During one of the last weeks of August, my parents and I spent a day at Old Westbury Gardens – pretty much my favorite place on Earth/my idea of paradise. This time was a little different because we decided to take a walk through the house before strolling the grounds. The mansion, built in 1906, was the home of John (“Jay”) Shaffer Phipps, his wife, Peruvian-born Margarita Grace, and their four children. The house was built by self-taught designer George Crawley, and in planning it he studied great English houses from the 1600s. Amazingly enough, this was Crawley’s first house designed from the ground up, and today the house is still furnished almost exactly the way it was during the early 20th century.
The Ballroom, furnished with crystal chandeliers and walls of red damask, was where the family did their formal entertaining.
Above the fireplace is a portrait of Mrs. Michael Phipps (Michael being one of John and Margarita’s four children). Michael was an incredibly talented polo player – the tour guide mentioned him being like the Derek Jeter of his day!
The eagle on top of the dresser contains secret drawers built into its chest.
These lovely porcelain birds placed on little shelves around this mirror were given as gifts to John and Margarita by the 30 children they took in and housed during the war.
Mrs. Phipps’ Study:
Many of the books in Mrs. Phipps’ study are actually original to the house and were purchased when the family moved in. Look a little closer and you’ll see an actual row of false books, behind which lays a hidden cabinet that housed Jay Phipps’ valuable violin collection!
Fake books concealing the hidden closet – so Nancy Drew.
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The Dining Room:
Jay’s father was Henry Phipps Jr., a close friend and business associate of Andrew Carnegie. This dining room was actually designed for Henry’s townhouse in NYC and was moved to Westbury in 1927 when the townhouse was going to be demolished. What you don’t see in this picture are the five or so life-sized figures dressed in 20th century regalia standing around the table, to show what it would have been like with the family there…I found them super creepy, I have to admit!
The West Porch:
Surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows, this sunroom is bathed with light and really brings the outdoors in. Atop it, there was a sleeping roof where family members could slumber in the summer air when the inside became too stifling (no air conditioning back then!).
The nine floor-to-ceiling windows (which are basically the walls) can actually be lowered into the basement, allowing for a true open-air experience. This is where the family took their afternoon tea.
There’s the West Terrace through the window, and the giant beech tree that resides upon it. Beyond that a set of stone steps leads to the West Pond and marble trimmed reflecting pool.
The Blue Guest Room:
The Blue Guest Room contains beautiful 18th century Chinese wallpaper.
A portrait of Jay and Margarita’s daughter Margaret (known as Peggie) hangs above the fireplace. Peggie, after her parents’ death, was the one who decided to open Old Westbury Gardens to the public. She founded Old Westbury as a non-profit organization and acted as chairman until her death in 2006. There are actually a lot of these types of estates and also castles on Long Island, but Westbury happens to be one of the best and one of the most beautifully maintained – and I think in large part we have Peggie to thank for that.
This room was decorated by Crawley in the classical style of designer Robert Adam.
The Master Bathroom:
Can you guess what this wicker “chair” is? Yup…the toilet!
The third floor of Old Westbury is closed to the public, but it originally served as the servants quarters. Later a separate servant wing was added and the third floor was then used for the children’s nurseries and schoolrooms as well as lodging for governesses.
For more information on Old Westbury Gardens or to plan a visit (which I obviously recommend highly!), you can visit their website here. Next week I’ll share some more pictures I took of the grounds!
photos by me