Old Westbury Gardens in process of $4M restoration

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Westbury House at Old Westbury Gardens, which is undergoing repairs to its roof as part of a $4 million renovation of the property's structures. (Photo by Rose Weldon)

Old Westbury Gardens, one of the oldest estates on Long Island, is undergoing $4 million of restorations on two of its century-old structures.

The first, Westbury House, was built between 1903 and 1906 for John S. Phipps, eldest son of Henry Phipps Jr., the second largest shareholder in Carnegie Steel Co. and business partner of Andrew Carnegie.

Designed by English artist George Crawley, the house was meant to evoke English architecture, and as such its materials were shipped from overseas, according to Lorraine Gilligan, director of preservation for the estate, which complicated the restorations.

“Crawley was really interested in the use of collyweston slate, which is a limestone slate which we don’t have in this country,” Gilligan said. “There’s also a terra-cotta cornice, sort of like a necklace below the eave of the roof.”

The roof had been installed incorrectly in 1906, Gilligan says, by American workers who had never worked with slate prior to the installation.

“In the archives, we have correspondence by George Crawley effectively ordering half of an order to replace the roof,” Gilligan said.

Two slaters from the United Kingdom then came over to work on the roof, from the same quarry that sent 60 crates of 27,000 slates over this year. Six slaters will also be sent, and depending on the time they arrive, Gilligan said, the roof will be finished in either March or April.

“We’ve known for the past 30 years that we’ve needed a new roof for Westbury House,” Gilligan said.

With proper care, Gilligan said, the new slates should last for 150 years.

In addition to restorations on the roof of the main house, the Thatched Cottage at the south end of the property had repairs for its namesake roof, also common in English architecture at the time.

“We were able to secure funding for [the thatched roof] through our garden fair here in the spring,” Gilligan said.

The Tudor Revival-style cottage is estimated to have been built in 1914 as a gift for John  Phipps’ daughter Peggy. While no records exist naming the cottage’s designer, the original state of its thatched roof was seen in early home movies, Gilligan says, further repairs to the roof weren’t made with thatched reeds “until the late 1970s.”

Like Westbury House, the roof of the cottage required specialized materials and labor. Master thatcher Colin McGee completed the task with reeds found in Russia and Turkey, Gilligan said.

While the Thatched Cottage restorations were completed last week and the cottage is again open to the public, Westbury House will be closed to the public for the majority of restoration, due to concerns about the effects of construction vibrations on the furniture and paintings left behind by the Phipps family.

“Everything is irreplaceable, because these were interiors selected by the family,” Gilligan said. “Unfortunately, when a lot of these estates went public or became public entities, a lot of times the furniture would be dispersed amongst family members. The houses were empty, and a lot of places hadn’t been able to retrieve items back from families. We’re lucky that about 90 percent of the original collection is still here.”

The restorations were paid for through a combination of Old Westbury Gardens’ capital campaign, New York State Environmental Protection grants valued at $400,000 to $500,000, and a grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation in Hampton Bays, totaling $4 million for construction, transportation of materials and labor.

While Westbury House’s restorations mean it will be closed for a time, it will be reopened during its construction for the Christmas season, Gilligan says.

“The day after Thanksgiving, the house will be opened,” Gilligan said. “There will be scaffolding round the house, but the front door will still be wide open.”

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