The House That Tina Built

It may seem wildly unlikely, but not so very long ago the hottest real estate broker in the Hamptons drove her A-list clients to showings in a Ford Windstar minivan. But this was Tina Fredericks, and she knew that she was the show, not the wheels that carried her.

 Her improbable story of scrappy bootstrap success in magazines and in real estate, her interesting friendships with artists and musicians, and her own eventual celebrity are imprinted in the minds of everyone who knew her — and on the unique home she left behind.

 After a cosmopolitan life and career in Berlin, London, and New York, she threw her arms around the East End, loving it with an almost evangelical enthusiasm. She became the region’s first powerhouse broker because she knew the land and the housing stock, and understood the cultural assets of the villages and towns. She was lucky, in a way, to have lived and worked in an era before a fast-track broker needed a shiny new Germansports sedan, Burberry casualwear, and a smartphone to get going in the morning. The global “Hamptons” brand cut against Tina’s personal devotion to the place.

The job that became a passion began as a practical necessity. In 1961, she had two young daughters, Stacey and Devon, from her first marriage to Pierce Fredericks. Husband number two was a successful cancer researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratories, and the family unwound every weekend at a summer cottage in East Hampton. Life was good.

 It took an unexpected swerve south, however, when Dr. Henry Koch’s career fell victim to his psychiatric problems, and the displaced Koch/Fredericks clan moved into a newly winterized cottage on Georgica Road in 1962. Stacey and Devon were sent to the Hampton Day School; Tina became a stay-at-home mom. After two years it was clear she needed a job to meet obligations. The local unemployment office presented two options: Try waitressing or give real estate a shot. In hindsight, her becoming a broker seems like fate.

Tina Fredericks was born in Berlin in 1922 to Kurt and Mania Safranski. Her father was a graphic designer and director at a major publishing company, and undoubtedly the source of Fredericks’s preternaturally gifted eye. At the news of Hitler’s imminent rise to power, Kurt hastened west, to New York. It was arranged for Fredericks and her mother to go to London. Two years later, her father would meet them on arrival to America, and drive the family straight to New Rochelle. Cruising slowly through the alien suburban streets, he asked Tina to spot their new home. After a few blocks, she said, “There it is.”

 She had picked the one house that had caught his eye, too, because it had design cues that reflected their former home in Berlin. Even at 13, she was attuned to particular buildings, sensitive to what made them distinct and special.

 In her sophomore year at Bennington College, Fredericks won a summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, and impressed her boss so much she was offered a full-time position in the art department. She forgot Bennington and jumped into the working world. By 22, she was under the aegis of Alexander Liberman, the great Condé Nast creative director, who knew talent when he saw it and anointed her with the title of art director at Glamour magazine, albeit under fairly operatic circumstances: The previous art director had thrown herself under a subway car (she survived).

 As the youngest art director in Condé Nast history, Fredericks gave Andy Warhol his first job, afterward jokingly calling herself “the Mom of Pop.” In the introduction to “Pre- Pop Warhol,” a book focused on the artist’s early work, she recalls her first impression of this oddity out of Pittsburgh: “I greeted a pale, blotchy boy, diffident almost to the point of disappearance but somehow immediately and immensely appealing. He seemed all one color: pale chinos, pale wispy hair, pale eyes, a strange beige birthmark over the side of his face (almost like a Helen Frankenthaler wash).”

 This was in 1949. Twentytwo years later she sold “Eothen,” an old compound on the Montauk Moorlands, to Warhol, bringing things full circle. It was she who introduced him to the artists’ agent who first suggested Andy try his hand at fine-arts painting. It was she, also, who nurtured the career of the photographer and film maker Gordon Parks, who spoke of her taking him under her wing, “like a mother hen.”

 A player in the heady golden age of American magazines, Fredericks was on a first-name basis with many major art world figures. She was never starstruck, and this charming ingenuousness about celebrity would no doubt prove part of her success as a broker for highwattage clients who could lower their guard and just be themselves. One weekend, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns (and their pet monkey) borrowed her cottage when she was away, leaving the kind of thank-you gifts only people like Tina Fredericks would get: two original works of art from a pair of American masters.

She had it all at this point in the late 1950s — the booming Manhattan career, a marriage with two young daughters, and a place to get away from it all in a still-rural East Hampton. Then, a cascading series of events would change everything, and Fredericks would have to re-channel all her gifts (her almost primal vitality, her extraordinary powers of observation, an unshakably resilient sense of self, and a worldly indifference to all pretense or fabulousness) into a new and seemingly unfitting incarnation: Tina Fredericks the real estate broker.

She learned the business from one of the original doyennes of East End real estate, Elizabeth (Boots) Lamb of the Condie Lamb agency, who did Fredericks a favor by kicking her out of the nest once she deemed her ready to go out on her own. Tina Fredericks Realty was born in 1971, in an old laundry building moved from a neighboring estate to the front of the Georgica Road property. The agency would cover prime sales and rentals from Southampton to Montauk for 45 years, with only the Alan Schneider Agency as an equally high-profile competitor. 

