A Shark With a Nose for Wood
More than a decade before Jason Biondo was born, Macy’s, the department store, and Raymond Loewy, the prolific industrial designer, commissioned the renowned architect Andrew Geller to design about 200 prefabricated houses for Culloden Point, a peninsula less than three miles from Montauk’s downtown. It was 1963, and the Leisurama homes, as they were called, cost between $13,000 and $17,000.
In May, one these midcentury time capsules sold for $799,000, a few days after it was listed. It was the first time the house was on the market since the owner bought it back in the 1960s.
Mr. Biondo, a builder and owner of Hammerhead Construction in Montauk, who previously owned the Antique Lumber Company there, recently completed the renovation of one of these tiny ranch houses in the Culloden Shores beach community.
“It’s definitely under 1,000 feet,” he said and yet, he estimated, now that it is fully modernized it would fetch upward of $900,000.
It is the history of the house, of course, that makes it unique, even though, rather paradoxically, all 200 were essentially built from the same template. When Macy’s entered the real estate market in the ’60s and introduced “the greatest advance in housing since the invention of bricks,” shoppers could walk into Macy’s flagship in Herald Square in Manhattan to buy a dress and walk out with a house. On the ninth floor was a full-size model that Macy’s advertised as “ready for your leisure pleasure,” which meant everything was included in the price tag: sofas, rugs, tables and chairs, beds, Melmac dishes, curtains, towels, bed linens, and even toothbrushes.
“No need to shop for furnishings. All you have to do is turn the key in the lock and start living,” the brochure promised.
Built on concrete slabs on 75-by-100-foot lots, each house had one or two bedrooms, a den with a Murphy bed, a combination living and dining room, kitchen, and carport.
Driving through the Leisurama enclave today, it is evident that over the years many have been resized and reshaped. But Mr. Biondo’s particular project, which was bought by a couple from Brooklyn about 18 months ago, had not been touched since the 1960s.
“We had to lose the Murphy bed,” Mr. Biondo said, but he added that someone scooped it up immediately because of its possible value as Americana. The pull-down bed had been secured to a wall in a tiny den, which was separated from the living room by folding accordion doors. Mr. Biondo updated the space by turning it into a play area for the couple’s children, with a sofa bed for guests. The accordion doors came down and up went the builder’s signature flourish: sliding doors made of sturdy, reclaimed barn boards, hung from heavy iron tracks with antique-styled hardware. Not only do they make a tactile statement in an otherwise unremarkable interior, given the tight quarters, they are also space saving and even environmentally friendly.
Reclaimed lumber, be it rustic beams or salvaged pine doors, definitely excites Mr. Biondo. “Old and rustic, that’s my language,” he said. He regularly scours dairy farms in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts for discarded barn boards, and is a trusted face within the Amish and Mennonite communities, where he also buys salvaged lumber.
While walking through the houses he has worked on in Montauk, Mr. Biondo stopped often to touch and point out the texture and markings of wood that had been hand-cut decades ago.
“And look at these little dots,” he said, pointing to a speckled and knotted section of floorboards. “They’re old worm holes.”
An obviously antique wooden door in one of his houses came from a late-18th-century house in East Hampton, which he said was among others being thrown away. “For a couple of cases of really great beer,” he said, smiling, “I got 22 of them.”
Since 2007, when he opened Hammerhead Construction, Mr. Biondo has mostly been hired to renovate small houses from the 1950s and ’60s, the original summer getaways of New York City’s middle class. The buildings are simple and usually on a postage stamp-size plot of land, too tight for a ubiquitous swimming pool. “Cute, small places,” is how he describes them.
Inside the houses he renovates is his trademark juxtaposition of rough, hand-cut lumber against modern materials like quartzite countertops, stark white walls, fabricated steel, and sleek fixtures, which create the drama they might otherwise lack.
“Most of my clients are younger than me,” he said. “And mostly in finance.”
Mr. Biondo admits that he is not the guy to call if looking for a cheap job. Instead, he said, clients come to him for his level of craftsmanship and attention to detail. And, he said, working on houses with a smaller footprint allows him to offer homeowners higher quality touches and finishes.
“See those half-round copper gutters?” he asked, pointing to gutters more prevalent in bygone eras, which wrapped around the roof of a 1,000-square-foot 1950s cottage he renovated on Old Montauk Highway. “If you had a larger house to cover, those gutters would be incredibly expensive.”
Mr. Biondo, who graduated from East Hampton High School, honed his artistic skills at San Diego State University, where he studied art and sculpture, and where he also became interested in furniture design. To make some money after college, he even did a stint as a writer for The Star, before opening the Antique Lumber Company on Main Street in Montauk, where he sold reclaimed wood as well as made custom furniture.
After working on commercial properties in Montauk, like Ruschmeyer’s and the Point Bar and Grill, he began receiving a string of requests to supply beams and flooring for houses being renovated. It was then that he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a builder.
Like the eponymous shark of his construction company, Mr. Biondo seems to be constantly swimming in order to get to his goal.