SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Visitors to the public section of the beach on Meadow Lane pull up to the gate, weekend after weekend, with the same question:
"Do you know where that castle is?"
Tracy McLaren, the gatekeeper, directs them about a quarter mile down the road.
"When they see it and come back," McLaren said, "they all say, 'What's the big deal?' I tell them I don't know. I don't. It's all politics. You get the wrong people against you in this village, you've had it."
Well, the castle is the largest mansion in a village of mansions, and the big deal is that besides turrets and parapets it also has three lawsuits attached to it with millions at stake.
They are the result of a bitter fight over building codes, a public battle that seems out of place in the Hamptons, where gentility and seclusion are, to the summer residents, of at least as much concern as the prime rate.
The visitors who parade by in their cars are understandably disappointed at what one of the castle's besiegers, in the pitch of battle, called "this hideosity."
If they get a look at it, which is difficult through the trees, the castle appears to many no more outrageous than some of its neighbors, one of which resembles a huge Quonset hut with attached silo, another as though designed by the Wizard of Oz.
So what's all the excitement about over the castle?
Talk to the villagers and shopkeepers (few of whom are willing to get involved in the dispute by name) and it appears the gatekeeper is right.
The fight has less to do with architecture than with the fact that politics has found its way into Paradise.
"Until now," said a village official, "the summer people had always been scrupulous about regarding themselves as guests of the village, staying out of its affairs. Now we have factions. Lines are drawn between the summer people and the residents.
"That's never happened before, and many of us find it unsettling to say the least."
Or, as a bartender on Job's Lane put it: "Barry Trupin has caused more fireworks in the Hamptons than George Plimpton."
Barry Trupin built the castle.
Actually, he didn't build it from scratch. Neither, apparently, did he cause the fireworks. The fuse was lit before he arrived in Southampton. "Barry Trupin," said Roy Wines, "was more a victim than a cause."
Wines, a lifelong resident of Southampton, had served the village 18 years as trustee, deputy mayor and for six years as mayor until he was defeated in an election in which "the Trupin affair" was the big, divisive issue.
"I still can't believe the viciousness of that race," Wines said. "It was almost slanderous. It was certainly not what Southampton is meant to represent. When Barry Trupin came here, he could have had no idea what he would be caught up in."
That was in 1979. Trupin and his wife, Renee, drove out from New York in their 1932 Rolls-Royce looking for a summer place.
Trupin, not yet 45, had made a fortune, large even by Southampton standards, in the computer tax-shelter business. He was reared in Brooklyn and neither he nor Renee had ever been to Southampton, but its stately mansions with names like poems--Treetops, Sunnyside, Fairwinds--hidden discreetly behind sculptured hedges, caught their fancy.
The house that caught their eye was the biggest one on the beach. Henry F. du Pont had built it on 6.2 acres in 1923. A steal at $700,000.
For his part, Trupin is so fed up with what happened after he started remodeling the mansion in 1981 that he now refers all calls to his lawyer, who is handling a federal suit claiming that Trupin's civil rights have been violated to the tune of $4.5 million.
That was the amount claimed two years ago when the village ordered him to stop work. But, like an idling taxi, the amount has grown every day Trupin has been denied his dream and the meter is still ticking.
"I don't know what it will be by the time we go to trial," said his New York lawyer, Stuart Summitt. "I have no doubt we'll go to trial, probably before the year is out."
No, Trupin's castle is not finished.
Its only occupant is a caretaker who answers the phone, in Southampton tradition, with the mansion's name: Dragon's Head. But much of its exterior is laced with scaffolding and its 63 rooms stacked with building materials and crates.
Many of its furnishings Trupin picked up on shopping sprees in Europe, after the fashion of William Randolph Hearst--a carved jade fireplace from Bolton Castle in Scotland, a half-million-dollar piano, a suit of armor worn by Henry II that Trupin purchased for $3.2 million by outbidding the Louvre.
Already complete and functioning is a 30-foot waterfall and a saltwater aquarium "about the size of Shinnecock Bay," according to a workman who helped build it.
"The place is really spectacular," said another former laborer, Bill Bourcke. "What gets me is, he had 90 or 100 local people working there. That's a lot of jobs for this area. It was the talk of the town."