UP THE GAR­DEN PATH

Frances Ben­jamin John­ston’s early-20th-cen­tury photos re­veal for­got­ten glo­ries of the Hamp­tons’ past.

Hamptons Magazine - - Contents - by PAULA DE LA CRUZ

Frances Ben­jamin John­ston’s early-20th-cen­tury photos re­veal for­got­ten glo­ries of the Hamp­tons’ past.

n “THERE IS MORE TO PHO­TOG­RA­PHY THAN JUST TAK­ING PIC­TURES!” wrote Frances Ben­jamin John­ston, one of Amer­ica’s first pho­to­jour­nal­ists, in 1922. Un­like paint­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy was not con­sid­ered a fine art at the time—thus the field was open to women. And John­ston’s back­ground served her well: Her art stud­ies at Paris’s Académie Julian gave her the strong sense of com­po­si­tion and color that sets her work apart, while her wealthy par­ents’ con­nec­tions among the Wash­ing­ton, DC, elite helped her build a suc­cess­ful ca­reer. She shot Alice Roo­sevelt’s wed­ding por­trait as well as other news­wor­thy fig­ures, in­clud­ing Booker T. Wash­ing­ton and salon so­cialite Natalie Bar­ney. In the early 20th cen­tury, John­ston turned her cam­era to gar­dens, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the chief pas­sion of the up­per-class women of the Gar­den Club of Amer­ica.

This spring, the Li­brary of Congress cel­e­brated John­ston by spot­light­ing her hand-tinted glass slides of Gilded Age gar­dens. Sam Wat­ters, whose book Gar­dens for a Beau­ti­ful Amer­ica, 1895–1935 cat­a­logues the mas­sive col­lec­tion of prints and neg­a­tives that John­ston do­nated to the li­brary, ex­plains that “most of the es­tates of this time were built with first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion bank­ing, in­dus­trial, and rail­road for­tunes. With rare ex­cep­tions, this es­tab­lished so­ci­ety owned the gar­dens pic­tured in John­ston’s slides.” The East End, of course, did not es­cape her lens. Wat­ters walks us through three luxe Hamp­tons es­tates John­ston cap­tured that all but dis­ap­peared dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion.

OB­SERV­ING THE FORMALITIES Black Point, Southamp­ton

“Southamp­ton is a lit­tle back­wa­ter of God,” a so­ci­ety ma­tron once re­marked. Long Is­land’s ocean air was con­sid­ered a cure-all when the city was be­ing in­creas­ingly pol­luted by in­dus­try. And un­like New­port, Southamp­ton of­fered a healthy at­mos­phere with­out the op­pres­sive for­mal­ity. But when H.H. Rogers Jr., the son of the Stan­dard Oil mag­nate, built Black Point, his Ital­ianate ocean­front es­tate on Gin Lane, in 1917, all no­tion of pastoral sim­plic­ity came to an end. The bu­colic idea of ladies in white cot­ton dresses lan­guidly watch­ing bees pol­li­nate mead­ows be­came a utopian fan­tasy, as a group of women call­ing them­selves the Dread­naughts com­manded the so­cial seas, en­forc­ing a strict code of man­ners.

Rogers com­mis­sioned the firm Walker & Gil­lette to de­sign the res­i­dence and Olm­sted Broth­ers to han­dle the land­scap­ing. Ac­ces­sory build­ings were con­structed for the su­per­in­ten­dents, a butcher, an en­gi­neer, a pump tower, and a pri­vate dairy. (Walker & Gil­lette won a Gold Medal from the Ar­chi­tec­tural League of New York for their trou­ble.) The man­sion’s plain gray-pink stucco walls and sim­ple blue awnings be­lied in­te­ri­ors bear­ing the fam­ily’s coat of arms and fres­coes of Re­nais­sance life in Florence.

The gar­dens were also de­cep­tively sim­ple. An oval mar­ble lily pond sat at the cen­ter of the en­trance court­yard, and be­low the porch, a large rec­tan­gu­lar pool in the mid­dle of a wide lawn held a statue of Min­erva. For­mal parter­res were ar­rayed to the west, while the chil­dren’s play­house, with a small gar­den off the main lawn, “was both for flower ar­rang­ing and ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren through play about na­ture and do­mes­tic life,” Wat­ters says.

John­ston’s Black Point slides are fine ex­am­ples of how to rep­re­sent a gar­den by care­fully fram­ing its vis­tas. Al­though she re­ferred to the “nat­u­ral col­ors” of the images, they were in truth ar­tis­ti­cally en­hanced, and in John­ston’s work we never see the whole gar­den or even any peo­ple en­joy­ing it. “Weed­less, everbloom­ing, flaw­less,” says Wat­ters, “the pho­tographed gar­den was time­less.” In­deed, the slides are still around for us to ad­mire—un­like this es­tate, which was di­vided and sold as prop­erty taxes rose in the late 1930s.

OUT OF SIGHT Près Choi­sis, East Hamp­ton

The home of artists Al­bert and Adele Herter em­bod­ied the spirit of Paris’s bo­hemian elite be­fore the Great War. Al­bert had grown up in a house­hold that lived and breathed Aes­thetic Move­ment de­sign (his fa­ther’s firm, Herter Broth­ers, had fa­mously dec­o­rated Wil­liam H. Van­der­bilt’s Fifth Av­enue man­sion).

