Southampton's Gin Lane: 10 facts

Over Look, a historic house on Gin Lane. Over Look, a historic house on Gin Lane. Photo Credit: Sally Spanburgh

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Running parallel with the ocean, Southampton's Gin Lane is arguably the premier street in the Hamptons. Settled starting in the 1880s, the winding, estate-studded thoroughfare has been the summer hideaway for many prominent families and their splendid homes.

Architect and preservationist Sally Spanburgh, a Southampton resident who chairs the town's Landmarks and Historic Districts Board, has penned "The Southampton Cottages of Gin Lane" (History Press, $21.99), an atmospheric account of the well-off families who built summer homes back in the Gilded Age in what had been a land of farmers and fishermen. Here are 10 of her most fascinating accounts, including updated news on who populates the fabulous "cottages" today.

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1. Not originally for high society

When Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas bought two parcels of land on Gin Lane in 1882, they cost him $1,179.37 for both. Today, a house on the fabled oceanfront avenue goes for tens of millions. Make no mistake, many of the homes built by the original summer colonists were palatial. But most of the original houses were "intentionally more casual" than the homes of their high-society contemporaries, Spanburgh writes. Frederic Henry Betts, who by 1881 had obtained several acres in the area, was a patent attorney. He was typical of the early settlers, who included doctors, stockbrokers, bankers, publishers and merchants, along with lawyers. Their social superiors -- Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Astors -- summered in Newport.

2. Where Gin Lane got its name

If you ask a local where Gin Lane got its name, he or she will invariably tell you that it derives from the Prohibition era when the South Fork was known as a smuggler's paradise. It actually was named almost 300 years earlier. The term "gin" is Old English for a "common grazing area," according to the book. In 1651, a pasture at the end of South Main Street that bordered the ocean was fenced into a gin to prevent cattle from invading farm crops. But try to tell that to temperance cohorts or advocates. From the 1870s to the 1950s, many teetotalers tried to get the evocative name changed, but failed.

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3. Many properties have been destroyed

There was the occasional fire, but it was the hurricane of 1938 that did major damage to the magnificent cottages of the original Gin Lane colony. Of 34 homes built between 1877 and 1927 during the height of the area's development, only 19 remain "in varying states of wellness," Spanburgh writes. She penned the book, she said, to bring awareness about the historic homes of Southampton, many of which have been significantly altered and demolished, even in recent times. While Gin Lane is zoned a historic district (meaning that in order to change a property, the owner needs to go before a review board), the author has deep concerns about other areas, many of which she intends to write about in forthcoming tomes.

4. Original outbuildings now homes of today's wealthy

Vince Camuto, co-founder of the shoe empire Nine West, owns a five-acre parcel containing what was once the pool house of one of the grandest Gin Lane estates (torn down in 1941 to avoid taxes). A former carriage house of Meadow Beach, one of the original cottages, is currently the home of Dorothy Lichtenstein, widow of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Spanburgh is a huge proponent of the reuse of accessory buildings, which, she writes, "get little respect these days" in the world of preservation. "Many were designed and built as carefully as main houses were," she says.

5. Is the mill real at the cottage known as The Mill?

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In 1880, Charles Wyllys Betts purchased a mill from Good Ground (now called Hampton Bays) and moved it so that it could be attached to his two-story shingled house. He removed the mill's interior mechanism but kept the vanes, which still adorn the house today. Gabled windows and a wraparound porch completed the addition. Many Hamptons houses have copied this architectural folly with faux mills of their own.

6. Many of the original cottages were rentals

Prominent lawyer Charles Atterbury was one of the first tenants to rent a Gin Lane cottage. Atterbury wound up having a major influence on Southampton by contributing to the creation of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, an institution that attracted many artists to the area.

7. Fashion comes early to Gin Lane

Sandymount, a gambrel-roofed home located on the dunes, belonged to famed fashion designer Mary McFadden from 1952 to 1976. McFadden is the daughter of a concert pianist and a descendant of steamboat inventor Robert Fulton. Since 1975, the house has been owned by Keith and Ann Barish. Keith is a producer known for such films as "Sophie's Choice" and "The Fugitive" and a co-creator of Planet Hollywood.

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8. Not just stodgy cottages

In 1946 Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford II bought Halcyon Lodge, a Stick-style cottage. They commissioned modernist architect Philip Johnson to build a one-story flat-roofed, glass, steel and wood wing.


9. Those hedgerows

Before miles of privet hedges surrounded each property in Southampton's estate section, the area was known for its breathtaking landscape and ocean vistas. Hedges keep out prying eyes, blocking the views of those driving or walking on the street.


10. Scandals abounded

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Adultery was rampant. Embezzlement was not uncommon. Murder was rare, but there was at least one associated with the lane . . . and a doozy it was. Mr. and Mrs. Josiah Copley Thaw built Windbreak in 1911. Josiah was the brother of Harry Thaw, who killed legendary architect Sanford White in 1906 because of White's dalliance with Thaw's ex-wife, the seductress Evelyn Nesbit. The immensely disturbed Harry often visited Windbreak "but was kept to the ocean side of the house," according to the book.

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