There is beauty in the uncomplicated — the natural, the simplistic, the pure. It is a lesson Paul Masi learned at a young age.
He felt it while watching his parents, who were both artists, at work in their Garden City studios. He would sit beside them, absorbing and drawing for hours, equal parts intimidated and innately creative.
He experienced it while summering on the East End in their a-frame kit house in Hither Hills. No insulation, no heating, no details. It was one with nature, nearly on the verge of camping.
The summer of 1995 was when he truly realized it. He was 25 years old and taking a couple months off in Montauk between working for architect Richard Meier in Manhattan and starting graduate school at Harvard, determined to make the most of his vacation.
And he would — but not spent surfing, as he’d planned. He was on his hands and knees in front of the fireplace one day, crumpling up newspaper, when he happened to glance down at a “Help Wanted” ad for a local architecture firm.
It got him thinking.
“I said, well, it’s not going to be as intense as my last job and perhaps I can really connect with someone out here,” Mr. Masi recalled during a recent telephone interview. “And, boy, did I.”
Harry Bates was 69 years old and, as Mr. Masi would learn, a staple on the East End — not to mention an architectural visionary and a gentleman, in the purest sense of the word.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is unbelievable, to have someone like him out here,’” Mr. Masi said. “I have to say, the two of us sat in a little office and had one of the best summers.”
A fast friendship blossomed, leading to a professional partnership still thriving in Amagansett today. Now, at nearly age 90, Mr. Bates is as modest as ever, with an everlasting, intrinsic sense of purpose nearly impossible for him to articulate.
When he speaks, it is measured and thoughtful, in a charming southern drawl from his native Florida, though it was during his studies in North Carolina that he discovered a love for architecture he says he “probably always had.”
“I was going into medical school and I just couldn’t do that,” he recalled during a recent telephone interview. “A friend of the family said, ‘Why don’t you just be an architect?’ That’s all I needed. I said, ‘Okay.’”
He transferred from the University of North Carolina to the brand new North Carolina State College of Design, which “revolutionized architecture in the south,” he said. “It was an exciting time,” attracting the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Richard Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright.
“It was almost too much for a young mind to grasp,” Mr. Bates said, “but we did the best we could and here we are.”
The architect would work for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill before branching out on his own in 1965, establishing his own firm in Manhattan that he moved to Water Mill in 1980 with partners Dale Booher and Bob Lunn.
When they parted ways, in swooped Mr. Masi.
“I liked Paul a lot. The only thing, when I thought about it, was when he went to Harvard, I’d have to get somebody else to come work for me. But then I thought, ‘Oh well, what the heck, just go ahead and do it,’” Mr. Bates said. “And we had a really wonderful time. We didn’t have any computers; everything was drawn by hand. He hadn’t drawn anything by hand too much, but he picked it up. I didn’t think too much about the age difference. If anything, I thought I would just sort of drift away and retire, but I didn’t.”
The pair fed off of each other — even more so when Mr. Masi became a partner at age 27. Mr. Bates was 71 and considering retirement, but found himself newly invigorated, while staying true to his timeless design sensibility.
“It just sort of developed from the clients and the property and it’s changed over the years, as it should. You don’t want to do the same thing over and over for 35 years,” Mr. Bates said. “You’re constantly learning — I’ve learned so much from Paul and his aesthetic. We’ve meshed the two together so I think it works very well.
“I don’t think I ever really seriously considered retiring,” he added. “I like getting up in the morning and getting there. I liked what I was doing. It was fun and we were doing interesting things, so why retire? What was I gonna do, sit home and make potholders? No. I don’t think so. Not at all.”
Mr. Masi moved Mr. Bates into the digital age, bringing with him “intelligence and work ethic,” the senior partner said. “I guess I bring age and experience,” he laughed. “He’s very professional, which I’ve always tried to be, too, and I think it shows in the work and the way we conduct our business. I think people respect that.”
Widely regarded as one of the most respected firms on the East End, Bates + Masi has won more than 120 awards since 2003, and 14 this year alone — among them a merit award from AIA Peconic for their “Underhill” project in Matinecock, New York, which brought the outdoors inside with a series of interior, artistic courtyards.
“Typically, you don’t expect that in a home,” Mr. Masi said. “We really truly worry about everything in projects, from the idea down to how the details work, and making our clients happy. We want to exceed their expectations. We want to exceed ours. Harry sets the tone for that. This isn’t just your profession. It’s your life and it really matters to you, and you don’t settle for things.”
He applies that mentality to every aspect of his being — from his business to his home, which he regards as a more evolved take on the connection between outdoor and indoor space that he first experienced at his childhood summer home in Montauk.
“I think there’s something that truly attracted me to being out on the East End, it gave you a sense of freedom in some ways,” Mr. Masi said. “And to really sort of lose yourself, which was nice. I think there was more of a sense of openness, and testing your limits and your boundaries.”
He experiences this sensation in the surf, waiting for his next wave, where a sense of calm washes over him. He even feels it in the office, but early in the morning—when the phones aren’t ringing and his email is quiet. There he can actually draw, he says, every so often ruminating on his life, and that of his partner.
“Despite what’s happened from the ’60s to now, in terms of architecture, Harry always had a true vision of what he felt was right for the built environment and his principles,” he said. “He had a certain design sensibility that was timeless in some capacities. That’s what I really liked about him. It was sort of uncomplicated.”
Uncomplicated in the same way the East End can be, he said. In the same way his old house in Montauk was. And in the same way truly discovering a life passion is.
“There will be times we’ll visit one of Harry’s highly coveted homes that has a new owner and they want us to come in and restore it, and it’s like, it was built five years before I was even born. It’s amazing,” Mr. Masi said. “I do marvel at that — and I hope I can do that, too. Continue on like he does.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express