Last Laff for Art Village’s Laffalot

Laffalot during preparations for the move in June.

By Jo-Ann McLean

You’ve heard the phrase “It Takes a Village?” Well, in a recent case in Shinnecock Hills, it took an attentive ombudsman, an amenable owner, a dogged neighbor, a savvy solicitor, an accessible township and an ancient Nation to save a historic house called “Laffalot.”

Last year, John Danolovich applied for a demolition permit for his house “Laffalot” in the Art Village, a group of historic buildings that made up a 19th century an art school. Sally Spanburgh, chairperson of the Landmarks and Historic Districts Board for the Town of Southampton, sounded the alarm. 

The board receives copies of demolition applications, evaluates them in relation to the structure’s historic significance, architectural uniqueness, local importance, or age and in cases like this says, Whoa, not so fast! 

Ms. Spanburgh, a trained architect, and others on the board, are earnest about their responsibility to maintain the landscape, history, and visual charm of Southampton Township for posterity.  For these men and women, each of whom represents the hamlet in which they reside, it is a time consuming task. Under Ms. Spanburgh’s direction, a Hamlet Heritage Area Report, which identifies, describes and exhibits each documented historic home within that hamlet, has been completed.

If you live in a house that’s older than 75 years, it is likely that the board knows more about your house than you do.

When one of these homes is identified for possible demolition, Ms. Spanburgh and the committee are charged with the responsibility of amassing a report for the town connecting the structure to the past — either to a significant person or architectural style.

Also important is the job of sounding the alarm, alerting the community that the landscape is about to change, that a tangible piece of Southampton’s past is about to be erased. 

“We are very busy putting reports together to educate owners about their houses — why features are important, what would be more sensitive to your property and why. We use community outreach when something dire is about to happen,” says Ms. Spanburgh.

And something dire was about to happen in the Art Village.

The Heritage Area Report for the Art Village explains, “The Shinnecock Summer School of Art operated for eleven years and was the first major art school of its kind in the United States offering ‘en plein air’ (outdoor on site) painting instruction.” 

The concept of the school was developed by Janet Ralston Chase Hoyt, who wanted to “create an affordable school for plein-air painting with its own specially built campus.”

From 1891 to 1902, William Merritt Chase, the famous American painter, directed the school. A subdivision map was filed in 1892 indicating the intended location of houses and roads.

“Laffalot” located at Ochre Lane, was built in 1892 at a “cost of between $800 – $2,000.  By 1902, thirteen cottages were built, designed specifically to be simple and rustic in contrast to the popular Victorian style of the era,”  according to the report.

In 1896, “Laffalot” was purchased by Rosella “Zella” de Milhau. 

“Hardly an issue of the Southampton Press went by without some reference to this amazing woman. She always managed to steal the show… She was an adopted daughter of the Shinnecock Indian tribe bearing the name “Chiola,” which means, “she who laughs,” according to the report.

Shinnecock Nation Cultural Resource Officer David Martine could not confirm the nickname given to her, but he did confirm that Ms. de Milhau was connected to the tribe.

“A lot of people up here liked here,” he said. “I didn’t know about a name, but sometimes people were made an honorary member of the tribe…. She was an ambulance driver in World War I, an airplane pilot, did a lot of things women didn’t used to do back in those days…an unusual personality for the time.  I came by one of her paintings, through family.  I donated it to the Southampton Historical Museum.” 

The Art Village, a Hamlet Heritage Area, retains much of its original charm and unique character, even today.

So, when a demolition application for “Laffalot” with all its historic, artistic and Native American associations was received, Ms. Spanburgh reached out to everyone she thought might be interested… neighbors, architects, historians.

“I sent our report to Cynthia Schaffer and Lori Zabor, who wrote the definitive work on the Art School,” she said. “They had suggestions about who else to send it to, fellow architectural historians who had weighty opinions.”

“It was a loaded response,” she says, “I was grateful for all the letters we got.”

Lisa Cowell, the owner of another art school cottage named “Stepping Stones,” learned about Laffalot’s potential demolition. She thought she might save it by moving it across the street to serve as their pool house, said Ms. Spanburgh.

“The town asked me to meet with them,” said Ms. Spanburgh, “There were multiple meetings with the town at the core, the Landmarks Board, Dave Wilcox and Mary Wilson, because the [neighbors] were trying to plan and budget for a potentially expensive move.  There were trees to be removed, paths to be cut and house movers to be arranged, according to Ms. Spanburg.

“Lisa Cowell was very determined. She was going to get this done somehow some way. Lisa has a very high appreciation of the historic value of the Art Village,” she added.

The Cowells hired local attorney Wayne Bruyn who “handled the very complex process very efficiently and the town was willing to do everything that they could reasonably do,”  said Ms. Spanburgh.

Ms. Cowell, through Mr. Bruyn, declined to comment for this story.

“Lots of buildings had moved around during the early years, and after it stopped being a campus they were moved around again, separated and attached to others,” said Ms. Spanburgh,  so when the neighbors struck a deal with the owner to move “Laffalot” to their property, thus saving it, and sending another existing studio on the “Laffalot” property to another neighboring house on Ochre Lane, it seemed like a win-win.

A final hurdle to moving the house was an archaeological survey, which Mr. Martine said was requested by the Shinnecock Nation for the receiving parcel, since the lot, just north of tribal land, is a portion of the Shinnecock Hills and sacred ground to the tribe. 

“The minimal thing that we are trying to do is to put the town on notice, in light of the whole Parish Pond [an adjacent residential development on land sacred to the Shinnecock] situation. That whole area is considered sensitive,” said Mr. Martine. No significant materials were recovered during the archaeological survey, he said.

Laffalot was successfully moved, surviving the march of progress with a little help from a lot of people.

East End Beacon

The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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