Noted landscape architect CeCe Haydock gave a marvelous and visually stunning lecture titled “Beyond Gatsby: Fabled Gardens of Long Island’s Gold Coast” on November 9, 2018 at the Virginia Robinson Gardens. Among the distinguished attendees were members of the Garden Conservancy from New York: President James Brayton Hall, Director of Education Patrick MacRae, Development Director Sarah Parker and landscape architect and Board member Joseph Marek.
Presenting a dozen of these grand and elegant estates from the turn of the century through the 1920s, CeCe remarked, “Today, I am bringing the East Coast to the West Coast and what better place than the Virginia Robinson Gardens!. . . The overlap and similarities between this house and garden, how it began and who lived here, and the type of life that was lived here is very similar to what I’m going to talk about today.”
CeCe explained that the Gold Coast is the North Shore of Long Island between Great Neck and Huntington and south to Old Westbury. The hilly typography was well suited to the type of summer and weekend houses that the newly rich from New York City — financiers, industrialists and transportation heads of industry — wanted to build to showcase their wealth and culture. At this time, there was also a shift in style from Victorian to the Neoclassical Beaux-Arts aesthetic.
From around 1895 to 1930, it is thought that about 500 homes were built. Owners of these houses bought rooms, entire buildings and outdoor structures from Europe and transported them to Long Island. These estates featured pleasure palaces, elaborate gardens, fountains, gazebos, greenhouses, stables, guest houses, ponds, reflecting and swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf courses. It is estimated that 200 of these estates are still standing; some are open to the public, others have become universities, some are privately owned, and others are still lived in by the same families that built them.
Westbury House in Old Westbury was built and owned by the Phipps family until it became a private foundation. Well-endowed and beautifully maintained, this garden features alleys of trees, intricate lattice, a lily pond, a spectacular show garden of perennials, annuals, and bulbs (as seen in the movie Age of Innocence), and a thatched playhouse for children with cottage garden plants.
Eagle’s Nest, another magnificent estate, was built by William K. Vanderbilt. Two large eagles are placed at the entrance. They came from Grand Central Depot, now called Grand Central Terminal, which was built by the Vanderbilts in New York City. Another reference to the family are depictions of acorns — a symbol of the Vanderbilts – in pebbles set in intricate patterns on a bridge. Spanish, French and Italian influences in the garden are reflected in putti sculptures, topiary, sundials, and clipped hedges. What is remarkable about this Spanish Revival estate are the incredible dioramas of marine life that Vanderbilt built. It was highly unusual to have this kind of museum in the 1920s. An avid adventurer, he loved taking his boat out and collecting many samples of crustaceans and other sea life.
Another showstopper is Oheka Castle, built for the banker Otto Herman Kahn by the architects Delano and Aldrich from 1914 to 1919. There are echoes of Fontainebleau in the architecture and a Le Notre type of garden designed by the Olmsted Brothers (who designed Central Park in New York City). The current owner started out as a plumber in Queens, became a highly successful developer and fell in love with this estate which he bought in the 1980s. He built a banquet hall and a wedding venue; it is now considered “the place to have a wedding,” according to CeCe. Since CeCe lives in the area, she is very familiar with all these estates.
Another stately home, The Studio, built in 1916 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, is a beloved house still owned by the family. Her granddaughter and great grandson live here, and CeCe showed the group a picture of Gertrude’s art studio on the estate that is very similar to our very own Pool Pavilion at Robinson Gardens.
CeCe concluded the lecture with an homage to Beatrix Farrand, the niece of writer Edith Wharton. Beatrix was the first female landscape designer to become a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. A forerunner in her field, she designed many gardens in Long Island, but they no longer exist today. Farrand’s work can still be seen in her pièce de résistance — Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC. Influences from her travels with her mother and Wharton in Europe can be observed in her creations of the magnificent spaces and lovely garden rooms.
After basking in this romantic vision of a bygone era, the group was treated to a delicious lunch. Reflecting the Art Deco theme of the Gatsby era, talented Education co-chair Patti Elias Rosenfeld arranged elegant, glamorous tables with tall centerpieces of white hydrangeas and feathers on black and white checked tablecloths. Caterer Joe Monteferante served an autumnal themed lunch with a carrot soup, smoked salmon terrine, New York Strip Roast, and colorful salads with sweet potatoes, pumpkin seeds, apples, and greens — all excellent and savored by the guests.
A big thank you to Education co-chairs Adrienne Horwitch, Cindy Fields, and Patti Elias Rosenfeld for arranging such a memorable event that transported us and regaled us with the power and beauty of old-world elegance, grace, and style.
Post and photos by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member