These Walls Do Talk

Featured image
Ann Van Ness' château in the Centre-Val de Loire, France.

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.

Kenneth Fishel, Maria Fishel, William Van Ness, Ann Van Ness, Gaëtan Bruel, and Elizabeth Stribling at a fundraising party for French Heritage Society at the Hamptons home of Maria and Ken Fishel.

“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.

Gigi Fisdell and Ann Van Ness at Ann’s château in the Loire Sologne.

“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.”

“We also restored the 60 acres to wooded grounds and a park, planting thousands of trees and embellishing it with foliage,” explained Ann.

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.”

Château de Chenonceau, the site of  French Heritage Society’s 25th anniversary gala. Photo: Yvan Lastes, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

French Heritage Society Executive Jennifer Herlein.

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.”

Last month, Notre-Dame Cathedral saw massive oak trusses placed on the roof around the area of the spire while crowds along the Seine watched. This came with the news that the grand opening of Notre-Dame would be held on December 8th, 2024. FHS established its Notre-Dame Fire Restoration Fund the day of the tragic fire in 2019 and has the support of over 3,300 donors from 40 countries around the world. Photo Credit: Victoria Estivalèzes

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.

Patricia Arostegui and Puly Rincon.
Nancy Stratford and CeCe Black.
Vincent Festa and Andrew Werner.
Alexandra Fishel, Julie Auclair, Bradley Fishel, Sylvia Hemingway, and Alexandra Nicklas.
L. to r.: Gaëtan Bruel, Director of Villa Albertine & Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the U.S.; Stewart F. Lane and Stark Kirby.
Rufus Chen, Geoffrey Bradfield, and William Featherby.
Celso Gonzalez Falla, Virginia Loving, Cornelia Sharpe Bregman, and Melody Clarke.
L. to r.: Geoff and Lauren Smart, with Peter Gerry; Rosann Gutman.
Amanda and Ari Fischman.
Maria Barba, Maggie Delaney, and Djida Oppenheim.
Art on the table was provided by Christofle with special thanks to Vincent Festa and Mykolas Hruts.
L. to r.: Elena Ayot and Sophia Bishop; Martha Johnston and Patricia Shiah.
William Morosse, Paula Hunnicut, Bill Hunnicut, Carole Belidora Westfall, Mar Morosse, Lee Fryd, David M. Hayes, and Judy McLaren.
Hubert Delaney, Maggie Delaney, Melody Clarke, Missy Van Buren-Brown, Nicole Titus, and Tom Brown.
Melissa Bergholz and Katie Korin.
Antontella Farro, Viola Chaloupkova, Marianne Gagatta, David Hochberg, Jane Scher, and Elena Gibbs.

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.

Aisha Christian, Fay Christian, Rebecca Seawright, Brenda Simmons, Jean Shafiroff, Jay Schneiderman, Georgette Grier-Key, Bianca Collins, Anita Farrington, and Judith Kasen-Windsor.

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.

Senator Leroy Comrie, Brenda Simmons, and Roy Paul.
Aisha Christian, Angela Boyer-Stump, and Norm Stump.
Emily Creighton, Judith Kasen-Windsor, Marsin Mogielski, and Jamleia Holloway.
Robin Brown, Bianca Collins, Jean Shafiroff, Brenda Simmons, and Georgette Grier-Key.
Robert Grant and Hazel Forrester.
Steven Gilels, Shermin Lakha, and Kaon Hazzard.
William and Mar Morosse.
Neil Saltzman, Marsin Mogielski, and Brigitte Segura.
Charlie Tiedemann and Keith Winfrey.
Dee Benish.
Alessandro Cocco, Georgette Grier-Key, and Philip Collins.
Victoria Kahn and Sharon Lopez.
Tom Shiah, Patricia Shiah, Samantha Crichton, and Marsin Mogielski.
Joy Jones.
Michael Henry Adams and Pat Golden.
Aisha Christian, Jade Trau, and Anita Farrington.
Binh Douglas.
Antwayn Hopper.

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.

Randy Conquest in front of his Barbershop, which is now part of the Southampton African American Museum.

“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.

A mural by David Martine from the Shinnecock Reservation depicting the great migration.

“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.

Curator Storm Ascher, Founder/Executive Director-Southampton African American Museum Brenda Simmons, and artist Tariku Shiferaw at the opening reception of Making Space: One of These Black Boys at SAAM.

Photographs by Michael Ostuni ©Patrick McMullan (FHS)

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