A Tiny Castle in the Land of McMansions
Born out of necessity, rather than in pursuit of any “reclaimed” aesthetic, is the house that Nick Cohen built.
“I told my friend I was looking to buy a house in the Hamptons for $200,000,” said Mr. Cohen, 37, sipping kombucha and exuding an enviable glow of relaxed contentment. “And he said, ‘Forget it, it’s not going to happen.’ ” Only it did.
“I went $10,000 over budget,” he said, flashing a golden, surfer boy smile. Four years ago, Mr. Cohen closed on a three-room, 640-square-foot house on a third of an acre in Springs for $210,000, which is half of what Jay Z and Beyoncé paid for a month’s rent in Bridgehampton last year.
It was a dilapidated, rotten, “everything stained brown,” unpromising, 1968 house. Today, amid the Hamptons’ insatiable real-estate desire for cookie-cutter gigantism, his tiny gem is a testament to thriftiness — or doing the most with minimal means and making a creative virtue of it all.
The result is a happy, sun-filled, bespoke home, in which Mr. Cohen has invested invaluable “sweat equity,” having entirely rebuilt, reconfigured, and expanded it himself. Still under 900 square feet, the house is awash with an assemblage of reclaimed materials and rescued relics, set against the ineffable humanity and beauty of a woodworker’s craft.
Mr. Cohen grew up in Sag Harbor, and after graduating from Pierson High School, opted not to attend college, pursuing instead an alternative, if somewhat utopian, lifestyle — snowboarding during the winter and making money in the summer as a builder. In the early 2000s, he began working in Brooklyn, where he rented a shop and continued honing his woodworking and architectural metalworking skills. In 2005, he was commissioned to build a tree house for the New York City and Southampton artist Melinda Hackett’s Greenwich Village backyard.
“She doesn’t use 90-degree angles in her work,” Mr. Cohen explained, “so she wanted an entirely elliptical tree house.” In 2010, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission granted the tree house landmark status because of its historical address.
Mr. Cohen moved to Sagaponack in 2012 and opened his own shop, producing custom furniture and cabinetry, as well as even more elaborate tree houses on estates around the South Fork. One was 1,100 square feet, positioned among 17 trees and made of reclaimed redwood, and a suspension bridge with laced vine railings.
After two years of renting a work-and-live space from Hans Van de Bovenkamp, the New York City and Sagaponack sculptor, Mr. Cohen began to look for
a house to buy. There wasn’t much to choose from, he admitted, given his meager budget, which seemed to be about $1 million less than the median price of a home in the Hamptons.
Work on his Springs house, off Three Mile Harbor Road, began the day he took possession, enlisting the help of his childhood friend Tripoli Patterson, the Southampton art gallery owner and curator. They ripped down ceilings and gutted the kitchen, replacing the old cabinetry and outdated appliances with zinc countertops, a salvaged Viking stove, and Sub-Zero refrigerator.
Many friends also came to help, as Mr. Cohen went about gutting the interior and reframing the exterior walls. Eventually, the walls of the miniature rooms were razed to create an airy, open living and dining space. He also added a sunroom after finding a discarded but intact 1970s curved glass sunroom window on a building site.
The house’s only bathroom was covered in 1960s baby blue tiles. “I think there were even some with dolphins on it,” he said. He replaced them with contemporary white subway tiles and gorgeous copper fixtures, as well as a new sink rescued from a house undergoing renovation.
Much of the wood he used throughout the house, he said, came from Tall Cotton Supply, a Virginia-based family business that offers high-quality reclaimed flooring, salvaged materials, and architectural elements.
His next project was to add a second floor dormer, for what was to become his bedroom. Rather than buy a bed, Mr. Cohen made one. It was almost karma, he said, to find a perfect wood-and-iron spiral staircase at Bonac Yard Sale. He crafted iron-framed architectural windows in the bedroom that overlook the dining table and chairs he built below. He added metalwork throughout the house, as well as wall-to-ceiling corner, slated cabinets made of Sapele wood, a common substitute for mahogany, which lend an industrially chic touch that is uncompromisingly of the present. An old claw-foot tub went into an alcove in the bedroom a few feet away from the bed. “I like to take baths even in the winter,” Mr. Cohen said.
Until recently, his only live-in companion was Gus, a 4-year-old shiba inu, for whom he built a dog flap entry at the base of the front door. In the spring, however, Mr. Cohen’s longtime girlfriend, Max Bonbrest, who grew up in East Hampton and had known him since middle school, gave up her studio apartment in Greenwich Village and moved in full time.
“It’s amazing having someone so handy,” said Ms. Bonbrest, sitting outdoors on a patio built by her boyfriend, with his handiwork all around: a brick and cement outdoor grill, walls constructed from bricks that once covered the patio, a hammock strung between two tree stumps, a collection of old cars, which he restores, including a rusty 1952 Civil Defense vehicle once used by the Red Cross. Ms. Bonbrest said she was recently in Los Angeles for a week for the opening of a store for the clothing company AYR, which she co-founded in 2014. When she returned, “He had built an outdoor shower, some new shelving . . . it’s amazing.”
Mr. Cohen is clearly no fan of the throwaway culture prevalent among 30-somethings, who he thinks seem to be universally obsessed with consumerism. His beliefs are simple. “Reap, reuse, and recycle from Mother Earth. And I have a one-thing-in, one-thing-out policy,” he said, before smiling and adding, “Max is more of a two-things-in, one-thing-out person, so I guess I’ll have to build closets in the bedroom soon.”
While Ms. Bonbrest is convinced that Mr. Cohen belongs to different era, he does not agree. “No, I don’t think I do,” he said, philosophically, staring intently though greenish blue eyes, the color of sea glass. “If I lived in another time, my work wouldn’t be appreciated because everyone would be doing it. And now, maybe I can pass on my knowledge for someone else to continue. So, I’m glad to be here, now.”
Walking through the house, Ms. Bonbrest suddenly stopped in the kitchen, looked to the ceiling, and exclaimed, “Oh God, we have some cleaning to do!” An intricate network of cobwebs shimmied between the gabled window and beams.
“That’s okay,” countered Mr. Cohen, “it’s just a beautiful living thing. There are probably some happy creatures up there.”