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Dec 18, 2008 4:18 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Benson Gallery torn down; town concerned about circumstances

Dec 18, 2008 4:18 PM

The former home of the Elaine Benson Gallery, a longtime cultural institution in Bridgehampton, was demolished last week. By Monday afternoon, Southampton Town officials were still unable to say whether or not the company had obtained the necessary permits to tear the building down, although the new owners say they did.

The Farrell Building Company bought the property in May 2006 and had obtained variances from the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals to build a 6,600-square-foot headquarters there. The building company was scheduled for its first appearance before the Southampton Town Planning Board Thursday afternoon, December 18.

Town code enforcement officers posted a stop-work order among the debris of the rambling, blue Victorian building around 1:30 Thursday afternoon, but neighbors said that workers continued demolishing the basement and removing debris throughout the day Friday. Ms. Benson had lived in the main house and her gallery had been in an outbuilding behind it.

Town Planner Claire Vail, who is handling for the application for the town, said that the builders had been required to complete the site plan approval process before tearing down the house.

Joe Farrell said on Friday that he had received a demolition permit in June of this year and that the stop-work order was issued in error. He said that the Southampton Town Attorney’s Office had corrected the error and allowed him to proceed with work.

Town Attorney Dan Adams said Monday that he was still uncertain whether the Farrells had received a demolition permit.

“I’m still looking into that myself,” he said. “Based on the limited facts we have, it raised some issues that events unfolded the way they did. I still don’t know if they had a permit. Our building department had reached out to the applicant and had left a message for them not to proceed, and that message was not heeded.”

“They had no legal standing to stop it,” said Mr. Farrell. “They’ve known for two and a half years it was coming down.”

Mr. Farrell’s wife, Kristen Farrell, has been working with him on obtaining the permit. She said that she was appalled at the town’s treatment of the project, since she believed that Farrell Building had gone through all the proper steps before demolishing the building.

“I’m so disappointed with the town,” she said. “For two years we have worked. We got our demolition permit on June 2. This property is not a historic site. It is not on any town, county state or national historic list.”

Ms. Farrell added that Ms. Benson’s daughter, Kimberly Goff, had planned to renovate the property in 1995 but “she met with so much opposition that she stopped her project.”

“We gave up our right to subdivide property. We have changed the nature of this project to meet the needs of the community,” she said. “We are a local family. We are running a local business. We have been overly patient with this process. In this economy, we could be paying our employees. Instead we’re paying attorneys and engineers.”

Rich Tutching, who works next door to the former gallery at John Salibello Antiques, was watching in horror as a crane removed debris from the site Friday morning.

“The Fed Ex guy said it was standing Wednesday,” said Mr. Tutching, who, while a student at Southampton College, had worked at the gallery during the annual John Steinbeck Book Fair, which was held on the Benson Gallery grounds. “It’s just unbelievable. I just almost wanted to cry. I’m looking out the window at the crane. There’s nothing but a pile of rubble. They’re ripping up the basement now.”

Mr. Tutching said that Mr. Farrell had recently approached Mr. Salibello asking for a letter in support of the demolition, but Mr. Salibello had refused.

“I wrote up a letter against it, saying we were vehemently against it and sent it to the Town Board,” said Mr. Tutching. “I said, ‘You’re going to change the look of Bridgehampton. There’s going to be nothing left here.’ I feel like if you do things like that you automatically forfeit the property. That’ll give people the message.”

Architectural historian Ann Sandford, who has spent years chronicling the lives and deaths of old houses in Bridgehampton, felt equally sick when she saw the pile of rubble on her way out of town on a bus Thursday morning.

“It looked like a huge pile of pick-up sticks. It was so depressing. It was gone by 10 o’clock in the morning,” said Ms. Sandford, who sits on the town’s Historic Districts and Landmarks Board. “I know I’m naive. I really thought the landmarks board was going to have 30 days to look at this.”

Ms. Sandford said that she was equally concerned that a number of other historic houses had been demolished in Bridgehampton in the past three years. She said that parts of the Benson house dated back to 1869, and it had once been owned by John C. Sayre, a member of one of the oldest farming families in the hamlet.

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With the amount of campaign contributions that the Ferrell Building Corp has given to the Southampton Republican party and their candidates, it will be interesting to see what kind of slap on the wrist they will get given the fact that the entire town is controlled by our local GOP.
By SHNative (554), Southampton on Dec 20, 08 8:31 AM
I am shocked by the destruction of this building.

Last week I had called Kristin Farrell and asked about some missing finials on the building. I also called the building inspector to ask if they had a demolition permit. Mrs. Farrell said neither she nor her husband know anything about the finials. She called back a day later thanking me for advising her of the missing finials and said they had been stolen. the building inspector called me on Wednesday and left a message saying he had issued ...more
By concerned resident (1), Bridgehampton on Dec 22, 08 1:04 AM
What a battle of the Titans. It will be interesting to see what, if any kind of penalty will be levied on big campaigned contributer? Then again, seems like a little bureaucratic Karma is being served to the town. Could you imagine the landscape if we all had the resources that Ferrell had. We all know that "Money talks" Too bad that leaves the rest of us mute.
By Soundview (89), Hampton bays on Jan 2, 09 8:46 AM
The owner certainly has the right to do with their property what they wish and they were within their rights -- needing no extraordinary exemptions.

The czarists who complain about the demolition contribute nothing to the public discourse except once again trying to get the "GOVERNMENT" to abridge the rights of another.

By Oshaunnessey (11), Westhampton on Jan 2, 09 11:59 AM
The bottom line is that once historical buildings are gone they can NEVER be replaced. All of the historical buildings on the East End give it the special something which makes people from all over the world come here. Another loss,
By rabbit (65), watermill on Jan 2, 09 3:33 PM
Before speaking (typing) some of us should take a step back and think for a moment. This "historical building" could not be restored easily even for someone with ready assets and connections. As far as the "anonymous" individual concerned with the finial theft- you may as well print your name. Those with ulterior motives are in for a rude awakening...
By concerned1 (1), Southampton on Jan 3, 09 10:24 PM