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A Greenport House That’s Drawn a Chain of Artists

Photo: Tyler Sands

Poppy Johnson was the last person you’d expect to leave New York City for a sleepy Long Island village. She was a Greenwich Village native and art-world provocateur. She had run a gallery out of her living room, selling works by blue-chip artists for $100 in protest of a speculative art market; staged performance pieces at the Leo Castelli Gallery and Franklin Furnace; and organized protests against the war in Vietnam — including one that saw her covered in cow’s blood, lying on the floor of the Museum of Modern Art’s lobby.

But by 1980, she and her partner, the painter Frazer Dougherty, had three kids and they needed space. Dougherty learned from a friend about a building for sale for cheap in Greenport, Long Island. He had spent time fishing out there and knew the town. The space at 511 Carpenter Street had been the home of a commercial laundry, cleaning sheets for hospitals and sails for boats. It was priced to sell — $25,000 — because it had been singed by a fire. For two artists seeking an avant-garde palazzo, the 4,400-square-foot commercial building, encased in European stucco, was ideal. The ground floor was one huge, uninterrupted room — perfect for a studio — and an outbuilding next door meant they could each have their own space. “It was more to my liking than, like, a little suburban house-y thing,” remembers Johnson, who moved into the place with Dougherty in 1982, became a librarian at the local Floyd Memorial Library, and never left.

The exterior in the 1980s (left) and a photo taken during construction (right). Frazer Dougherty.
The exterior in the 1980s (left) and a photo taken during construction (right). Frazer Dougherty.

Dougherty rebuilt structural columns charred by the fire, divided up the second floor into four bedrooms, and let in more light by replacing a section of the roof with the clear panels designed for greenhouses. He had worked as an electrician, fixing up lofts for friends in Tribeca, and found similar work in the area — where he got interested in energy efficiency and renewables. He shipped solar-roof tiles from California to 511 Carpenter Street and hooked the whole thing up to the local grid. The project was so ahead of its time that Governor Pataki staged a press conference on his doorstep when he signed into law the state’s Net Metering program, which pays homeowners back for the electricity their homes contribute.

The artists divorced 19 years later and ended up selling the house to another New Yorker who wasn’t in the market for a “suburban house-y thing.” Alix Umen had been a trend director at the Gap in the 1990s, keeping watch over runways, streetwear, and the music scene (her in-store playlists have been credited for the popularization of acid jazz). The pace was exhausting, and Umen went looking for zen on the North Shore, where she drove past the “For Sale” sign. She bought the place for $235,000, and cleaned it up — turning an outdoor storage space into a garden and painting all the walls white. “It was a weekend house, but then 9/11 happened,” Umen says. She spent longer stretches there, often hosting friends, a group that included a mutual friend of her high-school classmate Jonathan Horowitz. Horowitz and his partner, Rob Pruitt, were both artists and looking for a place outside the city where they could live and work. When she wanted to sell in 2003, they jumped. “It kind of stayed in the family,” she says.

The building was completely covered in ivy until a recent renovation, making it even more mysterious — and more enticing — to a chain of creatives. Photo: Google Maps

The next owner was an acquaintance of Umen’s, who rented the ground floor back to Pruitt to use as a studio and ended up occasionally hosting dinners for Poppy Johnson. Rachel Comey, the designer, bought the place in 2006 with her then-collaborator and boyfriend, the film director Clay Weiner. The couple had been looking for an escape at a time when their careers were taking off: Weiner was directing for MTV and working full time in advertising. Comey was shifting toward womenswear. And some of the work followed them to the house; Weiner remembers shooting the short Jackie and Debra at Greenport High School and scrutinizing prototypes for Comey’s first line of shoes at 511 Carpenter. They were too busy to fuss over the house and didn’t want to, anyway.

