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Jan 27, 2009 3:01 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Reflecting on the Elaine Benson Gallery House

Jan 27, 2009 3:01 PM

Over the past few weeks so many people have called, written, e-mailed, and stopped me on the street, that I feel I owe it to the community to provide information and to respond to the questions, tears, love, and public outcry, over the loss of my family home, located next to the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton.

Elaine (my mother) and Emanuel Benson moved here in 1965 from Philadelphia where they both had worked for the Museum College of Art. The following year they bought the property at 2317 Montauk Highway, across from the post office in Bridgehampton. The gracious house was large enough to house the couple as well as visiting artists, and was the home of the original Benson Barn Gallery.

The house was unlike any house I had known from Philadelphia. It was built in the 1800s, and there were architectural details that fascinated me. The ceilings upstairs weren’t flat. The angles came in from different directions, and there were old curved glass windows upstairs and in the front door. There was “gingerbread” trim around the eaves and a curved staircase with an amazing bannister. The floorboards had been painted, which seemed sad, but you could see they were wide and old. In my room there was a huge walk-in closet.

It was my favorite house of all time. That first year, they put a swimming pool in the yard. My stepfather planted a vegetable garden in that rich Bridgehampton loam. In 1966, the barn and outbuildings were renovated and added on to.

In the time that this house was built, Bridgehampton had relatively few houses. The old-timers picked the best places to build. They avoided the beach and low-lying areas because of floods and storms. The site they chose for the old “Sayre house” was breezy and cool in summer. There is an amazing maple tree that is fortunately unharmed even now, after the bulldozers have destroyed the old house.

This was a much smaller community in 1965, and although the Hamptons were clearly established as an artists’ colony, there were no galleries where those artists showed their work or congregated. In 1971, Emanuel Benson died of lung cancer. I moved here to be with my mother shortly after his death. I finished high school and went on to open a boutique on Main Street in 1974. It closed in 1986, and I went off to Mexico to be with my husband.

In 1993, after some years of living in Mexico as a painter, I came back to Bridgehampton, moved back into my mother’s house, and went to work as her apprentice. She was incredibly generous with her information, her friends, her time, and her house. I had a separate entrance, bathroom, and my own kitchen upstairs. The house was set up as two completely independent apartments. My mother and her third husband, Joseph Kaufman, lived on the ground floor, and I had the upstairs to myself unless they had houseguests.

As it happened, my mother was widowed again in 1996, and I was widowed in 1997. My mother had already been diagnosed with cancer but chose to keep it a secret. She wanted to tell no one. She said it would hurt the gallery and she didn’t want anyone to look at her with pity.

The Elaine Benson Gallery centered our lives in the Hamptons. It was never very profitable, but my mother lived in the house and loved her life there. She died at home surrounded by three of her four children, and some of her ashes were buried under a cherry tree in the front yard. The tree lives on in a new location with a view of the water.

My mother entrusted everything to me but also said, “Give it a try. Give it three years and see what you think.” I gave the gallery eight years after she died. In that time, we renovated the house and gallery completely. The grounds were gorgeous. It wasn’t anywhere near as interesting or as much fun without Elaine Benson, and I didn’t have a partner, so I had no time to pursue anything else. She was the life of the place. I could not and would not ever fill her shoes.

Hundreds of people came by and admired thousands of works of art. People told me Elaine Benson stories. So many people came and told me how she had helped them. They thanked me for continuing. Even after her death, tens of thousands of dollars were raised for charity. Many emerging artists got their start, and we had two “Hampton Art History Shows.”

I followed the same formula as my mother did for most of that time. I cleaned the place up, repaired the old buildings, got rid of all the bramble and overgrowth, and painted the house and galleries. I replaced the roof of the gallery and the ceramics shed that was falling apart. As always, we had openings every three weeks in the summer with preview benefits for local charities. We helped many charities with these benefits. The Bridgehampton Child Care Center, CMEE, the Retreat, and The Nature Conservancy, The Group for the South Fork, Hampton Shorts, the Meet the Writers Book Fair for Southampton College, ARF, EEGO, and LTV are among the many organizations that held their fund-raisers in a tent, in the sculpture garden, and in the buildings of the gallery.

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