The cou­ple met in art school in Paris, and they hon­ey­mooned in Ja­pan, where they be­gan to amass a col­lec­tion of Asian ob­jects. In 1894, Al­bert’s mother gave the cou­ple 75 acres on Ge­or­gica Pond. Af­ter glamp­ing on their land for a sum­mer, the Hert­ers de­cided to align their house with the sol­stice paths of the sun and moon. They hired Grosvenor At­ter­bury, who had de­signed the Par­rish Art

Mu­seum, to build their Si­cil­ian-style salmon-pink villa and gar­dens. The warm color scheme was car­ried through inside, as in a striking red lac­quered balustrade. In an in­ter­view, Al­bert said, “Orange and red are the col­ors of wel­come, so that is why we place them at the door­way.”

Also or­ga­nized by color, the es­tate’s flow­ers were tended daily by a staff of 30 gar­den­ers. White and blue blos­soms spilled from Si­cil­ian oil jars and blue pots in a shade gar­den along the porch steps, while an orange-and-yel­low en­trance court, called the Gar­den of the Sun, bloomed all sum­mer long with tulips, climb­ing roses, dahlias, and sweet wil­liam. John­ston had a great affin­ity for the Hert­ers’ ro­man­ti­cism and pho­tographed their gar­den sev­eral times be­tween 1913 and ’15.

The Hert­ers were very ac­tive in East Hamp­ton civic life, sup­port­ing the li­brary and Guild Hall, host­ing the Ladies’ Vil­lage Im­prove­ment So­ci­ety Fair, and dec­o­rat­ing the new Maid­stone Club. While at Près Choi­sis, the cou­ple staged plays and held cos­tume soirées, some­times light­ing the two-mile drive­way with Ja­panese lanterns and wel­com­ing their guests in Kabuki garb. In the 1920s, En­rico Caruso rented the house and sang in Al­bert’s paint­ing stu­dio, and Isadora Dun­can danced there in a play Al­bert had writ­ten and di­rected. Painter Al­fonso Os­so­rio bought the es­tate in 1952 and con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion of host­ing gath­er­ings of young artists in the ad­ja­cent barn.

THE AP­PLE OF HIS EYE The Or­chard, Southamp­ton

James Lawrence Breese, owner of the es­tate known as the Or­chard, en­gaged renowned ar­chi­tect Stan­ford White, his friend and carous­ing com­pan­ion, to ex­pand what had orig­i­nally been a sea cap­tain’s house that was dwarfed by a 30-acre farm. “Many of John­ston’s com­mis­sions to pho­to­graph Beaux-arts build­ings and res­i­dences came from Mckim, Mead & White,” notes Wat­ters, re­fer­ring to the ar­chi­tect’s leg­endary firm. Not sim­ply an­other wealthy fi­nancier, Breese was also leader of the Car­bonites, a salon of am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers. He oc­cu­pied the Or­chard in­ter­mit­tently be­tween 1895 and 1906.

The main sec­tion of the build­ing, con­sid­ered one of the area’s best ex­am­ples of Greek Re­vival ar­chi­tec­ture, was mod­eled af­ter Mount Ver­non, but the aus­ter­ity stopped at the door. Inside, White’s flam­boy­ant tastes came through in the 75-foot-long music room with or­nate Ital­ian ceil­ings, one of White’s final masterpieces be­fore his death in 1906. De­spite the house’s many fres­coes, tiger skins, bronze chan­de­liers, and Re­nais­sance ta­pes­tries, life there was “pretty in­for­mal,” wrote Breese’s daugh­ter, Frances Miller. Yet her fa­ther’s pen­chant for throw­ing bac­cha­na­lian stag par­ties at his New York City photo stu­dio—of­ten in­clud­ing White and naked women—did not ex­tend to his Southamp­ton home.

Olm­sted Broth­ers de­signed the ax­ial gar­dens that ran from the front of the house to the back. The com­pany kept the epony­mous or­chards along the drive­way and added spec­i­men trees next to a lawn as wide as an air­plane run­way. In the back, parter­res di­vided the prop­erty into for­mal green rooms with veg­e­ta­tion so lush it looked trop­i­cal. A path paved in a her­ring­bone pat­tern, dot­ted with stat­ues, urns, and mar­ble benches, con­nected the gar­dens to an ar­bor.

As their for­tunes fluc­tu­ated in the 1920s, Breese and his wife started rent­ing out the house in the sum­mer­time. In 1926, he sub­di­vided the es­tate and sold a 16-acre par­cel, in­clud­ing the fully fur­nished house, to Charles E. Mer­rill of Mer­rill Lynch fame. The main res­i­dence is now the White­field con­do­minium com­plex. The her­ring­bone path—and John­ston’s photos—is all that re­mains of those gor­geous gar­dens.

More of John­ston’s gar­den photographs can be seen at loc.gov/pic­tures /col­lec­tion/fbj.

“Weed­less, ever-bloom­ing, flaw­less, the pho­tographed gar­den was time­less.” — sam wat­ters

The lily pool at Black Point, ca. 1916.

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