Friday, June 29, 2007

Houses of the Hamptons

Architects Gary Lawrance and Anne Surchin, both residents of Suffolk County, Long Island, have put together a deliciously intriguing book called The Architecture of Leisure HOUSES OF THE HAMPTONS 1880 – 1930 published by Acanthus Press.  It is one of those books that creative boys and girls start peering at starting at age ten and which both fascinated and creative adults never lose a curiosity for – the style of high life, and in this case summer high life.

In the early days of the resorts now called the Hamptons the seasonal residents built big houses that could accommodate large families, guests and adequate staff. Food supplies were not as readily available –- there were few food stores – and so many of the properties were attached for farm and dairy land, growing their own fruits and vegetables, producing their own dairy products and being generally self-sustaining estates which were occupied each year for (at most) three months, after which they were closed and boarded up until the next season.

Click to order HOUSES OF THE HAMPTONS 1880 – 1930.
It was a far different way of life, and one which in retrospect, looks ideal (assuming you were rich). This book’s photographs illustrates that point on many aesthetic levels. Also, looking through the book, you will notice a far different looking Hamptons from the one we know today. There were hardly any trees, for example. It was mainly just open flat land. Farmland, potato and cornfields. The rich started bringing in the trees to decorate their lavish summer estates.

It was also a slower life with far less expectations because they were not available. The telephone, for example, had just begun to be put into use. Your phone didn’t ring off the hook, especially if you were out of town because that was “long distance” and “long distance” was not only an amazing technological novelty, it was expensive, even to the rich. Furthermore, when you did get a call, you took it in a little phone closet (often by the front door) so that no one could hear you or had to hear you.

Life in these great houses, under their optimal circumstances, precluding the slings and arrows that invades the lives of most of us at what time or another, was bucolic. There were often houseguests – who stayed for two or three weeks. There were parties. There was swimming in the surf (or the pool), tennis, horseback riding, sunbathing, reading, writing and eating. Living well is the best revenge.

The authors Lawrance and Surchin take you back into this world of not-so-long-ago, a world which many of us know so well today, far far away from yesteryear.

There are almost three dozen houses and estates illustrated and written about, including several properties that are long gone. It is also interesting to see all the space that existed, where great tracts of land often separate these gilded dwellings, empty (and cheap) land out there in what was then the middle of nowhere, at the end of the Long Island Railroad line.

The authors not only give you the architectural history of the properties, but brief biographies of their builders, owners and families, and what happened to the houses, most of which have gone through the zeniths and nadirs of interest and monetary value. Many others were simply demolished. Here are only a few abriged examples of the Lawrance and Surchin architectural history:
In 1928, Jessie Woolworth Donahue, daughter of the five-and-dime tycoon F. W. Woolworth (and aunt of Barbara Hutton), bought a 58-room English Tudor style mansion on Gin Lane right next to where the Southampton Bathing Corporation stands. It had been built in 1900 for a Wall Street broker named Dr. Peter Wyckoff.

Mrs. Donahue, who was already famous for her big spending and big houses (and a playboy husband) spent a small fortune completely renovating the huge house bringing in English paneling and furniture, including a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a Waterford crystal chandelier, and Chippendale furniture.  More property was added to the south, adding a 2000 foot driveway with expanded garages, stables, cottages, two tennis courts and a new Tudor-style beach house which included a  30-by-60 indoor pool, four dressing rooms with baths, a taproom, and a large living hall with a vaulted timbered ceiling. She was making an entrance to Southampton society.

“Come in all and see,” Jessie Donahue’s husband James Paul Donahue said to the guests excitedly, “all the silver’s gold.”

As indeed it was. However, the gilt was also a cage: Mr. Donahue killed himself three years later after a series of scandals involving gambling, drinking and sex. The house never really brought Mrs. Donahue the social largesse she was seeking, and it wasn’t long before it sat unused. Less than ten years later, the house was sold for a fraction of its cost to Edmund Lynch of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane. Mr. Lynch died the following year and in 1940 it was purchased by his partner Charles Merrill. The main house came down long ago although the poolhouse is now the main house on the 13-acre property on the corner across from Lake Agawam. The garage and cottage remain separately occupied by the same family that has owned it for the past fifty years, the McKnights.
The dining room.
The garden.
The Pool House, pool living room (right), and pool (below).
Red Maples, a 17-acre former cornfield on the corner of Ox Pasture and Halsey Neck, was built in 1908 in the style of an Italian Renaissance villa, designed by architects Hiss & Weekes with landscape architect Ferruccio Vitale for financier Alfred William Hoyt and his mother Rosina, although Mr. Hoyt died before the house was completed.
The finished property included a 40-room mansion 250 feet long and 65 feet wide with a mottled green and red tiled roof, a greenhouse, a garage, a superintendent’s house, stables and a gardener's cottage.