In the 1970s, word of the clever, quirky real estate ads Fredericks created — line drawings with a whimsical headline styles — reached the legendary New York magazine editor Clay Felker. One showed a house on a dune with the line, “Oceanfront. They’re not making it anymore.” Stacey Fredericks recalls Felker telling her mother, “People will buy my magazine because of your ads,” and decided to give her free advertising space in perpetuity. At least that’s the story.

The agency couldn’t help but succeed with Fredericks’s talents and passion. She didn’t just find the right house for you; she could design it for you, and did for 20 clients. From the driver’s seat of the Windstar minivan she would endlessly entertain and illuminate you about what she loved about the East End, and then share some of the riches after the closing with a gift membership to Guild Hall. Thanks to her connections from her magazine years, the little office on Georgica Road became a crossroads for everyone wanting the perfect house.

At some point around the dawn of the 1980s, someone in the office acquired a big autograph book. Here’s a sampling of the boldfaced names who came out to see Fredericks: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Steven Spielberg, Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, Sting, and one from Jerry Seinfeld that says, “To Tina, Always call first!”

Tina sold the 57-acre Creeks property on Georgica Pond to Ronald Perelman in 1993, a $12 million record at the time. Her work ethic was as strong that day as the day she opened shop. Ignoring pleas to take a break after closing, she jumped right in on a lowly rental.

Like all creative people, she had hidden layers. She had more than just the one setting, hyperdrive: The core of her personality was the lifelong yogini who was fed by going in — to quiet, to reflection. In the 1970s, she sold off some of her art to buy a two-andhalf- acre parcel at the end of Briar Patch Lane, a few miles down the road from the office, where she would go just to lie in a hammock, or perhaps cut paths to the dunes.

Twenty years later, the internet was starting to change everything. Fredericks began to wind the business down. Clients would drive up knowing which houses they wanted to see and every possible detail about them from virtual tours on their smartphones. Her role as inspired matchmaker was reduced to being a well-paid clerk; she began to spend more time planning her own dream house.

Fredericks had her heart set on a Japanese architect to do the design. He submitted plans, which were typically Japanese — lots of small rooms, the very antithesis of the open spaces and transitional levels she loved. She looked for another collaborator, eventually finding a local architect named Kenton van Boer.

The first thing they did was get a scissor-lift truck to see how tall the house needed to be to view the salt pond without disturbing the existing dune. It ended up being six stories including the roof deck. Van Boer has described the building as a “Shaker, Craftsman, Shingle Style folly,” but its influence is also Japanese, based on a trip Fredericks took to Japan with Dr. Henry Koch in the early 1960s. Stacey’s husband, Jonathan Cohen, aptly describes the thick Alaskan red cedar–clad design as “Frank Lloyd Wright meets Shogun.” His family alternates weekends with Devon Fredericks and her husband, Eli Zabar, the Manhattan food entrepreneur.

The coastal flood plain site dictated a design that has poetry and function, from stem to stern. Fredericks’s house, it could be argued, is a land ship with 71 pilings driven through groundwater into the bottom of a bog. One of the guest bedrooms has a box-bay window with a broad sill for use as a sleeping platform, which its builder, Arthur Trifari, has described as being, “like the back of an old sailing ship — a frigate.” Stunning views of the water are at the tree-top (or mainmast) level.

Although it occupies a modest-for-the-Hamptons 3,200 square feet, the structure is massive in appearance, looming above a pair of stone-clad piers that create a capacious arched opening large enough to park a truck in.

The house is dense with inspired design moments such as deep, useful windowsills (an echo of Fredericks’s Berlin house), alcoves like the sleeping bay to nap or read, a skylight that pours sun into a place of transition before you enter a room, a southfacing stone bench, and an elevator with a view: As you rise, a window reveals artwork and photography — including Diane Arbus’s portraits of Stacey and Devon, taken one month before Arbus’s suicide — finally revealing the pièce de résistance, an expansive view of the water at the rooftop cupola level.

Fredericks was in her ninth decade when she moved in. The house she had built was her final creative statement, a place expressing who she was and where she’d been. It was large but cozy, an open plan with private nooks. And it was fully dimensional, rising through staggered levels, and expanding horizontally. Her beloved sanctuary was her office, small but complete with a daybed, a dormer view of the salt pond, and an “opera box” vantage over the living and dining areas, which let her be above but part of the public life of the house.

If nothing else, the building is a tribute to a place that gave great meaning to a life. It reflects the landscape of East Hampton, and its seafaring past. Books and art and family are bathed in the “Dutch light” that Willem de Kooning so loved. Everything is embraced here, the larger-than-life star quality that defined Fredericks and her clientele, and the rooted culture of the locals who were also her clients. Important 20th-century art could be found here, but Fredericks made sure the big freezer was full of clam pies, and strawberries and raspberries in season.

Lang Phipps