Splendor in the grass, trees, flowers, woodlands,
lakes, ponds, geese, bunnies and 44-room mansion
In the early 1900s, the North Shore of Long Island was known as The Gold Coast. It was a favorite retreat of the rich and famous, from the Astors to the Vanderbilts to the Guggenheims.
In 1907, Westbury House and the surrounding gardens became residence to lawyer and financier, John “Jay” Phipps, his wife Margarita Grace of the Grace Shipping family and their four children. They lived here in the Spring and Fall.
Our docent, Lauren, knew all. In 1903, John hired English designer George Crawley to “design everything.” Although George was self-taught, he designed the mansion’s magnificent interior as well as the grounds. He co-designed the mansion with American architect Grosvenor Attterbury.
Outside the mansion, we came upon massive trees, one of which, a beech tree next to the West Porch, was essentially fully grown when transplanted there. Before the Phipps lived on the estate, the area was Quaker farmland which had long ago been cleared of trees.
And the flowers! There were roses, tulips, daisies; 30 kinds of lilacs; exotic balloon flowers; and easy-to-grow clematis vines. “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap!” Lauren said wryly. About 25 full time staff and dozens of volunteers tend about 200 acres.
We saw bunnies, geese and a dog graveyard. All family members had their own beloved dogs. As a child, daughter Peggie had a full-sized furnished playhouse while her brothers received log cabins and three polo fields.
Inside the mansion, furnishings are original and in the Georgian Manor style. We saw bedrooms, guestrooms, paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent, and a variety of decorative objects. The mansion feels so “lived in,” it’s as if the family has just stepped out, but will be back momentarily.
In the 1920s, the stock market crash and Depression forced other Gold Coast families to leave their luxurious homes. Out of 1400 estates only 47 remain today.
But John created the John S. Phipps Foundation, ensuring its future as Old Westbury Gardens. The foundation allowed Peggie to open the estate to the public in 1959. She became Founder and Chairman of the Old Westbury Gardens non-profit organization which still exists today.
Peggie died at age 99, but the splendor of Old Westbury lives on. Today you can enjoy “One of the world’s ten most beautiful gardens”* for yourself.
For directions, visit www.oldwestburygardens.org or call 516-333-0048.
*A rating by Forbes Traveler