The stair hall.
A view of the entrance hall.
Bayberry Land, built in 1918 for Mr. and Mrs. Charles Sabin on the Peconic Bay; 314 acres, comprised the manor house, the main garage, gatehouse, caretaker’s cottage, hunting lodge stables, secondary two-car garage with pump house, gardens and tennis court. Cost: $1 million. The Sabins also paid the highest tax assessment in town: $160,000.
The living room. 30’ x 40’ with 17’ ceilings and Georgian styling. Room was divided into seating areas with sofas and armchairs, maintaining a feeling of comfort.
Mr. Sabin was a farmboy from Williamstown, Massachusetts who grew up to become a rich and prominent Wall Street banker. He married an heiress to the Morton Salt fortune and together they were what today we’d call a “power couple” in New York. Their Southampton property became a center of social and Republican political entertaining. Mr. Sabin died of a stroke at 65. Mrs. Sabin remarried a man named Dwight Davis. She sold the house in 1949 to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to use for a retreat. In 2001, it was purchased by a car-leasing and television station owner named Michael Pascucci who demolished the house with intentions of building an 18-hole golf course. End of fantasy.
A double winding staircase at the entrance to the house with a passage underneath which extended 50 feet to glass doors overlooking the north loggia and Peconic Bay. Both staircases (which merge) are terminated with newel posts embodying a maze of foliage, roses, and birds, capped by a planter receptacle. The stair rails also include leaves, roses, petals, grapes, dolphins, rabbits, a squirrel nibbling nuts, a cockatiel with six-inch tail feathers and other sculpted birds.
Black Point. The estate of Col. H.H. Rogers, heir to a banking and Standard Oil fortune and father of mid-20th century fashion icon Millicent Rogers.  The 60-acre property built in 1914, and was at the intersection of Gin Lane and Old Town Road. The house was designed by Walker and Gillette and the grounds were designed by the Olmsted Brothers.
Above: Blackpoint's entrance and main staircase.

Right: The breakfast loggia featured a barrel-vaulted ceiling with Florentine frescoes painted by Boston artist Robert S. Chase. The ceiling displayed coats of arms from the family.
Living room. 44’ X 29’, the room was painted in blue and fawn hues and contained multiple seating. The house had six main bedrooms including the master suite and ten staff (or guest) bedrooms.
Oceanside view. Mr. Rogers died in 1935 and by the late 1930s the property was broken up and the main house was demolished. All that stands today is the white stucco wall that ran along Old Town Road where the entrance to the estate stood.
Ville Mille Fiore. Commissioned in 1910 by prominent attorney Albert Barnes Boardman, on 12 acres of sand on the corner of Coopers Neck and Great Plains Road, architects Hill & Stout created a palatial 24-room four-story mansion based on the Villa de Medici in Rome. Six master bedroom suites all overlooking an Italian Renaissance garden. Mr. Boardman lived there for 17 years before selling to a partner Judge Morgan O’Brien who lived there until his death at 85 in 1937. The house and the property were sold at auction a year later, for $16,000. The house had cost $250,000 to build 28 years before (Garden facade and loggia, below).
The Orchard, still standing on Hill Street in Southampton and containing several large condominiums, was originally built as a sea captain’s house on the Drake Farm in 1858. In 1895, New York financier James Breese acquired it and hired his friend Stanford White to transform it into the mansion it became, completed in 1906, the year White was murdered by the insane (or at least very willful) Harry K. Thaw.
Mr. Breese was also a noted photographer (in the early days of the art) and a friend of White’s partner McKim and Mead, as well as architect Whitney Warren (Warren & Wetmore), sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens and illustrator Charles Dana Gibson.

Mount Vernon served as the inspiration of the White creation, in what was otherwise conceived as a simple Colonial house. 250 feet long and containing 35 enormous rooms.  There were illuminated gardens and gardens and gardens, 70-foot music room with 18-foot ceilings, an Aeolian pipe organ with gilded pipes. The Olmsted brothers did the landscaping.

By 1926, Breese’s fortunes had reversed enough so that he began divesting himself of the property and sold the house fully furnished to Charles Merrill (same Merrill with Wooldon). When Mr. Breese died in 1934 at age 80, he was reduced to more modest circusmtnces in a cottage named Little Orchard on a few remaining acres, all the while maintaining a prominent presence in Southampton society.