NYSD House

Big Old Houses: Old Westbury

Old Westbury
by John Foreman


Alfred Irenee duPont.
This is Alfred Irenee duPont (1864-1935), scion of the great gunpowder (later chemical) makers of Wilmington, Delaware. In 1902, he and two duPont cousins, Pierre and Coleman, bought the family firm "on credit" from rich relatives, eventually turning it into one the most profitable corporations in America.

For his trouble, duPont was removed from the board of E.I. duPont de Nemours in 1916, amidst a flurry of angry lawsuits and manipulated shareholder votes.

This is Nemours, Mr. duPont's house outside Wilmington, designed by Carrere and Hastings and completed in 1910. It is about as palatial as a house can get; to compare its gardens to Versailles is, for once, no exaggeration. Shut out of the business he had largely helped create, duPont abandoned Wilmington and moved to New York, where he rehired Carrere and Hastings to build him a new country place in the elegant Long Island village of Old Westbury.
White Eagle (pictured at top), as he rather obscurely called it, is a Georgian-Federal-Adam-call-it-what-you-may confection combining erudite detailing, restrained grandeur and early 20th century convenience. To my eye, it's one of Thomas Hastings' best designs, and certainly among the most beautiful houses on Long Island. Finished in 1918, it sat on a 300-acre estate and cost a bit over a million dollars.

Here is Alfred duPont with his 3rd wife, Jessie Ball duPont (1884-1970), whom he married in 1921, almost immediately after the unexpected demise of wife #2. Mr. duPont was a formidable businessman, a brilliant mechanical man, America's best "black powder man," but not a very nice man.

Alfred duPont with his 3rd wife, Jessie Ball duPont.
Frederick Edward Guest.
Amy Phipps Guest.
In 1906, he evicted recently divorced wife #1, including their 3 children, from the family home (ominously called Swamp Hall) on one week's notice, then had the house summarily demolished. Just a little spiteful, ya think? The duPont clan was furious; his children wouldn't talk to him; his cousins built a new house for the "wronged woman" and paid for it out of their own pockets.

No sooner had the dust settled at Swamp Hall than duPont married his second cousin, ex-wife of his private secretary, whose divorce from said secretary had been obtained exactly two weeks earlier. The marriage grew chillier with each year, ending with wife #2's unexpected death in 1920. Never one to dilly dally when it came to getting married, duPont wed Jessie Ball in 1921. Wife #3 was a hard working self-supporting school teacher with a strong Protestant ethic, and this marriage was a success.

To gaze upon White Eagle, not to mention Nemours, which, incidentally, duPont continued to maintain after leaving Wilmington, you wouldn't guess he almost went bankrupt in 1920. I suppose guys like duPont are just "too big to fail." According to one unsubstantiated story, he was quick to seize the face-saving excuse of his second wife's death to sell White Eagle for needed cash. A hand-picked group of local moguls was invited to bid on the property at a private auction held in the drawing room. Old Westbury neighbor Howard Phipps won the bid, then held White Eagle as a placer for his sister Amy.

There might be some truth somewhere in this story, but I'm not sure exactly where. What is true is that in 1926, Howard's sister Amy Phipps Guest (1872-1959) moved into White Eagle with her husband, Frederick Edward Guest (1875-1937), the Brit in the image to the left. There were lots of Phipps in Old Westbury back then, including: Howard's and Amy's brother John Shaffer "Jay" Phipps (1874-1958) who, in 1906, had built Westbury House (now Old Westbury Gardens); Henry Phipps in a house called Spring Hill, contiguious to architect Hasting's place; and Helen Phipps Martin at Knole.

Among Amy and Freddie Guest's first acts as the new residents of White Eagle was to change the name of the place to Roslyn Manor. Meanwhile, Alfred and Jessie duPont deserted New York to start a new life in Jacksonville, Florida. (P.S. They kept Nemours).

Frederick "Freddie" Guest was a grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, a first cousin of Winston Churchill, a Member of Parliament and Liberal Party whip under Lloyd George. He earned the Distinguished Service Order during the First World War, after which he won an Olympic Bronze medal with the 1924 British Polo team. His brother Ivor was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and I'm going to stop there.

His wife Amy (1872-1959), whom he married in 1905, was one of the 5 children of Carnegie partner Henry Phipps Jr. (1839-1930), whose personal share of J.P. Morgan's 1901 buyout of Carnegie Steel — $480 million or around $14 billion today — was a little over 20%. Daughter Amy was, among other things, a prominent suffragist, active philanthropist, skilled angler (she once landed a 44-pount salmon), aviation aficionado and the backer of Amelia Earhart.