“I adored what that place was. It was just a really poetic house,” Weiner says. Horowitz and Pruitt had cleaned up the attic, turning it into a sleeping loft reached by a set of metal stairs they painted green — a color they slathered on a wall in the great room, the legs of the kitchen island, and coat hooks in the hall. “Every single thing in there was either a found object or something they kind of had built,” Weiner remembers. “It had such a soul and felt like it was kind of the heart of Greenport.”

The exterior today. The new owners pulled down invasive ivy and gave the building a fresh coat of paint. Photo: Tyler Sands

Weiner and Comey broke up but stayed friends, renting the house out as landlords until it didn’t make sense anymore; Comey bought her own place upstate, Weiner moved to California, and in summer 2020 they put the house on the market, just as Donny and Jenna Williams found themselves freed by an era of remote work. Donny, an executive in digital marketing, had been commuting into the city from their home in Sea Cliff; Jenna had recently left a job in banking to work locally as a real-estate agent. They had fantasized about moving even further east, to the North Fork, where they loved to vacation. “It was just an interesting time, when both all things were possible and urgent,” remembers Jenna. “We weren’t tethered to the city.” They had five kids and three dogs, and started turning an artist’s escape pad into a place where everyone had their own room and could live year-round. “We took a really raw, great space and I think we were able to make it a finished product,” says Jenna.

But there were things they didn’t change: The shells Weiner and Comey collected on beach walks are still in a nook by the entrance. And on the stairway up, past Dougherty’s old painting studio on the ground floor, there’s a railing Dougherty created by bolting together two pieces of driftwood that didn’t line up perfectly. “In spite of all the little prettinesses they’ve done to the building, they’ve left that,” Dougherty says, surprised.

But of course they left that, says Jenna Williams. “The driftwood felt to me so Greenport.”

The Williams family painted the staircase yellow but kept Dougherty’s driftwood railing. Photo: Tyler Sands
On the ground floor, a nook holds shells that the Williams family found in the house. They were collected by the film director Clay Weiner and the fashion designer Rachel Comey, who owned the house from 2006 to 2020. Photo: Tyler Sands
Stairs lead into this view of the great room. Under Frazer Dougherty and Poppy Johnson, a section of the roof was replaced with the clear plastic sheeting used in greenhouses, which kept the room warmer in winter. The Williams family replaced the sheeting with skylights. Photo: Tyler Sands
The couple has long collected art. The composite photograph is a self-portrait by the artist Lunga Ntila. Photo: Tyler Sands
The art collection even extends into a bathroom, where the family hung work they bought in New Orleans by the artist Blainey Kern. Photo: Tyler Sands
The Williams family did a major renovation in the kitchen and added neon art that reads “Please and Thank You,” a piece from local VSOP Projects. “It’s a cool reminder to the kids to mind their manners,” Jenna Williams jokes. Photo: Tyler Sands
When Donny Williams saw the house, he realized it had one drawback; because it had never been a house, “there wasn’t a huge amazing fireplace.” He added this stove and a chiminea in the backyard. Photo: Tyler Sands
The Williams family renovated the attic sleeping loft, turning it into a primary bedroom and sitting area. Photo: Tyler Sands
One of three bedrooms that the Williams family built for their kids in the ground-floor space, which had been used by both Pruitt and Dougherty as a painting studio. Photo: Tyler Sands
The front door. The Williams family replaced an old, green door with a new version that kept the same color. Photo: Tyler Sands
The side yard. When Johnson and Dougherty lived here, the backyard stored some of the laundry’s old equipment. Alix Umen, a creative at the Gap, landscaped the space in the 2000s. Photo: Tyler Sands
Frazer Dougherty, Poppy Johnson, and their three children lived in the 950-square-foot outbuilding next to the former laundry as Dougherty worked on the building, which had been through a fire. Later, Johnson used it as an art studio. Photo: Tyler Sands
The outbuilding has a small kitchenette and a bathroom. Photo: Tyler Sands
A Greenport House That’s Drawn a Chain of Artists