Last fall, I decided to return to Old Westbury Gardens. My parents used to take my brother and me there regularly when we still lived on Long Island, way back in the day. I thought it would be nice to see the place again, on a clement autumn afternoon.
Westbury House, as it was originally dubbed, was complete in 1906, built by the son of a Carnegie (US Steel) partner, John (Jay) S. Phipps and Margerita (Dita) Grace, of the Grace shipping family. The story is that he persuaded Dita to marry him with a promise of an English manor house and gardens for her, like those in which she lived during her teens.
On its surface, the place is purely a relic of Gilded-Age opulence, a Charles II-style manse, all luxuriant gardens, vast marble fireplaces, priceless Chinese silk wallpaper and an enormous formal dining room. To wit, the front aspect (with a photobomb by my cousin Jeremey):
However, unlike many of large Western Long Island estates, built advent of automobile travel around the turn of the century, and used only during intolerable New York summers, this was truly a family home, well-occupied. It was filled with children (four), whose parents doted on them, and their beloved dogs. Many of these pets were interred, complete with headstones, in one of the gardens. While England suffered German bombing raids during WWII, Dita took in a number of British children to keep them safe. When I was a child, I recall the place as having been quite lived-in, with obviously well-used sofas, and carpets that looked somewhat thread worn in spots. Thirty-plus years later, things appear more polished.
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed indoors, so I’m unable to share interior shots. I did grab this on the fly from the second floor landing, looking down to the front lawns:
The sitting room and exteriors were used in the film, Love Story. In fact, Westbury Gardens has been used many, many times in film, television and print advertisement. More prominent films include North By Northwest, Wolf with Jack Nicholson and Age of Innocence, which used the beautiful west porch and walled garden to great effect. More recently, the HBO film, Bernard and Doris, about Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon) and her butler (Ralph Fiennes) was shot there, as well as the cable TV show, Royal Pains.
The south elevation (rear) of the house:
The beech tree to the left of the house was a mature specimen when it was planted in 1906. I don’t recall its age at the time of its installation, but I love that it’s well over a hundred years old.
Dita and Jay Phipps died in 1957 and 1958, respectively. Prior to his death Jay set up a trust in order to preserve the estate. His only daughter, Peggie, became chairman of the Old Westbury Gardens, Inc. and remained active until her death in 2006. I had the good fortune to meet Peggie just before we moved to New Jersey. I remember her as a lovely woman who had all the time in the world to spend with a little kid who was clearly enamored with her home (she had long since moved to a smaller property on the ground) and her childhood. She had promised my brother and me a tour of the third floor, which is closed to visitors, but since we moved away, we didn’t have an opportunity to take advantage of that offer. As mentioned, Peggie passed away in 2006, two months shy of her 100th birthday. (The photo of Peggie and her beloved companion, Tilly, below came from the New York Social Diary website.)
As fabulous as the house is, the gardens are where the 100+ acre estate really shines. These were Dita’s domain and she was intrinsically involved in their design and maintenance during her time. The horticultural staff takes great pride in the upkeep of the gardens, which remain as beautiful as they were over 100 years ago. Of the many gardens, included are a rose, boxwood, formal walled and shade gardens. The property also holds woodlands, ponds and grand landscaped meadows. Maintenance is a tremendous undertaking, thanks to their size, and some of the gardens are completely replanted every couple of weeks. Thanks to greenhouses on-site, some of which sit on the former polo grounds, a constant source of plantings is available. One thing I really appreciate is their effort to reduce the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
It’s a magical place. If you ever find yourself on Long Island, try to make a trip to Old Westbury Gardens. It does not disappoint.
Here’s their website: https://www.oldwestburygardens.org/