NYSD House

Big Old Houses: To the Manor Born

To the Manor Born
by John Foreman


Seen above with his pretty young wife Eunice, is Robert David Lion Gardiner (1911-2004), self-proclaimed 16th Lord of the Manor of Gardiner's Island. What sounds like a possible X-Box Game was, in fact, the truth, although I'm unsure who the other 15 lords were. Since 1639, when Lion Gardiner purchased it (for 'a large black dog,' some powder and a few Dutch blankets) from probably uncomprehending Montaukett tribesmen, Gardiner's Island has been continuously owned by Gardiner descendants and, in the case of our Mr. Gardiner and his sister Mrs. Creel, continuously squabbled over. The island contains 3318 pristine acres, 27 miles of sandy coastline, a brick manor house from the 1940s (earlier versions burned), a windmill and assorted other structures, and is sandwiched roughly between Montauk and Orient Point at the eastern end of Long Island. The island is today owned by Mrs. Creel's daughter, Mrs. Robert Goelet, and peace now reigns largely because both her mother and her uncle are dead.

Mr. Gardiner is widely remembered for family battles, lawsuits and flashy political moves related to the island he and his sister inherited from their Aunt Sarah in 1953. He is less known as the last private occupant of another manor called Sagtikos, a former south shore Long Island barony now sitting on 10 of its former 1200 acres. Sagtikos Manor is the subject of today's post.
What looks at first blush like a small village is in fact one enormous country house whose sprawling girth is the result of repeated alterations. The oldest section, a one-and-a-half story farmhouse of exceeding modesty built in 1697 by Stephanus van Cortlandt (1643-1700), still stands, subsumed long ago into a 5-bay, two-story colonial enlargement from 1772. You can see the western end of the original house clearly in the images below. Three quarters of its 1697 interiors were never fiddled with and endure unchanged to this day.
In 1902 the house was tripled in size by an immense barn-like addition on the west (left in the image below) and a counter-balancing colonial revival wing on the east (below on the right). While the latter appears to be another be-porched and be-dormered two-story five-bay house that has simply been tacked onto the one from 1772, it is in fact a shell surrounding one single drop dead, two-story "music room." The second image below shows the music room wing from the back.
The author of these additions was Frederick Diodati Thompson (1850-1906) a Gardiner descendant on his mother's side.

Mr. Thompson argued law in the U.S. Supreme Court, but in his spare time he was a swashbuckling Turk-o-phile who wrote books about the Ottoman Empire, became an "honorary imperial Ottoman," and was decorated by the Sultan himself with the Orders of the Osmanlieh and the Medjidieh.

These Turkish decorations, cited in "The New York Geneaogical and Biographical Record" of January, 1896, were primarily awarded to British officers who fought with Turkey during the Crimean War, which conflict raged while Mr. Thompston was between 3 and 6 years of age. There is doubltess a good explanation for why he too received them.

In 1894 Thompson bought out a group of Gardiner/Thompson relatives who, until that date, had been using Sagtikos as a somtime rural retreat and transformed an old enlarged farmhouse into a grand Edwardian country place appropriate to his station in life.

