An Eyesore Is Revived

From historic mess to future showplace
Unmitigated decay claimed the front porch, above, and all its columns had to be constructed from scratch, as did the many corbels, like the one below.

Two years ago, when the old Federal-Italianate residence at 6 Union Street in Sag Harbor finally escaped the years-long grip of bank foreclosures and landed in the hands of real estate developers, it was in a state of near collapse. Its windows were boarded, the front porch was in danger of caving in, and there was a hole in the roof of an addition at the back. The building, which is thought to date to the 1760s, has long been called the Morpurgo house,  named for Annselm and Helga Morpurgo, the sisters who had lived in it, fought over it, and let it disintegrate over decades.

The new owners stabilized the three-story structure, oversaw demolition of the interior, received Sag Harbor Village approval for a new site plan, and then promptly sold it to Rob Walford and Max Breskin, other real estate developers who took on the task of undoing generations of decay.  

“The biggest surprise to me was the condition of the front part of this house, how great it was,”  said Mr. Walford, who has taken the lead on the renovation, which he expects to be finished by the end of July. Before the work began, Mr. Walford was not optimistic about how much of the house could be salvaged, but he wound up heartened by the condition of the wood sheathing and timber framing. 

“The fact is, the majority of the front part of this house is original. It was painful to cover up the old sheathing because some of it was 30 inches wide. You can imagine the trees that it had come from; old growth, nonexistent now.” 

Other aspects of the house, which had been a boarding house for a time, required a long to-do list of repairs and reconstruction. “Raising the house and getting a new foundation in was our number-one task because, until we stabilized it, we were nervous,” Mr. Walford said. The foundation had been comprised of boulders, which the developers repurposed, using them for a retaining wall encompassing the backyard. 

A warren of old boarding-house rooms on the second and third floors was dismantled. Some of the bedrooms now showcase oak ceiling beams that date back to the house’s origin.  

The addition out back, which is believed to have been built in the mid-1800s, had to be torn down and replaced — within its existing footprint — because a substandard roof had allowed the elements to wreak havoc. “It was so degraded that you could not even stand on the floor without it moving,” Mr. Walford said.

As reconstruction progressed, Mr. Walford was pleased to uncover vestiges of the house’s past. He found a letter written by a man who had been a boarder. “I can decipher certain things. He talks about a fire,” Mr. Walford said. He also discovered a clue to the house’s “lavatorial” evolution. “I could see that there was no indoor plumbing in this house until 1926 because every bathroom was insulated with newspaper from that year,” he said. He also found the gas pipe that, in a bygone era, fueled the house’s sconces. 

With a directive from Sag Harbor’s Historical Preservation and Architectural Review Board to keep the look of the exterior as close to original as possible, Mr. Walford kept the windows in their original places throughout the house although the frames and panes were replaced. “The windows were probably from the 1870s.” he said. ‘“They were single pane, with the leaded weights and the chains on the side. They were so thin you could have a conversation through them.”

Arriving shortly will be a custom-made front door, a recreation of the original. It will open onto a porch whose columns also had to be reconstructed, as did many of the house’s decorative corbels. “We remade the corbels that were too rotten to save, but we restored a lot of them,” Mr. Walford said.

The developers did make one modern exterior change — a porte cochere to the side of the house under which the next owner will be able to park a car, a fitting touch since the house is now on the market for $7.495 million.

“We’re not building a new house. We’re trying to find a balance between restoring the old stuff and making it modern,”  Mr. Walford said,  noting the new 600-square-foot deck with an outdoor fireplace on the house’s third floor and a space designed for a wine cellar or a gym in the newly dug basement.

When it’s finished, the approximately 6,000-square-foot house will have five bedrooms, five full baths and two half baths, eight fireplaces (including a double-sided one shared by the dining and great room), an elevator, a bar and lounge area that leads out to the roof deck, and a gunite pool. 

Even though the house isn’t ready for a formal open house,  Mr. Walford said, “I’ve given tours to a lot of neighbors. They’re happy that we preserved the house, and they’re pleasantly surprised. It’s satisfying. I think the house will be here for 200 more years.”

Max Breskin, left, and Rob Walford were pleased to be able to save the heavy oak beams in the second-floor bedrooms.
Carpenters are at work in the great room at the back of the house.
A workman contemplated the challenges as the project began, while even after massive effort the house, below, remains a work in progress.