep out front, but Dr. Erdman did instruct his gardener to prune the topiary bushes in the semblance of various family members.

3) The Pin Wheel House (the Blake House), Water Mill, 1954, Peter Blake, architect.

In 1954, Peter Blake built a house for himself in the middle of a potato field in Water Mill. He called it the Pin Wheel House because of its shape and the way its walls could be slid open on steel tracks. Here was the summer house reduced ad absurdum to a simple platform for viewing. The house was raised four feet off the ground to provide a distant view of the ocean. In plan, it was only 24 feet square; there were two very small bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs. (Mr. Blake and his wife had only one child at the time.) The four walls could each be moved in or out on overhead tracks like barn doors, so that the house could be opened up in any number of ways. When open, the house was a fully exposed platform for experiencing the landscape. The house could be shut up like a box during the off-season or for protection against hurricanes.

It’s easy to see how the Pin Wheel House was a variation on the glass pavilions of Mies van der Rohe, one of Mr. Blake’s heroes, but the “all-view” strategy was equally influenced by his friend Jackson Pollock in the way it engendered a sense of absolutely flowing space. The perimeter line between inside and outside, between architecture and landscape, was effectively dissolved. At one point Mr. Blake even asked Pollock to paint murals on the sliding walls, but it never happened. Hans Namuth, the photographer who snapped the iconic shots of Pollock at work, came over to shoot the Pin Wheel House and captured Mr. Blake in the act of pulling one of the sliding walls into place. The intention was clear: Here was a kind of Action Architecture realized–a house that could respond to the weather, the views and the personal moods of its inhabitant. In recent years, the house has been altered beyond recognition.

4) The Pearlroth House, Westhampton Beach, 1959, Andrew Geller, architect.

On first impression, Andrew Geller’s little beach houses seem like caricatures, but they represented a kind of everyman modernism that was both playful and accessible to people with moderate incomes. Each one was christened with a pet name like “Butterfly,” “Box Kite” or “Milk Carton.” They were built as simply and economically as possible, with exposed structures, single-layer skins and no insulation. Mr. Geller’s most ingenious fabrication of the period was for Arthur Pearlroth, an entrepreneur who was involved in New York City politics. Two diamond-shaped pods hovered on point above the dunes of Westhampton Beach. (Mr. Geller referred to it as the “square brassiere.”) An antenna-style chimney and lunar-landing staircase added to the impression that alien spaceships were on the attack. The house cost only $6,500 to build and contained just 600 square feet of interior space. A central living area nestled between the two pods, while a free-standing fireplace rose up through the middle of this space. Mr. Geller was able to squeeze three bunkrooms and a bathroom on the upper level of each pod and to provide an additional 75 square feet of storage space within the angular recesses of the house.

5) The Bunshaft House, East Hampton, 1963, Gordon Bunshaft, architect.

The Bunshaft House was planted like a little white temple into its setting overlooking Georgica Pond in East Hampton. The architect and owner, Gordon Bunshaft, was famous for designing glass-sheathed skyscrapers like Lever House (1952) on Park Avenue, and for his own weekend house he created a cosmopolitan sense of space. In fact, it was almost a direct transposition of his New York apartment, where he’d used the same pale palette and marble surfaces. The house opens to the south, with a terrace and floor-to-ceiling glass looking out over a broad lawn that slopes down to the pond. The all-white interiors made a museum-like setting for the Bunshafts’ extensive collection of modern art, which included works by Léger, Miro and Giacometti. Natural light flooded through the glass walls and clerestory windows and reflected off the pale concrete ceiling and travertine floors. There was a living and dining area in the center, a master bedroom to the east, and a small guest room and studio to the west. There were no interior doors, just dividing partitions. The most noteworthy feature of the design was the roof system of precast concrete T-beams that gave the roof a floating, slightly disembodied effect. The house was recently bought by Martha Stewart, a new convert to the modernist cause.

6) The Gwathmey House, Amagansett, 1965, Charles Gwathmey, architect.

The 60’s weekend represented a frenetic set of recreational options and social opportunities. The dividing line between rural and urban became less and less clear. Like 60’s pants and collars, weekend houses went flaring in all directions. They were not just houses, but became another means of personal transformation, an architectural equivalent to the encounter groups, gestalt therapy and “consciousness raising” that were then all the rage.

Though Charles Gwathmey designed other important houses on the East End, this house, for his parents, has to be considered his masterpiece. It is the quintessential Hamptons beach house of the 1960’s. Mr. Gwathmey was only 25 years old when he designed it, and it made him instantly famous. Originally he’d wanted to build the house in concrete and cast it like a sculpture, but that wasn’t economically feasible, so instead he used a conventional wood framework and covered both inside and outside with vertical cedar siding. In a sense, the wood framing became the formwork for concrete that was never poured. Even though there were only a few other hous0es in the vicinity, Mr. Gwathmey anticipated future development on the adjacent lots and kept the eastern and western façades relatively blank, with only a few select openings. At the same time, the house developed in a vertical direction toward a loft-like studio for his father’s painting. The Gwathmey House was only 1,200 square feet, but it had the presence of a much larger structure. The sharply pointed roof line cut a distinctive silhouette against the sky and became one of three elementary shapes that gave the overall composition such resonance. As soon as it was finished, it created a sensation. Locals thought it looked like some kind of utility building; others who were in the know hailed it as a work of art. It soon became a prototype for beach houses all over the East Coast, and inspired dozens of less successful knockoffs throughout the Hamptons.

