The Newsday review of From The Ashes
Newsday (Long island), July 2nd, 2003
From Ashes to Reborn Beauty
by Peter Goodman
From Ashes to Reborn Beauty
Film follows rebuilding of Cavett's fire-ravaged home on the East End
July 2, 2003
At the end of a road at
the end of a road in Montauk, through tall scrub that closes around the visitor
like a verdant tunnel, one emerges, surprised, into a large clearing. Its
center is an elegant house with a dazzling white veranda, a bell tower right
above, and an anchor perched on the chimney.
The Atlantic Ocean rolls nearby with a continuous rush onto the beach
sheltering below great brown clay cliffs. The surf pounds with a sound like the
Long Island Expressway, but it has a soothing rhythm as waves hit and recede,
quite unlike the highway's anxious current. There are even times when the sea
is so calm, the air so still, "I have to go down to the beach to make sure
it's there," Dick Cavett says in a reverential voice little more than a
The house is Tick Hall, one of the seven Montauk Association houses built in
1882 and 1883, home since 1965 to the television personality and his wife,
actress Carrie Nye. For 114 years the Stanford White-designed building had
offered summer and holiday respites for several generations of well-to-do New
Yorkers, until a disastrous day in March 1997, when it burned to the ground,
leaving only that anchor-capped chimney intact.
For the next two years the two-story, "shingle-style" house existed
only in forlorn memory, charred fragments, and a century of photographs, film
clips and crude drawings. Yet now - as can be seen at 10 tonight on WNET/13 in
a documentary titled "From the Ashes: The Life and Times of Tick
Hall" - it stands again, as close to the original as Cavett and Nye and
their restoration team could make it.
"It absolutely feels like the old house," Nye says in her mild
Mississippi drawl. "It fooled us completely."
The reconstruction team, which started in 1999 and finished in 2001, went to
extraordinary lengths (Nye calls it "forensic architecture") to make
as exact a replica as it could (neither the cost of the reconstruction nor of
the film has been released). The team recast the hinges, imported fireplace
tiles from the Shropshire factory that made the first ones, used southern pine
hardwood floorboards rescued from ruined houses and barns.
"It smells like the old house," Nye says. "It sounds like the
old house. The windows still rattle. They didn't fix the mistakes." The
veranda that embraces three sides of the first floor was built without
reinforcement, for example, so it eventually will sag.
One thing is still missing. "There is no evidence of a ghost," Cavett
says. "That's my only disappointment."
The new house, like the old one, is no sprawling robber baron mansion or modern
castle like the monstrous structure lying farther east. On the first floor
there are living, dining and sitting rooms, study and kitchen, with a gleaming,
polished staircase in the center dominated by a wonderful old, crank-driven
Regina music box that uses huge tin discs to play aged waltzes and popular
tunes. The second story has a cozy sitting room, four bedrooms with three
up-from-Mississippi four-posters and one huge Vienna bed, and a small, modern
"bathroom wing." And the small attic has been finished as a trim
The entire building is suffused with that famous East End light. Each room has
plenty of tall windows, and each has a view to the other side of the house,
through halls, windows and facing rooms.
"From the Ashes" was directed by veteran filmmaker Scott Morris, who
was approached by Nye halfway through the reconstruction to document the work.
"I put together a small budget and went out with a small crew in July
1999, and came back with a wonderful body of material," he said. By
October of that year, he had made a 15-minute short, and began raising money
for something longer.
Ultimately, Cavett and Nye's Daphne Productions provided most of the funds, and
the project was done piecemeal until completion in 2001. It was screened
publicly just once, at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2001, so
tonight's broadcast is both the television premiere and the first wide showing.
The house itself was the last of the seven built by Arthur Benson, president of
Brooklyn Light and Gas Co., who bought all of Montauk out to the lighthouse,
for $151,000 in 1879. Benson created the Montauk Association for a group of
middle-class friends. Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted helped with
plans for the little community, and the new architectural firm of McKim, Mead
and White designed the houses and a clubhouse, which burned down long since.
The site had been a barren, treeless ridge, cropped close by the cattle East
Hampton ranchers grazed there. By the time attorney Harrison Tweed and six
lawyer friends bought the Moore Cottage in 1924, the area had been covered by
shadbush and brush. They renamed it Tick Hall, for the native fauna that
swarmed over the flora, and called themselves Ticks, their wives Tickesses and
their children Tickettes.
All the houses still stand, and Tick Hall is back better than when it was new:
Besides having the heat, hot water and electricity added by earlier owners,
Cavett and Nye upgraded the facilities and met modern building codes. There's
now a solid foundation to support the exactly reproduced shingles, black cherry
banisters, stained-glass window and hand-carved finials.
"The house just had to be back," Nye says in her determined,
theatrical manner in the film. "I needed it back to go back to my
© 2003, Newsday, Inc.