Quogue, some say, is the un-Hampton. It’s quiet, peaceful, and small: a few restaurants, a beach, a town pond, and a nature preserve that’s great for running. The Quogue Club is the kind of place where men wear green blazers and ladies sip a Pimm’s after tennis. And being the un-Hampton is just the way locals like it.
Perhaps that’s why George W. Merck chose Quogue to build his country estate, Sundune, in 1928. Merck seems like the type to choose the quiet refinement of Quogue over glitzy Southampton. And the house today almost looks just as the Mercks left it. Except for the kitchen, it’s just as it was built in 1928. The living room and dining room walls, ceilings and floors, of North Carolina pine, have retained the original dark green stain. The Mercks also built a few other cottages along the oceanfront and across Dune Road for friends and relatives to stay, one of which remains.
Who was George Merck? Virtually forgotten today, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1951. The pharmaceutical company president stated that “Medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits.” (Wouldn’t be likely to hear that today!)
George Wilhelm Herman Emanuel Merck was born in 1894 in New York to parents who’d emigrated from Germany three years before. The baby was named for his uncles; many years later, he would tell Time that, by tradition, each uncle honored had to send silver presents for ten years.
The elder Mercks came to establish an American office for the family company. Merck was founded in 1668 in Darmstadt, Germany, as the Engel-Apotheke, or Angel Pharmacy. It’s the world’s oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company and is still owned by the family.
Young George grew up in Llewelyn Park, New Jersey, where he was friendly with Thomas Edison’s sons and hung around Edison’s lab. Edison called George “Shorty;” since Merck was later 6’5” tall, it was no doubt ironic. Edison told young George, “Start a reasonable investigation of some kind, and make lots of experiments. You may not reach the goal you are seeking, but if you use common sense and keep your eyes open, you create your own opportunities for making worthwhile discoveries along the way. If you just wait for inspiration, and are afraid to experiment, you’ll never learn anything.”
George went to Harvard and studied chemistry, but World War I prevented his going to Germany for an advanced degree. Besides, he was needed at home, as the American government nationalized the American branch of Merck. After the war, George Merck’s father purchased the company for $3.75 million, and since then American Merck & Co is not part of the German parent company. The elder Merck told his son, “Come on into the shop. The war will be over in a few months and then you can go and get your degree.” Many years later, George said, “I never did, and I’m still in the shop.” He went on to get practical experience in almost every branch of the company.
In 1925, when his father’s health began to fail, Merck became president of the company. A few years later, in 1929, he made a groundbreaking decision: to establish a laboratory in which scientists working for Merck could conduct research on a par with any university in the world. This was the first research lab for a pharma company, ever. At the dedication, Merck said, “We have faith that in this new laboratory, science will be advanced, knowledge increased, and human life will win a greater freedom from suffering and disease.”
By 1940, Merck scientists had first synthesized, either alone or in collaboration, vitamins B1, E, B6, and pantothenic acid. The company began production of almost all the vitamins needed in human nutrition, and was an early manufacturer of sulfa drugs. By 1952, Merck had become the nation’s second largest pharmaceutical supplier, credited with the development of streptomycin, synthesis of cortisone, and isolation of the anti-anemia vitamin B12.
In 1928, Merck built a fine house in Quogue. The lovely place, Sundune, was extremely well built, even surviving the hurricane of 1938 unscathed. In the ’30s, Sundune was a gathering spot for the Merck children as well as socialites, debutantes and young Wall Streeters who left New York for the sun, fishing and swimming in Quogue.
The Mercks sold Sundune in 1941 for $7,500, furnished. We don’t know why. George was busy sitting on the Munition Board’s Chemical Advisory Committee. In 1942, he became director of the War Research Service, a civilian agency charged with all biological warfare research and development. The Mercks then bought a farm in Vermont, where they vacationed for the rest of George’s life.
The current owners have lived in the house since 1978 and have made some changes to the kitchen, a bathroom and the porch, but the built-in, glass-fronted cupboards on each side of the living room fireplace still display the Merck family’s shell collection. Each sits in a little pile of beach sand on the shelves, untouched for nearly a hundred years. Other vintage details include the original 1928 Dutch front door, exposed wood walls and beams and a sunny screened porch. And just as in the Mercks’ day, there’s a beach-plum lined boardwalk to the beach. Not too big, not too glitzy: just the way they like it in the un-Hampton.
Sundune is for sale via Saunders.