Foes Fear Mansion Will Turn Southampton Into Paradise Lost
Visitors to the public section of the beach on Meadow Lane pull up to the gate, weekend after weekend, with the same question:
“Do you know where that castle is?”
Tracy McLaren, the gatekeeper, directs them about a quarter mile down the road.
“When they see it and come back,” McLaren said, “they all say, ‘What’s the big deal?’ I tell them I don’t know. I don’t. It’s all politics. You get the wrong people against you in this village, you’ve had it.”
Well, the castle is the largest mansion in a village of mansions, and the big deal is that besides turrets and parapets it also has three lawsuits attached to it with millions at stake.
They are the result of a bitter fight over building codes, a public battle that seems out of place in the Hamptons, where gentility and seclusion are, to the summer residents, of at least as much concern as the prime rate.
The visitors who parade by in their cars are understandably disappointed at what one of the castle’s besiegers, in the pitch of battle, called “this hideosity.”
If they get a look at it, which is difficult through the trees, the castle appears to many no more outrageous than some of its neighbors, one of which resembles a huge Quonset hut with attached silo, another as though designed by the Wizard of Oz.
So what’s all the excitement about over the castle?
Talk to the villagers and shopkeepers (few of whom are willing to get involved in the dispute by name) and it appears the gatekeeper is right.
The fight has less to do with architecture than with the fact that politics has found its way into Paradise.
“Until now,” said a village official, “the summer people had always been scrupulous about regarding themselves as guests of the village, staying out of its affairs. Now we have factions. Lines are drawn between the summer people and the residents.
“That’s never happened before, and many of us find it unsettling to say the least.”
Or, as a bartender on Job’s Lane put it: “Barry Trupin has caused more fireworks in the Hamptons than George Plimpton.”
Barry Trupin built the castle.
Actually, he didn’t build it from scratch. Neither, apparently, did he cause the fireworks. The fuse was lit before he arrived in Southampton. “Barry Trupin,” said Roy Wines, “was more a victim than a cause.”
Wines, a lifelong resident of Southampton, had served the village 18 years as trustee, deputy mayor and for six years as mayor until he was defeated in an election in which “the Trupin affair” was the big, divisive issue.
“I still can’t believe the viciousness of that race,” Wines said. “It was almost slanderous. It was certainly not what Southampton is meant to represent. When Barry Trupin came here, he could have had no idea what he would be caught up in.”
That was in 1979. Trupin and his wife, Renee, drove out from New York in their 1932 Rolls-Royce looking for a summer place.
Trupin, not yet 45, had made a fortune, large even by Southampton standards, in the computer tax-shelter business. He was reared in Brooklyn and neither he nor Renee had ever been to Southampton, but its stately mansions with names like poems--Treetops, Sunnyside, Fairwinds--hidden discreetly behind sculptured hedges, caught their fancy.
The house that caught their eye was the biggest one on the beach. Henry F. du Pont had built it on 6.2 acres in 1923. A steal at $700,000.
For his part, Trupin is so fed up with what happened after he started remodeling the mansion in 1981 that he now refers all calls to his lawyer, who is handling a federal suit claiming that Trupin’s civil rights have been violated to the tune of $4.5 million.
That was the amount claimed two years ago when the village ordered him to stop work. But, like an idling taxi, the amount has grown every day Trupin has been denied his dream and the meter is still ticking.
“I don’t know what it will be by the time we go to trial,” said his New York lawyer, Stuart Summitt. “I have no doubt we’ll go to trial, probably before the year is out.”
No, Trupin’s castle is not finished.
Its only occupant is a caretaker who answers the phone, in Southampton tradition, with the mansion’s name: Dragon’s Head. But much of its exterior is laced with scaffolding and its 63 rooms stacked with building materials and crates.
Many of its furnishings Trupin picked up on shopping sprees in Europe, after the fashion of William Randolph Hearst--a carved jade fireplace from Bolton Castle in Scotland, a half-million-dollar piano, a suit of armor worn by Henry II that Trupin purchased for $3.2 million by outbidding the Louvre.
