If these walls could talk? Of course they do. Longtime homes echo children’s laughter, holidays around a dinner table, who we were, what we gained, whom we lost. New homes speak of new dreams. Sometimes, we hear everything, all at once.
So it is for Ann Van Ness, and the beloved French château she and her late husband bought in 1985. It is a memorial to their life together. Now, it is a home to share with her second husband, where she delights in introducing the French countryside to next generations of their blended family. Do its walls speak to her of eight centuries of noblemen?
It led her to the French Heritage Society, with its new friendships, exclusive excursions and events, many hosted in her New York townhouse. Recently, she threw them a fundraising party, with Maria and Ken Fishel in their Hamptons home. Ann co-hosted with Maria, CeCe Black and French Heritage Society Board Chairman Elizabeth F. Stribling, in the presence of Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States Gaëtan Bruel.
“Between my own trips and those I’ve taken with French Heritage,” Ann told me, “I pretty much know every inch of France at this point in my life.
“I fell in love with the French countryside on my first visit to the Loire Valley. So, we purchased a small château in the Loire Sologne hunting region, captivated by its woods filled with magical legends and thousands of ponds. The outer buildings date back to the 13th Century. The château, damaged by fire, was rebuilt in 1780.”
Ann took it into the modern world, informed by her love of history. “We had to bring in heating, plumbing and redo the roof,” she told me. “We cannibalized it with a complete restoration that preserved the integrity of the original property. That took a lot of study and attention to detail.”
Artisans replaced regular contractors. “I spent a lot of time in Paris, finding the origin of things. Many of my fabrics are historical reproductions. I wanted each room to have a different period. So, we have a medieval room, a Louis XV room, a Louis, XVI room and a Napoleon room.”
In 2007, she was invited to the French Heritage Society’s 25th anniversary gala, nearby in the Loire Valley, at Château de Chenonceau. There she met Elizabeth Stribling.
Its mission spoke to Ann’s soul. “We do restoration for privately owned château’s as well as monuments,” she said of the Society’s work. “It’s wonderful to be able to explore and meet these families who have had their properties for a thousand years plus. They are struggling to maintain these historical landmarks for the patrimony of the family. So we help. We also step in when medieval villages need a church or bridge restored.”
For French Heritage Society Executive Jennifer Herlein, it was a semester abroad in Lyon that eventually led to the Society. “I fell in love with the culture, the food, the people,” she said. “When I left, I was determined to find a way to keep France in my life.”
Funds from the Hamptons evening will go to support some of the gilding in the nave and gold detail work on the staircase of the one of the key sites for the Olympics, which will host the Take Kwon Do competitions.
French Heritage also remains involved in the restoration of Notre Dame. As the fires seared through members’ screens, calls to French Heritage flooded in to quench them. To date, they have raised more than $2.6 million.
“They had to restore everything,” Jennifer told me, “but, the French have the artisans to make it look as it did.”
Golden Benefactor supporters included Patricia Cossutta Arostegui and Egle Rincon, Melody Clarke, Alina and Rich Dovere, Mitchell Draizin, Rosann Gutman, Brenda Howard, Helen K. King, Bonnie Comley and Stewart F. Lane, Judy McLaren, Frank Morgan and Brent Feigenbaum, Maria Pessino, Nicole Salmasi, Odile de Schiétère-Longchampt, Maria Pessino, Jean and Martin Shafiroff, Lauren and Geoff Smart, and Tom Brown and Missy Van Buren-Brown. Young Patron Benefactors included Elena Ayot, Stark D. Kirby, Jr. and Collin Kearby, Sharon Bush and Bob Murray, and Julissa Perez. Generous support for the evening was also given by Nanci and Nick Lanni.
Equally passionate about preserving her heritage, for 16 years, Brenda Simmons worked to create a Southampton African American Museum. Her dream became reality on June 19, 2021, “the day, President Biden made Juneteenth an official holiday,” Simmons remembered, “and the covid restrictions were released. Everyone came out for our grand opening! SAAM is a great place to promote the black community: what it was and what it is. So much of our history is trying to be erased. I’m trying to make certain that doesn’t happen.”
Jean Shafiroff has thrown her support behind them since chairing their first benefit. She was honored at a cocktail fundraiser at Main Prospect in Southampton, co-chairing with her husband Martin Shafiroff, Aisha Christian, and Michael Steifman.
Obie Award Winning actor Antwayn Hopper of Broadway hit “Strange Loop” performed.
Supporters included: Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, NYS Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, NYS Senator Leroy Comrie, Judith Kasen-Windsor, Fern Mallis, Jeffrey Banks, Jade Trau, Angela Boyer-Stumpf, Marc Chiffert, Greg D’Elia, Anita Farrington (SAAM board member), Michael Henry Adams, Jeffrey Banks, Marsin Mogielski, Brigitte Segura, Binh Douglas, Patricia Shiah, Tom Shiah and Hazel Forrester.
SAAM is an exhibit space for black artists, and a memorial to the meeting place of a community created by the great migration of the 1940s. Here, in the northern section of Southampton Village, Emanuel Seymour opened the barber and beauty shop, that was much more to the community.
“Most black barbershops, especially during that time, were gathering places where they felt safe,” Simmons told me. “A lot of things — like the importance of education — were shared in that shop. The last gentleman who owned it, Randy Conquest, helped three young men get their barber licenses. Two of them to this day, have their own shops.
“My auntie was a beautician there. When I was 13 years old, I would come, answer the phone and do coffee runs for her.” Simmons, a native to Southampton, had a career in local government, ending up as the Mayor’s right hand. Her love for her community shines inside the museum walls.
“Inside, you’ll find a lot of items that were used to straighten and curl hair,” she said. “There’s a beautiful mural by David Martine from the Shinnecock Reservation that depicts the great migration, the history of the barber shop, the juke joint next door, and Pierce Concert, a former slave born here, in the village of Southampton, March 17,1814 who became an entrepreneur and philanthropist.
“Many of the black community who came here from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia during the great migration lived and worked on farms or did domestic work. Eventually, one family was able to get a home, down the road from the museum. Then, others built houses around there. So, it became a wonderful, thriving, black community.”
Today, thanks to Brenda Simmons, those walls will continue to talk — of the Black Experience in Southampton and her own youth. Their story is akin to the many other towns and villages that gave safe harbor to others looking to escape persecution and build lives, where hard work pays off so future generations can prosper.