White Eagle's original driveway approach from Northern Blvd, now called Dupont (sic) Court, is lined with modern residential behemoths in uncertain taste. After a few confusing detours, one reaches the original mansion, its inner precincts defined by formal gates and lines of pollard trees. Carrere and Hastings' client list included names like Rockefeller, Frick, Guggenheim, Astor, Harriman and Vanderbilt. Probably their most famous commission was the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library.
Let's do an exterior circuit, starting at the south-facing front door, and walking east to a terraced lawn overlooked by a sort of curved open peristyle. Behind the ground floor columns a large drawing room extends the entire width of the building. Above it are the owners' bedrooms and lounge. The awnings and plantings of the past added sumptuousness, but even without them the architecture is ravishing.
The northern side of the house originally overlooked a series of garden terraces, one with a fountain that had been enlarged into a quite grand swimming pool, alas now filled in.
An elaborate kitchen suite, with servants bedrooms above, occupied a western wing. Despite its size, it was almost unnoticeable if you were in the main part of the house. Kitchen, pantries, servant hall, etc. were all demolished in the 1970s and replaced by function rooms and a glass enclosed lean-to dining room. Today's institutional kitchen is in the basement.
At the extreme western end of the house is a garage, which I assume was an addition. Next to it is the service court and kitchen entrance.
A short flight of stairs leads from the kitchen to the main entrance court and, for us, to the front door.
My hostess, Jessica Piccirillo from the New York Institute of Technology's de Seversky Mansion (I'll explain the name in a minute), stands at the threshold of a white marble stair hall considered by many to be the high point of the Hastings' design. In point of fact, it had nothing to do with the architect's original plans and its insertion, which he supervised in 1930, caused him a whole lot of agita. Let me explain:
Here's Amy's father, Henry Phipps, and his wife, the former Anne Childs Shaffer, whom he married in 1872. In 1909, Mr. & Mrs. Phipps moved into 1063 Fifth Avenue, a marble palace on the corner of East 87th Street designed for them by Trowbridge and Livingston. The juggernaut of commercial development that had elbowed its way up Fifth Avenue for a century wasn't about to stop at Central Park. However, along Fifth Avenue it stopped being commercial and became multi-family residential instead. Large apartment buildings began invading the avenue north of 59th Street even as the Phipps house was going up. In fact, a scant 6 years after 1063 was completed, a 12-story apartment house opened on the lot next door.
By 1926 a confluence of forces — the changing nature of the Avenue, a weariness perhaps with keeping up a big place, the postwar difficulties getting and keeping servants, and the purchase of a new house by daughter Amy and her husband — convinced Mr. & Mrs. Phipps to sell. Demolished only 18 years after it was built, 1063 Fifth was replaced in 1928 by a soignee J.E.R. Carpenter-designed apartment house known as 1060 Fifth Avenue.
1063 wasn't just marble on the outside; inside was a grand staircase made of the same stuff. In the course of demolition, both the facade and the stair were salvaged and sent out to Old Westbury. There Thomas Hastings shopped among the disassembled pieces and supervised fabrication and installation of the new stair hall at Roslyn Manor. This necessitated a serious and, frankly, not completely successful reworking of the original floor plans. By 1930, the year of Henry Phipps' death, the installation was complete. The images below compare the marble stair as it looked at 1063 to how it looks today.
The drawing room extends along the entire eastern facade of the house. Is the paneling old? Gee, it could be, or part of it could be. The present owners persist in calling this a ballroom, which I doubt was the architect's intent. Big old houses all have drawing rooms; this is simply a big example. There's been a lot of jiggering around with fireplaces and overmantels in this house, including in the drawing room.
Let's leave the drawing room, cross the hall, and have a look at the library.
There've been changes here too — in bookcase size and placement, fireplace surround, and most particularly in the windows.
When you're inside, the trio of french windows in the library looks original to the house. When you're outside, however, they are all too clearly nothing of the sort. Poor Thomas Hastings must have plotzed.
Let's leave the library, peek down the basement stair, whose marble elegance suggests an owner destination, and have a look at the reception room. Its doorway is directly opposite the drawing room.
This didn't used to be a reception room at all. Instead, the space was originally occupied by stairs to the second floor. It was also the way to the dining room, located to the right beyond the arch in the vintage view below. (The door straight ahead went to the serving pantry). Every big old house needs a reception room, since there are times when you don't particularly want to meet or talk in overly elaborate surroundings. When the Guests inserted the new marble stairhall they apparently eliminated the original reception room. They made do with this. I say "made do" because the space continued to act as a traffic route to the dining room which, to me anyway, seems awkward. Today it's a barroom.