7) The Saltzman House, East Hampton, 1969, Richard Meier, architect.

The Saltzman House, by Richard Meier, was designed as a “counterpoint to nature” and appeared to drift across its pristine lawn like a Cubist ghost ship. Renny Saltzman was a well-known interior designer; his wife, Ellin, was a fashion consultant. They wanted the house to be a retreat from their hectic life in the city, but it would also be a showcase and a party place. The Saltzmans wanted to see and be seen. As with Mr. Gwathmey’s early work, the Saltzman House gave the illusion of being much bigger than it really was. The main part was connected to a caboose-like guest house by a bridge elevated on slender pilotis . The long façade facing north was almost blank, like the backside of a barn, with only two small windows. On the south side, however, the house exploded with an eruption of openings, curving walls, projecting sun decks and receding voids. As it ascended toward its ultimate goal, the ocean view, the house opened up, space expanded and expectations grew. The second floor had a two-story living area and master bedroom, and the third floor a sun deck and study. This most photogenic of houses was celebrated in the pages of magazines of the day as a fusion of architecture and fashion.

8) The Becker House, Wainscott, 1970, Norman Jaffe, architect.

The Becker House is one of the most successful combinations of a vernacular and modern sensibilities. It is also one of the best houses by Norman Jaffe, an architect who designed dozens of houses on the East End with broad sweeping roofs that stretched between dune and sky. Jaffe had a great love of the Hamptons landscape. (He died in 1993 while swimming in the ocean.) Contemporaries like Mr. Gwathmey and Mr. Meier looked to Le Corbusier, but Jaffe was thoroughly grounded in the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1968 he took a trip through Ireland and was intrigued by the ruins of an ancient farmhouse he saw in the countryside. The stone shell of the building became the inspiration for the Becker House, which he designed upon his return to the Hamptons. The house presented a strikingly simple façade of rough stonework running along its western side that acted a little like the false front of a Hollywood set. A hyper-extended wall ran 50 feet to the south and helped to root the house firmly in its flat agricultural setting. The borrowed forms of the half gable with chimney and extended wall created an imposing sense of scale, but the rugged façade actually concealed a surprisingly small living space on the opposite side. This technique would characterize much of Jaffe’s later work: a single gestural stroke behind which the rest of the house would evolve. Inside the Becker House, Jaffe used exposed beams of rough-sawn Canadian spruce and connected them with macho bolts and steel plates. The house has recently been restored to its former glory.

9) The Rifkind House, East Hampton, 1998, Tod Williams & Billie Tsien, architects.

During the 1980’s, and most of the 90’s, the Hamptons went through a personality change. The architecture of the summer homes grew more predictable, repetitive, suburban. A postmodern, neotraditional style became the preferred means of conveying status and “arrival.” Many architects gave up all pretense of creative invention and appropriated directly from the pages of architectural history. New 30,000-square-foot mansions went up as fast as prefab Levitts, filling in the last remaining pieces of farmland. After this long dry spell, however, a return to good design has begun, along with renewed interest in the modernist canon. Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have designed some of the more convincing examples in the Hamptons, all with an elegantly minimal approach to summer living. The Rifkind House in East Hampton is their most recent effort. Designed as an antidote to the cramped feeling of a Manhattan apartment, the house harks back to the minimal simplicity of Peter Blake and Gordon Bunshaft, when summer weekends were about relaxation and connection to nature, not power-networking. A series of pavilions rotate around an open-court area, while floor-to-ceiling windows look out toward Georgica Pond.

10) The Houses at Sagaponack Project , Sagaponack, 2001, selected architects.

This as-yet-to-be-built housing project is included here because of its potential for the future of East End architecture. Coco Brown, the real-estate wizard, has gathered an all-star roster of architects from around the world and invited them to design smallish, reasonably priced (at least by Hamptons standards) houses on a 100-acre wooded parcel of land north of the highway in Sagaponack. Between the houses will be areas of common land, a 13-acre park and a nature walk. The A-list includes Richard Meier (who is acting as creative advisor), Harry Cobb, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Eric Owen Moss, Richard Rogers and Henry Smith-Miller. If fully realized, this project represents a promising trend away from the mega-scale mansions of recent years and toward a less-is-more approach to the Hamptons summer house. It may also encourage a return to individual expression instead of the safe, cookie-cutter traditionalism of recent years–helping to make the Hamptons, once again, an incubator for cutting-edge design. Construction of the first Houses at Sagaponack is scheduled to begin at the end of summer 2001.