BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO
The old Brewster House, near the Memorial Park on Flanders Road, has seen better days.
Many visitors to Flanders today flock to see the Big Duck on Route 24, but just half a mile down the street, another local landmark is sitting in dire disrepair.
The Brewster House, a hulking four-story, 28-room former boarding house and hotel on 1.8 acres, can be seen through dense foliage behind the hamlet’s memorial park only because of its size and its deep blue paint.
Hugh Wyatt of Sag Harbor, who publishes a national newspaper called The Medical Herald that covers African American health issues, purchased the structure about a decade ago. He initially had several big plans, either to develop it as a hotel or Native American museum, or to turn it into a center where the underprivileged could receive affordable health care.
“I also considered using it as a UPS store. There’s no postal facility in the Flanders area,” Mr. Wyatt said.
The building’s roof, which was cut open by firefighters to attack a blaze in 1987, never has been repaired. Mr. Wyatt tried about two years ago to interest Southampton Town in buying the property through the Community Preservation Fund. The town was reluctant to sink money into a property that would require so much work. Since then, Mr. Wyatt’s asking price has risen. It stands now at $844,000.
“It is a very serious historic site,” he said. “I wanted to preserve it, but there’s no commitment, no real interest. It’s dangerous to go inside,” he said, adding that vandals had stolen many vintage light fixtures.
“If I don’t raise the money to develop it, I will sell it,” he said.
Gary Cobb, who founded the Flanders Historical Society last year, shares Mr. Wyatt’s goal of preserving the property, but he believes it will take a level of financial commitment that few can muster.
“It’s really a thorn in my side that it’s just falling down,” he said. “Water’s been pouring through that roof in excess of 20 years.”
Mr. Cobb has been researching the history of the house for several years. He said that he and historic preservation expert Zachary Studenroth have seen rough-hewn beams in the basement that lead them to believe parts of the building could date back to the 1700s. Back then, the property was owned by the Fanning family of Southold, who ran a 100-acre farm that covered the entire Pine Neck peninsula. Sea captain Nathan Penney purchased the farmhouse in 1844 and expanded it, opening it as a boarding house after he retired in the 1880s.
“That was the boarding house era. They were quite the thing at the time,” said Mr. Cobb. “It was the first one in the Flanders area. Apparently it attracted a very elite group of New York City businessmen who were looking for sport in hunting and fishing.”
“Everyone from the Roosevelts to Al Capone stayed there,” said Mr. Wyatt.
The most regular visitors formed The Flanders Club in 1891, which eventually controlled 10,000 acres on which black duck and pheasant were raised to be shot for sport. The members of the Flanders Club eventually leased the entire boarding house from Mr. Penney, who was hired as club superintendent.
“They were a very low key, quiet, reclusive group … They were looking for escape. They liked the duck blind, cabin in the woods feel,” said Mr. Cobb. “They eventually built a sportsman’s lodge on an adjacent three-acre parcel, where they spent their time sipping bourbon and telling hunting stories.”
Mr. Cobb’s research revealed that the Brewster family bought the property from Captain Penney in 1922 and ran it as a summer hotel until the early 1960s.
Late in the 1950s, Anna Brewster’s husband, a popular police captain, committed suicide in one of the hotel’s back rooms. After that, the Brewsters sold the hotel to the MacPhee family, who turned it back into a boarding house where summer workers would take rooms for the season.
“The MacPhees never really operated it to capacity,” Mr. Cobb said. “A few people would come scratching at the door, but it was pretty much done. It’s been done for 23 years or more. It’s just melting away.”
“I made an appeal to the Southampton Town Board,” he added, “and tried to get them to pay attention to it, but based on the condition of the building, they decided they were not interested. The building is not an asset, it’s a liability. You’re looking at a piece of land in Flanders, which is not worth that kind of money. It needs someone like the person who renovated the Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport to fix it.”
Mr. Cobb, who was appointed to the Southampton Town Landmarks and Historic Districts Board last year in part because of his advocacy for the Brewster House, said there’s little his board can do but document historic houses as the owners decide to tear them down.
“We’re working to change the town code to say we can landmark a building without the owner’s consent. But landmarking just recognizes that it’s historical. Landmarking does not save it,” he said. “If I won megamillions, I would buy it and restore it and give it to the town.”