The west end of the stair hall survives as an anteroom to what used to be the dining room, and is now called the Terrace Room. The entrance to the serving pantry has been replaced with modern double doors. The present dining room fireplace and overmantel probably have distinguished provenances, but I much prefer the dignified originals.
All the old pantries, kitchen and servant hall were replaced ca. 1974 with catering house facilities. One original room remains in this wing of this house, likely as not an owner's office designed for meeting tradespeople and taking care of business away from the family.
Time to go upstairs. (The chandelier is not original).
Given the subsequent relocation of the stairs, the original 2nd floor plan was doubtless quite different. The layout of the owners' suite, however, flanked by the north-south marble hall in the image below, looks unchanged to me. Her bedroom is at the north end, overlooking most elaborate of the gardens. Her en suite bathroom was renovated rather horribly in the 1960s. The bedroom doesn't look very feminine, I'll admit, but the layout makes "old house" sense.
A boudoir or lounge with another bath (peculiar, that) is sandwiched between her bedroom and his. The views below show it in both duPont's day and at the present time.
His bedroom is located at the south end of the suite, with a less desirable view, in this case of the entry court — again, a very typical old house arrangement. His bath, now full of files and office machines, adjoins a small den.
The estate was intact — well, 150 acres of it were — and privately occupied until the early 1970s. The spacious looking vintage view below was taken in 1962.
Halls and former bedrooms, in descending order of importance, occupy the rest of the second floor in the family block. As is often the case with big houses in institutional hands, some loving soul has fallen prey to the siren of the gold paint pot.
Sobriety returns in the second floor service wing, whose layout remains largely unchanged. A new steel staircase descends past the original kitchen en route to a large institutional kitchen in the basement. The basement plan is mostly intact, much better lit, and not terribly interesting. At the end of my hasty circuit I found myself at the foot of those marble steps to the main hall.
Frederick Guest died in 1937. His wife Amy continued at Roslyn Manor for another 22 years until her death in 1959. The house was then inherited by her son, Winston Frederick Churchill Guest (1906-1982). Here he is in the arms of his grandmother, Mrs. Henry Phipps, apparently looking for a silver spoon on the floor.
Here he is in Palm Beach, or so I would guess from the foliage. Mr. Guest was probably an excellent tennis player, but what he was really good at was polo. He was indeed an international champion in the 1930s, famous in an era when society polo players were a large and glamorous presence in the popular press.
He is seen below on horseback, second from right, with his famous teammates (l to r) Averell Harriman, Tommy Hitchcock and L.E. Stoddard. When Guest and his second wife moved into his late mother's house, he renamed it Templeton, which was the name of his Florida racing stable and his Long Island polo team.
Guest was married twice and had 4 children. His second wife, Lucy Douglas "CZ" Cochrane (1920-1003), whom he married in Havana in 1947, is seen below in a 1956 photo from Town and Country. I quote New York Social Diary's David Patrick Columbia on CZ Guest: "Sleek, chic, swank, blond on blond, she was one of Truman Capote's 'Swans,' and lo, the longest surviving one." CZ Guest was one of the few women to appear on the cover of Time Magazine which, in 1962 featured her in a story on American High Society. Her brother called her Sissy when she was a very little girl. When she tried to say the word herself, it came out "CZ."
In the late 1960s, the Guests sold Templeton to the New York Institute of Technology, then moved to a somewhat less splendid house in Old Westbury and called it Templeton II. By 1972 their old house had become NYIT's de Seversky Conference Center, named after Alexander P. de Seversky (1894-1974), a glamorous Russian-born aviation pioneer and founder and trustee of the Institute. de Seversky, who learned to fly at age 14, was a prominent figure in the development of American military aviation and an important advocate of strategic bombing.
Templeton lives on as de Seversky, and Old Westbury endures as a fancy suburb, albeit with a less distinguished architectural inventory than in years past. What is wrong with our new billionaires? Where in the world are they getting these house designs? Fortunately many fine old houses, and a surprising number of estates, still exist here, less than 10 miles from Queens. Speaking of existence, you may recall that not just the stairs but the entire marble facade of 1063 Fifth was sent out to Templeton by the Phipps. It sat for years in a field before being moved to a rented lot under the Roslyn Viaduct. When the lease on the lot expired, anybody who wanted it was invited to help themselves. In a bit of preservation symmetry, Ronnette Riley Architects recently used salvaged marble balusters from 1063 to restore the terrace rails at de Seversky.
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