‘Red Road’ boasts rich history

05/20/2010 12:00 AM |

One of the dozen red houses that line Pine Neck Road in Southold. Those who live there say they enjoy being part of the unique club of ‘Red Road’ homeowners.

Maggie Merrill can still recall what it felt like when she was a young girl in the 1970s and her family’s Cadillac turned down Pine Neck Road in Southold, passing a row of red houses on the way to their summer home on North Parish Drive.

“As soon as you saw them, you knew you were right around the corner from summer,” Ms. Merrill said.

The nostalgia those red houses evoked inspired Ms. Merrill and her husband to buy their own red house in 1998. They sold it earlier this month only because they needed a bigger place.

Michael Michaud and his wife, Magda, of Manhattan bought the red house from Ms. Merrill just a few weeks ago as a weekend retreat.

“I love the charm of these red houses,” said Ms. Michaud, who is originally from France. “They remind me of a Norman Rockwell painting.”

The red color, she said, also reminded her of a barn out in the country. The scenic tree-lined street makes her think of the French countryside.

Alan Bain, whose house is on the north side of Pine Neck Road, said it was the “funkiness of the house” that had led him and his late wife, Linda, to buy it eight years ago. Like his neighbors, Mr. Bain would never dream of painting the house another color.

“It’s a tradition that I think is worth respecting,” he said.

For the owners of the 12 red houses on Pine Neck Road, sometimes referred to as Red Road, there is no provision in their deeds requiring them to keep their houses red. There’s nothing to stop someone legally from painting his or her house, say, hot pink — but, so far, no one has done such a thing. Residents say they like being part of a unique club, a group of people with red houses, some of which feature white trim and equestrian fencing along the road.

The first red houses were mostly stables and carriage houses renovated in the 1940s. They were once part of an estate owned by Allen Tobey, a Wall Street financier who built a horse show facility on a nearby property. Ellsworth Grathwohl, a local builder, is believed to have bought the first house to be painted red. Known as “cocktail cottage,” it was on the south side of the road, across the street from Tobey’s stable complex, and Mr. Grathwohl wanted it red to match his home in Cutchogue.

Cocktail cottage has another claim to fame. As local legend has it, the house was a speakeasy during Prohibition.

After restoring the cottage, Mr. Grathwohl bought the stable across the street and divided it into three parcels, each containing a house. He painted them red also, according to his second cousin, Jim Grathwohl of Cutchogue. People began taking notice of the monochrome tint along the road and nearby homeowners began to follow suit. A tradition was born.

Bill Stark, now 82, bought a plot on Pine Neck Road after he and his wife fell in love with the quaint red houses. At that time, there were only five or six of them along the street. He said he took out a $15,000 loan — a lofty sum at that time — to build the house where he hoped to raise his young family.

When it came time to put a coat of paint on it, he said the color was never a question.

“We wanted to be part of the group,” Mr. Stark said. “We just felt we fit right in with all the red houses.” He sold that house in the 1960s, after he changed jobs and moved with his family from the area.

Larry Jungblut, a Southold Historical Society trustee and secretary of the town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, bought his 100-year-old red house in 1999 and later worked to designate it a town landmark. He said it was more likely that the red trend would flow outward to include more houses, rather than people breaking the tradition.

“I think more people would like to become part of the group,” he said.

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