Unfortunately, he died only four years after the job was done, at age 56, another of those uber-manly bachelors whose sexuality we just can't help but wonder about.
Any Edwardian country place worth being invited to had a serious garden, and Sagtikos was no exception. An ambitious volunteer garden society has cleared out decades of undergrowth and hopes to restore the original.
Our Mr. Gardiner bought Sagtikos from his Aunt Sarah Diodati Gardiner (the same who eventually left him half the family island) in 1935. He was at the time a lad of 24 living with his mother in New York, which he continued to do until she died in 1955. Mr. Gardiner didn't marry Eunice Oakes — his first and only wife — until 1961. He was 50; she was 33. Whereas the manorial island, the centuries of family background, and the groom's very substantial fortune must all have been alluring, the prospect of living at Sagtikos apparently wasn't. The widow Oakes, nee Eunice Bailey, was a former Dior model, born in London, and the former wife of William Pitt Oakes, who drank himself to death in 1958 at the age of 27. You are forgiven for never having heard of this poor sot, but you may well have heard of his father, Sir Harry Oakes, victim of a sensational unsolved murder in the Bahamas in 1943.
A few years after those events, on the opposite side of the pond, 18-year-old Eunice began to pal around with the eventually notorious London osteopath Dr. Steven Ward. Years later Dr. Ward would be convicted of profiting from prostitution, a spinoff from the Christine Keeler-John Profumo scandal that ruined Secretary of War Profumo's political career and precipitated Ward's suicide on his day of his sentencing. Eschewing the inconvenient charms of Sagtikos, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in 1963 moved into more sophisticated digs at 127 Main Street in East Hampton, a soignee pseudo-Mediterranean villa built in the late 1930s by Aunt Sarah. Also in 1963, the Sagtikos Manor Historical Society began to give tours of the manor, limited by owner's decree to the first floor only. No surprise in any of this. Sagtikos may be charming but, as you soon shall see, it ain't a place for the Eunice Gardiners of this world. Leading the way on today's tour is Sagtikos' Marketing and P.R. Director Phillys Chan Carr.
The blue shaded section of the plan below shows the van Cortlandt house of 1697. The red shows the first and second floors (not in proportion, unfortunately) of Jonathan Thompson's 1772 addition for his son Isaac. Sagtikos's front door is located between the van Cortlandt and the Gardiner parlors. Why the latter is labeled such, when it was built by Jonathan Thompson, is a mystery. The white sections were designed for Frederick Diodati Thomson in 1902 by a celebrated local Long Island architect named Isaac Green. There is no second floor above the music room, because this wing is just one huge double-height space. There's an attic over the the van Cortlandt section, and two full floors above the western Diodati Thompson wing. I have no plans for the latter, unfortunately, but lots of photos.
We're turning right (east) inside the front door for a look at the Gardiner Parlor and the little unnamed rooms behind it. 18th century house builders had a penchant for lots of little rooms, not always arranged in what would seem, at least to me, an either gracious or useful manner. That all these occasionally claustrophic rooms have survived in unaltered museum-like condition speaks to a deep seated reverence for family in which precious few of us can indulge. Honestly, how many of your friends have the remotest idea of their antecedents 100 years ago, leave alone 400.
Beyond the Gardiner Parlor is the best room in the house, the double-height music room. That's the honorary Turk, Frederick Thompson, in the first portrait. The painting below him is his nephew David Gardiner, who inherited Sagtikos fromhis uncle in 1906.
And here is David Gardiner's sister, Sarah Diodati Gardiner, who inherited the house from her brother in 1927, and sold it to our Mr. Gardiner in 1935. (There'll be a quiz on all of this at the end of the post).
Visible at the end of the enfilade below is the van Cordlandt Parlor, another totally authentic (if completely unliveable) room kept "just so" throughout centuries of Thompson and Gardiner family use.
That's the van Cortlandt front door on the left. It still exists, albeit vestigially, opening onto a tiny hall that connects the VC parlor to the VC kitchen. A ladder-like stair rises from the little hall into an open attic where family members slept, presumably in "slumber-party" style.
Nobody's cooked in the old kitchen in a very long time, but neither has anyone bothered to change it very much. Isaac Green's 1902 additions carry respect for the past to heretofore unencountered heights. His principal entertaining and living space is separated from family, guest and dining areas by a pre-existing vintage structure that has nothing whatsoever to do with either. Navigating from one side of the useable house to the other requires a safari past dead end corridors and incoherent roomlets. (Bread crumbs advised). One returns at last to the 20th century alongside the door to the dining room, known more specifically, thanks to the wallpaper, as the Peacock Dining Room.
The swing door to the serving pantry, located on the left side of the fireplace, is blocked now by a table. The non-elect, unlike myself, aren't permitted on this side of the velvet ropes. Instead of vaulting over it, I circled out of the dining room and entered the pantry from the hall. Just as the van Cortlandt kitchen and the Gardiner parlor have been preserved in figurative amber since the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, so the Manor's serving pantry looks pretty much exactly as it did in 1902 — not counting the 1940s refrigerator.
Beyond the pantry, not surprisingly, is the kitchen. Ask me how much I love that stove. At the north end of the house a back hall accesses service stair, servant hall, and laundry room, the latter currently disguised as a gift shop.
We glimpsed the main stair in the west wing from another angle, just before going into the dining room. We're not taking it yet, returning instead to the front door (between the two ancient parlors) and climbing upstairs for a look at a pair of bedrooms from the 18th century.
Unless you walk downstairs and traipse to the other side of the house, this section of the second floor is unreachable from the second floor of the west wing. The first image below shows the Clinton Bedroom, so named after Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, who headquartered here during the revolution. Clinton gave Isaac Thompson, by that time a local judge, a hot time of it, Thompson being among the many locals feeding intelligence to the Continentals while trying at the same time not to get shot.

In the spring of 1790, Gen. Washington made a "thank you" tour of Long Island, thanking, among other, Judge Thompson. America's father declined to stay in the Clinton bedroom, bunking down insted in the suite of rooms across the hall. His bedroom ever since has been known as the Washington Bedroom. In 1902, Frederick Diodati Thompson had architect Green tack on needed indoor plumbing in the form of a pair of mirror-image bathrooms located at the end of the hall between the opposting generals. Interesting note: Judge Thompson charged Washington for the night, and Washington paid.
In order to continue our second floor tour, we must descend the 18th century stair outside Gen. Washington's room, and ascend the 20th century stair by the dining room.
In the course of the last hundred years, the world outside Frederick Diodati Thompson's bedroom has undergone tumultuous change, but literally nothing seems to have changed here. Well, OK, the table is different. And I guess some of the upholstery fabric is different too. The door on the left of the fireplace leads to an en suite bath, beyond which is a dressing room, used after 1935 as a bedroom by our Mr. Gardiner's mother.
A long bedroom hall extends along the spine of the west wing, from the head of the stairs to the north end of the building. Opening onto it are a guest bath (even the medicine cabinet is full of old stuff) plus assorted named guestrooms now used as offices or filled with storage.
Two more guestrooms are on 3, together with a guest bath, and another long corridor lined with servants' bedrooms and a servants' bath. Everything looks essentially untouched, probably since Mr. Gardiner began letting tourists visit in 1963.
I think we'e seen Sagtikos Manor. Time for a peek at the family grave yard, a rest on the garden fountain, and a few reflections on "being Robert David Lion Gardiner."
It's hard to judge a man's character under most circumstances, but particularly when you've never met him and he's been dead for eleven years. Mr. Gardiner, perhaps with justification, described Fords, duPonts and Rockefellers as "nouveaux riches." For decades he feuded with family over the fate of Gardiner's Island. When a judge ordered the nearly two million annual dollars in upkeep to be split between his sister and himself, he refused to pay his share. Mr. Gardiner ran for public office twice, but never won. During a 1960 rally at the Gardiner Manor Mall in Bay Shore, his campaign speech degenerated into a 45 minute lecture on Gardinar family history, sending the audience off to their cars and leaving his lawyer and his campaign manager wondering what to do with him next. In 1985 Mr. Gardiner transferred ownership of Sagtikos Manor to the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. The foundation was in the process of weighing a sale to developers when Suffolk County bought the property in 2002. The link is www.sagtikosmanor.com.
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