Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Old Long Island Estates: A surviving James W. O'Connor Playhouse

Long Island is famous for its Gilded Age Estates, immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and chronicled, with vigilance by Zach L. in his blog Old Long Island.  The American Country house movement was propelled by the tremendous fortunes earned in steel, railroads, shipping, coal and oil. Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Phipps, Morgans, Pratts, Graces and Hearsts, to mention a few, erected spectacular weekend estates in Nassau County as private country clubs. Palatial homes in every idiom sprouted with architectural stables, polo fields, and Playhouses. Architect James W. O'Connor  cornered the Playhouse market. A Playhouse is a separate house, containing an indoor tennis court, occasionally a swimming pool, guest rooms, and a large gathering living room overlooking the tennis courts. This Playhouse survives today, and is one of the few private Playhouses remaining in the country.

This is an exterior photograph, from the family archives, depicting multiple elevations. The first landscape architect on this estate was Olmsted, of Central Park, followed by Ferruccio Vitale.

The exterior of the house today.  
O'Connor, educated at Columbia and The Ecole des Beaux Arts, was known for his colonial style using 18th century Georgian models. He was equally at ease with Tudor, Gothic, French, Manorial, and Italianate vocabularies. 

As an Irish Catholic, James W. O'Connor's entree to the social elite came through the patronage of his childhood friends within the W.R. Grace shipping family. His commissions grew steadily with his magnificently scaled manor houses, yet Playhouses were his oeuvre. 

The same ornamental facade from the old estate days

Many of the ancient trees on Long Island Estates were brought over on barges from Connecticut with the innovation of maintaining the large root ball intact. Ferrucio Vitale adhered to classical geometric principles in his designs, combining circular and rectangular elements with cross axes and interconnected parallel spaces. See the aerial view below to see how the pool is visible from both the main and Playhouses. 

The aerial view provides insight into the scale of the Playhouse relative to the main house. The second owners were heirs to the Jello fortune, and I would say their motto: "There's always room" must have resonated. Vitale's outdoor rooms are well defined, and illustrate his intention of creating a "gentleman's farm." In the top left hand corner, orderly gardens for vegetables and flowers provide sustenance and beauty for the estate. The greenhouse, practically invisible is above them. 

 The entrance to the tennis courts is a simple back door. The balustraded roofline is an O'Connor signature. The door opens directly to the right of the lower sitting room. 

"I tell you what. You slip away first. I'll meet you at... The indoor tennis court. ..." 
Sabrina Fairchild

O'Connor tennis courts have a signature double gallery with substantial ornamental mill and ironwork defining their space. 

The family has maintained the Playhouse with many original features, including the old furniture that came from the previous owners. Old coal boilers, large enough for a man to walk into, have been replaced by modern, efficient heating. It used to cost $10.50 an hour to heat the tennis courts for a match. The price is now $1.50. Lighting technology has improved dramatically, with double the candle power on the court. 

The old tennis racquet room has stayed virtually the same. Bobby Riggs was the house pro and would have restrung your racquet for you here. 

The entertaining portion of the house is upstairs. Spectacular paneling is certainly on par with the main house, but the furnishings were more in keeping with a men's club. 

The original furniture is timeless with fresh fabric and color. Mrs. M. decorated this room in the English country style with the legendary Sister Parish of Parish Hadley. At the time, Bunny Williams was her assistant, so there was a double infusion of genius to spread around! There has been a great deal of discussion of center table placement in large living rooms to break up the seating areas. This is a perfect example. 

The french doors open to the upper gallery of the tennis courts and allow the party to socialize while they enjoy the match. 

The old Playhouse living room was arranged very differently, with the same Aiken style, deep upholstery. The contemporary interpretation of the same room and furniture is eminently more feminine.

The long corridor divides the living room from the guest rooms traversing part of the tennis court on one side and the pool on the other. Bright chintz's on the upholstery play well against the dark paneling. 

Believe it or not, I was having trouble orienting myself and was wondering where the swimming pool entrance was hiding. Opening the door to the pool from the corridor is a truly unexpected vertiginous transition into light and space. 

This is a family photograph of the pool area. It is usually left empty due to moisture issues and is filled for parties, with magical floating candles illuminating the murals. The house is filled with Currier and Ives prints, and the murals were perfectly chosen to depict the era.

Moving towards the main entrance area, the guest rooms have been refurbished by the Grand Daughter of the third owners with the assistance of Megan de Roulet of Windham House design.

Megan is fluent in English and French country house styling, with a unique American twist. Working with the existing pieces from the second owners, she continues with the fresh aesthetic initiated by the wonderful Mrs. M. I think its time to head to the bar! Megan and Mrs. G. chose this exotic Digby's tent pattern by Charlotte Moss for Brunschwig & Fils.

In conclusion I'll end with some of the happy memories that have generated from the wonderful tradition of fun and hospitality this Playhouse has provided for many. 

My parents were wonderful tennis players. I found these photos in the family album of them relaxing with a cocktail after a match. Its hard to believe, but they are younger than me in these pictures! 

The gallery watching the finals of the annual "Divorce Doubles" tournament. The rule is: you must play with your spouse!
We hope you enjoy this post. Thanks very much to friend's for sharing. If you have guessed the origins of this estate, please keep it confidential for the privacy of the family who so generously shared their home with us. Please do not use the pictures without our permission.


