By Cynthia V.A. Schaffner
Unique among Southampton’s early twentieth century residences was Chalet de Imer – a timber and stone masonry house inspired by the Swiss chalets found in shadows of the Bernese Alps (fig. 2). It was built between 1909 and 1911, by the Swiss-born master carpenter, Julius Frederic Imer for his own use. The chalet’s most distinctive feature was the shingled roof weighted down with large stones. This vernacular Swiss tradition protected the roof shingles against heavy snows and ravine mountain tornadoes. While an unnecessary precaution at the seaside, as Southampton Magazine opined: “the roof add[ed] much to the picturesque appearance of the structure and gave it a quaint and foreign look.”
Born in Neuville, in the canton of Berne, Switzerland in 1852, Julius Imer first immigrated to America as a young man in 1869. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July of 1870, he returned to Europe and served as a nurse in the French army. According to his story, in the spring of 1873, he boarded the ill-fated, White Star Line’s S.S. Atlantic back to America, and survived the ship’s disastrous crash and sinking near Halifax in the early morning of April 1. This, the worst ocean liner disaster in history to that date, was featured on the front page of the April 3, 1873, New York Times, and although Imer’s name is not listed as one of the survivors, not everyone could be accounted for as the ship’s record books were lost in the disaster.
Imer was likely among the survivors given transport to New York City, where he found work as a carpenter. There, on December 2, 1875, he married the Scottish-born, Margaret “Maggie” Arthur (1850-1891), at New York’s Second Presbyterian Church. According to Imer, he worked up and down the Atlantic seacoast from Key West to Cape Breton before he and Maggie came to live in Southampton in 1892. In Southampton they boarded at the home of William S. Pelletreau on South Main Street until Maggie’s death in 1898.
Mourning his wife, Imer returned to Switzerland to visit relatives, but soon after sailed back to Southampton to re-establish himself as a self-employed carpenter-builder. In 1909, when Alfred E. Schermerhorn bought land on South Main Street, Imer purchased the Cook carpenter shop on the property and transported it to a building lot Imer purchased on John Street from the Albert J. Post estate. Reusing timbers from the old shop, local stones set in concreate and hand-riven wooden shingles (figs. 2, 3, 1), he built his Swiss chalet to look like the Alpine house where he was born.
Imer’s nearly completed house was featured in a 1913 illustrated article in The Southampton Magazine. The magazine’s editor, Charles A. Jaggar, is likely the first to ascribe the name, Chalet de Imer, to this house. At the time, many of Southampton’s newly built summer cottages also referenced European architectural styles and it was a popular practice to ascribe a name, rather than street address, to these resort cottages, villas and castles.
The photographs from that article, likely taken by the Morris Studio, provide not only a picture of Imer sitting outside his front door (fig. 4), with a clay pipe in his hand, in what appears to be a Dominy Queen Anne side chair, but also provide a record of how the house was furnished.
The first floor entrance hall opened into a parlor, a sitting room and dining room, with a hall to a kitchen and bedroom with an adjoining bath. Imer used modern hard pine floor boards and the exposed beamed ceilings were lined with aged wide boards. The rooms were furnished with both antique furniture, apparently collected nearby, and case pieces he fashioned in an antique-style (figs. 5, 3).
In the colonial revival tradition, prevalent in many houses at the time, Imar displayed collections of folk art, old brass kettles, candle molds with antique candles and hung the walls with framed prints and photographs in antique frames including one of Southampton’s old Sayre house (fig. 6). Recognizing Southampton’s historic past he displayed a whaler’s harpoon, a hatchel and flax, an old ox bow and a powder horn dated 1775 (fig. 4). An avid reader, Imer planted a garden around the property described in the Southampton Magazine as “one of the most gorgeous in all the region.”
Imer lived in his chalet until his death in 1915 and the house still stands at 10 John Street next to another house built by Imer that is also extant. With the assistance of Laurie Collins who grew up on John Street, we believe that the chalet was lived in by Imer’s second wife, Ellen Collins Imer (1865-1932) and members of the Collins family until it was purchased by D. Dennis Anderson and William Sofield; who sold the house to the present owners. Julius F. Imer, Margaret D. Arthur Imer and Ellen Collins Imer are all buried in the Southampton Cemetery, their legacies associated with a unique part of the architectural history of Southampton.
All images scanned from the Southampton Magazine Volume 2 Number 2 from Summer 1913