|From the Ashes
The Life and Times of Tick Hall
|A documentary film by Scott Morris
featuring Dick Cavett and Carrie Nye
East Hampton Star, October 18, 2001
Near the start of the documentary From The Ashes: The Life and Times of Tick Hall, Carrie Nye, the actor who with her husband, Dick Cavett, has owned Tick Hall, a legendary house on the bluffs of Montauk since 1966, reads a thank-you note from Tennessee Williams, as only Ms. Nye, with her languorous Mississippi drawl, could.
"Some peoplc find the right places and are blessed," thc playwright wrote after a visit to Tick Hall. His recollections included the sound of a waltz on an antique music box as among Tick Hall's wonders, and Ms. Nye remembers Mr. Williams dancing to the waltz from room to room.
In a very real sense, all of us who have lived in Montauk for any length of time and walked upon the bluffs between the great Atlantic and the Seven Sisters, the elegant shingled cottages built in the late 19th century, have been similarly blessed, if only at a distance.
When fire consumed Tick Hall in March 1997, the whole hamlet shared its owners' sorrow. That we felt the loss so strongly is a testament to McKim, Mead, and White, the architects who designed the houses, and to Frederick Law Olmstead, who sited them among Montauk's moorland knobs and kettles.
It is rare to be in the presence of something that is so much a part, and representative, of a place.
The 55-rninute documentary, written by Scott Morris and Jennifer Brown and directed by Mr. Morris, offers a glimpse of the fascinating history of the house and the equally fascinating story of how it was recreated "from the ashes" in minute detail--via what Ms. Nye dubbed "forensic architecture."
Using old photos, lithographs, and diaries from the 1880's, the film first brings us back to a time of great prosperity for New York's professional class. Arthur Benson, a real estate baron and sportsman for whom Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was named, bought all of Montauk for $151,000 in 1879 and shortly afterward conceived of creating a small colony, a retreat, for his friends. The team of artisans he chose was among the best.
Mr. Olmstead was a renowned landscape architect who designed Central Park. Stanford White and his firm were celebrated for their work, including the shingled "cottages" of Newport, R.I.
Henry Sanger, Alfred Hoyt, William Andrews, Robert and Henry DeForest, Alexander Orr, and Mr. Benson had houses built and there was a separate clubhouse.
Mr. Orr's house, the future Tick Hall, stood farthest east. At the time Montauk was empty of buildings and people, except for thc Montauk Lighthouse, a small fishing village at Fort Pond, and the houses of those who oversaw cattle pastured in Montauk during the summer.
Harrison Tweed and six lawyer friends, who bought the Orr House in 1924, arc credited with naming it Tick Hall. The men also called themselves Ticks; for example, Tick Tweed. The women were Tickesses, the children, Tickettes.
Days were full of boating, fishing, and lying about in what today is called Cavett's Cove. Montauk residents will marvel at how wide the beach was at the time. Barbara Tweed Estill, a 93-year-old descendant, recalls the beauty and magical quality of the place she knew as a girl, as well as its privations--no electricity, running water that didn't always run.
In interviews sprinkled throughout the film, Mr. Cavett calls the house "majestic but not imposing," and Ms. Nye says, "l found where I really lived, not where I hung my hat."
Both insist the magic of the very old house cannot adequately be put into words. Barbara Friedman, the Cavetts' personal assistant of many years, struggles to explain what had repeatedly drawn her to the front porch long before she met the couple, as does their groundskeeper, Greg Donohue. "You work here. It's not your own place, of course, but you feel for it." And Roberta Gosman, a neighbor, says, 'there's a romance; you've been here before. It's friendly to you."
With wonder in his voice, Samuel G. White, Stanford White's greatgrandson, puts the dwelling in architectural perspective. Images supplied by Jefferson Miller, the director of photography, fill in the gaps when words fail.
Then Tick Hall burns to the ground. Only the brick chimney remains standing, with an anchor on top of it that had been supplied by the Tweeds' boat captain, Joe Emmers. At this point the film speaks to everyone who has cver lost something or someone irreplaceable.
Above all, the documentary is a paean to rebirth, to the very possibility of it.
Mr. Cavett, a native Nebraskan and a history buff, says that part of Tick Hall's attraction is his awareness that the men who built it could have gotten on a train to Omaha, saddled a horse, and ridden out to the Indian wars. 'That did it for me, somehow."
Viewers will wonder how so much history, plus all of the Cavetts' heirlooms and personal treasures, were able to be replaced. They could not be. The loss was like a death - one that Ms. Nye, much to the amazement of her husband, would not accept. But no plans existed of the original house.
An architect, James Hadley, and an architectural historian, Bruce Popkin, delighted in doing detective work. Photographs from friends poured in. A draper's notebook contained measurements for every room and window. Ms. Nye showed the architects photos of herself and the Cavetts' dog standing by a window. 'You know how tall I am,' she suggests in the film, urging the experts to extrapolate from there.
Architects, building contractors, subcontractors, cabinet-makers, and amateur woodworkers will be especially amazed at the planning and workmanship that went into rebuilding Tick Hall, down to identical door hinges, tiles and stained-glass windows. Even the music box was replaced.
At one point, Ms. Nye says that her able contractor, Jim Kim, found it hard to understand the couple's intentions. "It was hard for him to realize we wanted the porch to sag," Ms. Nye says, laughing.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of 'From the Ashes,' is that the rebuilding of Tick Hill confirms its original genius. Montauk's particular light, prevailing wind direction, and raw beauty were taken into account by the architects and builders 120 years ago.
At the end of the film, Mr. Cavert says that the new house fooled him. It fooled all of us in Montauk. The beautiful white building that we had counted on to be part of the horizon beside her sisters, the house that seemed to grow out of Montauk's rocky ground, is back. With its return comes the feeling that Tick Hall was, and is, immortal.
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