Old Style Beach Houses: Where, Oh Where, Have They Gone?

Linoleum tiles and old books refer back to simple vacation houses.

Do you ever dream of an old-fashioned beach house? A house with casual imperfection, simplicity, and no worry about sunscreen staining a custom sofa’s imported fabric? A house where you sit anywhere, put anything down wherever you want, sweep the floor with ease, and head to the beach? In East Hampton such a house, if you could find one, would be a rarity.

In fact, being surrounded by uber-designed, super high-end homes exposes an old-school house’s inherent flaws: sandy sheets, no air-conditioning, damp clothes, spiders (perhaps), a mouse or two, and rickety screen doors that slam shut. 

The East End’s design world has exploded, although some might say blossomed. In a town where there once was a handful of local architects, imported international design firms work here regularly now. The local architectural scene has upped its game, and its practitioners hold their own, using knowledge of the natural environment, the quality and direction of the light, and a thorough understanding of local construction and codes.

The internet and the ability to transfer documents in lightning speed have made cross-cultural design possible. Many of the imported firms are rooted in a modern aesthetic and provide inventive and original designs, and the local firms that are similarly rooted in modern design have waiting lists. It has been a long time coming, and the current design world is their oyster. But will it last? This change in our local industry has breathed life into what was for some time a fairly staid design world. 

But putting all the design and building talk aside, and speaking very plainly, I ask you, don’t the houses just seem a bit over the top, fancy and formal? A $50,000 dollar chandelier chosen by a celebrity decorator in a beach house is not an anomaly anymore. 

Houses have a soul and the design and feel of a house are a reflection of the inhabitants and their energy. Are our East End houses happy places to be, and full of positive vibes, and was that a consideration during the design process? They certainly have become a personal pursuit at a much higher level than 30 years ago. 

Economy is thrown out the window in exchange for pure physical luxury. People often look at a house as a commodity or investment rather than a family retreat. It is viewed as an asset, with many young homeowners eyeing trading up before they even move into a recently bought or built house. The comment “We won’t be here for long” is quite common. Beach houses are becoming a temporary place to stay, and the days of a family beach house shared by generations are disappearing here.

My personal architectural quest? Can we (as a community) create houses that are well built and feel casual and light and breezy? Can they have a nostalgic feel to take us back to a time when life at the beach was unfettered? A technology-free time when being outside was cherished and houses were for living, no matter how crazy and disorganized, even including ball playing in the house. (At least when mom wasn’t home.)

As an architect, I believe houses are for living in, and working out all the messy parts of life — the joys, complications, and interactions with family and friends. Where we spend our limited time on this Earth should feel good. If our home is too precious an environment where do we go to relax and unwind?

The new book, “Anxious for Nothing,” by Max Lucado talks about how anxious Americans, and in particular, our children, are. Summer on the East End is the golden opportunity to take it all down a notch (or five!) and live in an easy, breezy, casual way. Kids desperately need the break, and the ramshackle beach cottages of times past used to provide that much-needed respite perfectly.

In my own family, we dial our own architecture and interiors way down. Why? We have met so many unhappy and stressed people striving to build their super high-end beach houses. It is so tempting to design every little detail, and strive for perfection, but the result would not be what we want in terms of “feel.” When my kiddo breaks a lamp, I want to be ticked off, and teach him a lesson for sure. I also want to take the lamp to the dump with the trash, get another one easily, and move on with my day. Kids are kids. 

As I walked across the new teal linoleum floor (from Home Depot) in our tiny Sag Harbor digs, I asked my husband to give his two cents about beach houses. (Disclaimer: This is the guy who refuses to have a TV during summer and repeats, “Go Outside!” every day ad nauseam.)

Forty years later, in his mind he is still finding sand from his East Hampton summers, running loose with a sunburned pack of boys (called the Fearsome Foursome), buying Matchbox cars at the News Company, and climbing into a sand-filled bed with his damp Labrador pup. And yes, he broke a lamp or two playing ball in the house (and got grounded for it). 

The houses of the East End have undergone a massive and impactful change in the last decade. Many are built to a quality level that tops most suburban year-round, well-built homes. This is not a complaint. (Well, maybe it is.) Physical perfection has become the sport of choice. 

What is the solution? One option is to create a house with an old-school feeling with a more modern aesthetic and amenities. An authentic beach house doesn’t have to look like Grandma’s house or Grey Gardens and in fact doesn’t have to be traditional. It just has to be easy to live in, a vessel that helps create memories of a carefree time at the most beautiful beach in this whole chaotic world.

Erica Broberg Smith is an architect in East Hampton, New York City, and Rumson, N.J. She owns Hampton Gather, a thrift and consignment shop at 92 Newtown Lane.

The architect Alfred Scheffer drew the plans for this simple beach house and many others in Amagansett’s Beach Hampton. At right: The long living room has a formal table, far right, and one for games.
The long living room has a formal table, far right, and one for games.
Green and white linoleum tiles give evidence that the house was built in the late 1950s. The bedrooms, off the long hall, are small and have tiny windows.
An original sales flier pinned on a wall is nostalgic.
This cluster of boys was photographed in the house on a fall weekend in 1980. From left, they are Erik Peterson, Stuart Murray, Lee Eastman, Jake Menges, Scott Smith, and Aubrey Peterson.