Already complete and functioning is a 30-foot waterfall and a saltwater aquarium “about the size of Shinnecock Bay,” according to a workman who helped build it.
“The place is really spectacular,” said another former laborer, Bill Bourcke. “What gets me is, he had 90 or 100 local people working there. That’s a lot of jobs for this area. It was the talk of the town.”
It was that, all right. But even before the castle reared its mighty turrets, one at each corner, the talk of the town centered on the changes taking place in Southampton, changes that disturbed some of the people who had summered in Southampton for decades.
“Their attitude,” said a local lawyer, was ‘I’m aboard; pull up the ladder.’ ”
“We were feeling the pressure of condos,” said Roy Wines, the former mayor, “the need for affordable housing for our senior citizens and young people, the pressure of development. But we were dealing with it responsibly. There was no reason for panic.”
One proposed change would have resulted in increased traffic on Gin Lane and First Neck Lane, two of the wealthiest streets in America. Alongside the driveways next to the names of the mansions are the names of their protection agencies.
That did it.
The fight to call a halt to the sort of development that was considered out of character in Southampton was led by Charlotte Harris, who has since died. She was head of the Southampton Assn., a homeowners’ group that once defined its purpose as “preserving the village.” The village has a year-round population of 4,500 which swells to 25,000 in the summer.
Era of ‘Great Gatsby’
If you look in Stephen Birmingham’s book, “Real Lace,” you will find a picture of Harris, nee McDonnell, as a little girl in the ‘30s, the era that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Could it be that some believed that Trupin himself didn’t fit into that picture of well-born gentility?
“No,” said Michael Meehan, the current head of the association. That’s what Trupin would like people to believe, but nobody is against him. All we want is for the codes to be followed. If somebody doesn’t like what somebody else builds that’s too bad, so long as it’s legal.”
“The blame” for the Trupin castle’s code violations, Harris wrote in a letter to the local weekly, “lies squarely in Mayor Wines’ office.”
Harris ran against Wines in the 1983 election and lost.
But then she discovered an issue that would provide ammunition for the next election. She discovered that Trupin’s castle rose higher than 35 feet, the building code maximum, and that he had done maybe $3 million in work with a building permit issued to do a $13,000 remodeling job on the kitchen.
$300,000 in Plumbing
And she discovered that Wines’ family firm had done about $300,000 in plumbing on the renovation. “He has had men there every day for three years,” she wrote, “and yet let the monster evolve right under his nose.”
Wines’ explanation, and that of the building inspector, was that Trupin kept changing the plans so often they just let things go. He had a reputable engineer, the same architectural firm that built the original Du Pont mansion, and eventually Trupin would have to get a building permit anyhow because he couldn’t get a certificate of occupancy without it.
In fact, it was discovered that Harris herself had had work done on her house and failed to get a building permit until it was completed.
‘Throw the Rascals Out’
“Accommodations are made all the time,” said a local lawyer who represents builders. “You might say the village exists for the convenience of the summer people. Trupin just happened to provide a tailor-made issue for a cry to throw the rascals out.”
Harris, in full cry, picked up a fistful of voter registration forms and lobbied the summer people to claim their Southampton homes as their primary residences so they could vote in the next village elections.
About 100 did so, enough to unseat Wines and elect all three new trustees favored by the Southampton Assn.
Meanwhile, Trupin’s engineers had set about bringing the castle into conformity. They shortened the turrets. They piled up dirt around the first floor to make the tops of the turrets even closer to ground level. They surveyed and found that other mansions also violated the 35-foot maximum.
Even so, in May, 1984, the village issued a stop-work order.
Since then, a state court has ordered the village to grant the building permits, a decision the new village administration has appealed, and has upheld the village’s refusal to grant variances for the turrets, a decision Trupin has appealed.
“However those two lawsuits come out,” Trupin’s lawyer said, “we’re going ahead with the civil rights action.”
And however that lawsuit comes out, one result of “the Trupin affair” already seems clear. The summer people of Southampton are no longer the guests of the villagers but their hosts.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.