  1. Wonderful post, Liz. East Coast playhouses are indeed marvels. I have had the pleasure of spending time at the Kykuit Playhouse, and taking a few games of tennis there before it was turned over. Oh to have lived during the Golden Era!

  2. This is worth being published. Well researched and written, pictures to die for. Keep up the good work!

  3. Dear Liz, Congratulations on your Broadway Hit! (Playhouse) I enjoyed all of it. I wanted my sunroom with that Balustrade roof, the builder said that flat roofs are trouble with heavy snow.
    As far as the interiors, That bedroom looks like our farm, exact headboard and buffalo checks,chintz and gingham.My style.
    I will add you to my side bar and you can put me on yours. yvonne

  4. Just thought, my Daughter will love your site.
    Go visit her


  5. Liz - you can imagine how much I loved this post - so right up my alley. What a spectacular place - so love how the owners rejuvenated the Playhouse in such a casually elegant manner. But they had a lot to work with - the fabulous millwork, paneling and architecture. Must be such fun to entertain there!

  6. Fabulous post from
    start to finish.
    Those families were
    like the royalty
    of their time! Lucky
    us to get the chance
    via you to take a
    peek at their private
    playgrounds : ) !!
    xx Suzanne

  7. Dear Liz,

    Thank you for this ! A trip back into time ! I love how the family has nurtured & taken care of their Playhouse and I'm sure the Playhouse will always give back to them perpetually.

    Well Done : )

  8. Such a great tour! I love finding places like this that have evolved over the years -that little tennis sitting 'nook' is especially charming!

  9. Liz what a treasure! So well researched. I love the shot of the enfilade.

    Yes I do need an assitant!!

    Art by Karena

  10. Great blog. Love the post about Eddie Ross too. I'm obsessed w/ him!

  11. Being the tennis buff that I am, this is really cool. Thank you for stopping by and becoming a follower.

  12. So wonderful. Your posts are so involved and informative. Thank you so much for your sweet words and for commenting on my very first post!

  13. Hi,

    Since I don't know who is who on your team I will just include you all.(-: Thank you for visiting my blog...I really enjoyed your comment about docenting at the Huntington. As you know it is just about the only "grand house" in Southern California, unlike the area where this post originates. What fun you must be having in the midst of so much history, glamour and luxury. I adore houses and gardens, the grander the better. I feel more kinship with more humble spots but who could pass up a chance to view some of these - wow! Thanks for the opportunity to follow you and see what is happening on the East Coast...I am very envious of the tour with Eddie Ross!

  14. Hi LiZ, I had to come by and say thank you so much for your comment this morning. So glad you enjoyed it and Bravo for putting the apples and trees in your kitchen. I love all the inspiration that is out in blogland this time of year. I do love this season!!!
    Merry Christmas,

  15. what a lovely post...Happy to see you at Farmhouse and thank you for the kind words...i don't do catering but consider it a compliment coming from you...i have seen EATALY on the Martha Show when it first opened...i have a blog friend who went and loved it too...i would die to go...why am i all the way in california????

    have a wonsderful weekend, my friend

  16. Lovely post Liz, thank you for stopping by the blog...up your way next week. I am off to see the holiday window feast for the eyes.
    Happy Holidays!

  17. Liz, this is fascinating to me! I live across the Long island Sound from this area, which has such a rich history. Have you seen the piece about Cornelia Guest selling her parents' home on L.I. in this month's Bazar? This was such a different era - wouldn't it have been a blast to have been a part of it?!!!

    If only those walls could talk!
    xo Elizabeth

  18. I was happy to find this wonderful post through Zachary at OLD LONG ISLAND. As an architect at Parish-Hadley, I had the opportunity to visit a couple if these "playhouses" or "casinos", but I had not recalled even seeing photos of this wonderful building. Many thanks!

  19. What fascinating post! I love nothing better then to read about old estates, which are still beautifully kept and are full of stories! Wonderful.
    Thank you for stopping by, makes me happy that you might have found something interesting!
    I am so glad to have found Dovecote Decor!
    Happy holidays! I'll be back soon!

  20. Hi Liz...What a fascinating post!! Wonderful tour. I thoroughly enjoyed the history and the images! I grew up on LI and still feel very nostalgic about it...Thanks so much for your lovely comment on my blog. I'm thrilled that we're following eachother!


  21. I'm fascinated by glimpses into the past like this. What a wonderful post--thank you!!

  22. Fabulous post -- thanks for sharing all the detail, just wonderful.

    So sorry I missed you at the Flea with Eddie -- had quite a row that morning with owners of Interiors Marketplace and had to get my things out and over to Slate Interiors that day. Horrible. Hope we have another opportunity to meet soon!

  23. THAT is how I would like to watch tennis! What a great post...I have always loved to get a glimplse into the lives of the people that live in these amazing places.

  24. An ex-tennis player myself (I've since gone over to the dark side...golf), these photos bring back some mighty fine memories of my own....thanks for posting...K

  25. I love all the old photographs you found! All the anecdotes are great too. Now to acquire my own playhouse...

  26. Just home from the wedding in Long Island, I was telling my cousins friends about your post on the fantastic homes there.
    Taking another look great post,


  27. really interesting and wonderful post!

  28. Such an enlightening and interesting read! Thanks for posting and also for your recent input on my paint brand dilemma post:-). Happy Sunday!

  29. Beautiful!!! And so inspiring for my job! The woodpaneling is gorgeous!!!
    Liz, thank you for visiting me and to tell me about this post!!µ
    I wish you and your family a Happy and Healthy 2011!!


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