The Southampton Historical Museum recently hosted a terrific lecture titled “The Orchard, Stanford White’s Final Masterpiece.” The lecture was presented by renowned author and architect Gary Lawrance.
It was thrilling to be able to experience such an important and significant piece of American architecture. Not long ago, The Orchard, which is now called Whitefield, was in great distress and in danger of being demolished. Without the help and dedication of visionary conservation groups, developers and like-minded village citizens, this magnificent home would have been lost to future generations.
The evening’s lecture gave great insight into what it was like to live in the Gilded Age. The Music Room and gardens at Southampton’s Whitefield Condominiums showed everyone what a truly successful adaptive reuse of historical structures and grounds can accomplish. The Orchard was designed and built for financier James L. Breese in 1895 by the esteemed architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. The Orchard is generally considered to be one of the finest summer homes White ever designed. White and Breese were good friends, and White would often stay at the home and help design many improvements and additional wings.
Whitefield is a magnificent example of early Greek revival architecture and was one of the firm’s many signature summer estates. Other notable commissions on the East End include the homes of the Montauk Association and the Shinnecock Golf Club. In 1915, Country Life magazine recognized The Orchard “Whitefield” as one of 12 most significant country homes in America.
It is widely recognized that Whitefield was the last project White worked on prior to his murder by Harry Thaw in 1906. Thaw was a jealous husband angered over White’s affair with his wife.
I am always taken back by the elaborate gardens and the ambience they create on this magnificent 16-acre country estate. The evening was filled with images of life at The Orchard and the surrounding community, many of which Lawrance found while researching and co-authoring the bestselling book Houses of the Hamptons 1880–1930 with fellow architect Anne Surchin. Lawrance shared insights and commentary into the Southampton Summer Colony life and what it had been like to mingle with some of this nation’s most powerful and influential families.
During the lecture, my eyes drifted around the room up to the coffered ceiling, which was hand-painted by the architect. As the sun poured light and color through the large leaded glass windows that surround the music room, I wondered what the wall of pipe organs must have sounded like during the great dances of the Gilded Age. Sitting beside the massive antique carved limestone mantle inside this exquisite oak-paneled room that has survived virtually unchanged for over 100 years gave me a small glimpse into life at the time.
McKim, Mead & White had designed over 300 private residences and were part of an ever-evolving laboratory of ideas and design that poured out of the architect’s hand. It is fascinated to know that many of White’s original designs, drawings and sketches are archived just to the west at Columbia University.
White was a Renaissance man and a repository of ideas, many of which were made from sketching trips to Europe. His vast association and collaboration with some of the greatest architects, artisans and craftsman of his time allowed him to forge a solely unique American architecture that still inspires us to this day.
For a more comprehensive understanding of The Orchard, read Houses of the Hamptons 1880–1930 by Gary Lawrance and Anne Surchin. John Laffey is an architect in Water Mill. For more information, visit johnlaffeyarchitects.com.