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Bayberry Land

Originally Posted: September 10, 2004

Mary Cummings

Preservationists pleaded, architects argued and historians wept, but in the end nothing could save the manor house at Bayberry Land, the last of Southampton's grand estates to survive intact into the 21st century. A developer with plans to build a private golf course on the 298-acre property where the mansion sits on a bluff overlooking Peconic Bay in Sebonac could not be persuaded to keep it. To make up for the loss, he promised support for other town projects—money and land which, weighed against the intangible advantages of preserving an irreplaceable piece of Southampton's past, tipped the balance.

It's too bad the intangibles could not have been made more palpable. Too bad a house so heavy with history had no way to weigh in with what it had witnessed. Too bad its walls couldn't talk.

The story would start in 1918 when the war in Europe was finally coming to an end, spirits were rising, and brothers Walter and Eliot Cross, partners in Old New York City Society's architectural firm of choice, Cross & Cross, were drawing up plans for a 28-room, English-style manor house for Charles H. Sabin and his wife, Pauline. Mr. Sabin, who was president of the Guaranty Trust Company at the time and would be described some years later in his New York Times obituary as "one of the most prominent figures in American finance," had wooed and won Pauline Morton Smith three years earlier in 1916.

His new wife was, by all accounts, a charming dynamo with politics bred in the bone. Theodore Roosevelt had named her father to his cabinet as Secretary of the Navy; her uncle was the Morton of Morton ("When It Rains, It Pours") Salt; and her grandfather, Julius Sterling Morton, was a legendary figure who had served as governor of Nebraska as well as Secretary of Agriculture under Grover Cleveland. Like her husband, Pauline had been married before (to James Hopkins Smith Jr., a wealthy New York yachting and sports enthusiast) and she would be married again (to Dwight Davis of Davis Cup fame), but Charles Sabin, in the words of her granddaughter Pauline Willis, "was the love of her life."

The Sabins, like others among Cross & Cross's A-list clientele of wealthy New Yorkers with the means to play out their pastoral fantasies, would have considered a country house for weekend and summer use essential. They would have looked to the English as offering the model for upper-class country living, and would have spared no expense. Hence the English-inspired design of the manor house at Bayberry Land with its graceful gables, chimney pots and deliberate sags, an esthetic more modestly applied to its many auxiliary buildings, built to service the main house while bolstering the estate's illusory image as an outpost of agrarian self-sufficiency.

To lay out the grounds, the Sabins hired Marian Coffin, a pioneer in the then new profession of landscape architecture. The Sabin commission came at the beginning of Ms. Coffin's career, which lasted four decades and earned her recognition as one of the leading women landscape architects of her day. A hard-working, trailblazing professional, to be sure, she also had time on her side, arriving on the scene when the wealthy were spending ever more lavishly on country homes. Nor did she lack social connections. Henry F. du Pont's mother and hers were fast friends, for example, and in 1925 she was hired to design the gardens at Chestertown, the du Pont summer house in Southampton (also designed by Cross & Cross), though their state manor was later buried beneath Barry Trupin's garish gothic accretions.

As work got under way at Bayberry Land, the huge property must have swarmed with awesome activity. Ms. Coffin, taking her cue from the "picturesque porches, gables and other irregularities" of the Cross & Cross plan for the house, created a landscape scheme for Bayberry Land that incorporated several small gardens integrated around the great lawn at the center. She was apparently as fearless in her approach to managing large crews of workmen engaged in monumental horticultural feats as she was bold in her esthetic. Period photographs of Model-T Ford trucks delivering tremendous, fully-grown trees to the site dispel any notion that the overnight garden is a recent phenomenon. Ms. Coffin, who cleaved to the believe that plants need 12 inches or more of topsoil to thrive, is also on record as trucking in tons of it. Records show that she purchased an entire East End farm for its topsoil, which she transported to the gardens at Bayberry Land.

By the fall of 1918 the estate was evidently up and running, its rooms filled with fine antiques. There were 11 bedrooms, 11 baths, 11 chimneys, a large ballroom, elaborate gardens and tennis courts. A report under the heading "Southampton Town Tax on Big Estates" in the September 5, 1918, edition of The Southampton Press, lists Bayberry Land as the property with the highest tax bill due for collection in January 1919 and hails its arrival in the top spot with these words: "A newcomer this year, and owner is Charles H. Sabin, president of the Guaranty Trust Company, whose Bayberry Land in the hills near the National Golf Club is among the showplaces of Southampton. It leads in the assessment at $160,000." (It was followed on the list by the oceanfront property of Standard Oil's H.H. Rogers, James L. Breese's Stanford White-designed house on Hill Street, and the Claflin house, which became the centerpiece of the Southampton College campus.

Not surprisingly, the "showplace" and the highly social couple who owned it attracted considerable media attention. Critics confirmed the general view that the mansion was among Cross & Cross's most successful designs, and views of the house and gardens were widely published. An invitation from the Sabins in summer must have been quite a plum and it is easy to imagine a steady flow of friends from the worlds of finance, politics and international affairs strolling the lush gardens at twilight on paths illuminated by Japanese lanterns, admiring the views, and lingering around the long dining table at the end of a fine multi-course dinner, discussing the great issues of the day not as observers, but players.

But if the guests were apt to be powerful people, there is no reason to believe that the parties were stuffy. Pauline Sabin was nothing if not game and her husband was far from the archetypal stodgy banker whose path in life is all but determined at birth. In fact, he had been working in Albany for a flour merchant in the late 1880s when his pitching arm opened the door to the career in finance for which he proved to have such a remarkable gift. Having stepped onto the mound at a crucial moment and won a decisive game for the National Commercial Bank team in Albany, he joined the bank as an employee and never looked back. Nor did he ever forget what he owed his athletic prowess. In New York, he was an early and energetic supporter of what was then called the Boys' Club and his view that healthy outdoor life for boys prevented crime and "gangsterism" was well known. A confirmed Democrat, he also lent his active support to the political careers of Alfred E. Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1931, took charge of the Democratic "victory campaign" in New York.

Meanwhile, his wife was rising to prominence in Republican politics. In 1919, she joined the Suffolk County Republican Committee and began hosting elaborate lawn parties at Bayberry Land for Republican organizations. The next year she was selected for the New York State Executive Committee of the G.O.P. and in 1921 she was elected president of the Women's National Republican Club, which she had helped to found. She was a delegate to the party's conventions in 1924 and 1928.

Despite their opposing party affiliations, there was one issue on which the couple was in complete agreement. Both favored repeal of Prohibition. To lead the fight, Pauline Sabin was obliged to relax her partisanship and battle alongside Democrats. The Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, which she founded in 1928, is given much of the credit for passage of the 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition in 1933. In a later tribute to the way his friend had reversed the powerful forces against her, Joseph W. Alsop wrote that Pauline Sabin and her W.O.N.P.R. had "beat the tar out of the formerly all-powerful Women's Christian Temperance Union and its formidable boss Mrs. Ella A. Boole, whose pince-nez had gleamed upon scenes of uninterrupted triumph since 1918."

In July of 1932, with the fight in full gear, Time magazine put Pauline Morton Sabin on its cover and the accompanying profile offered this assessment of her remarkable influence: "The real strength of the Sabin organization lies in the desire of the small-town matron to ally herself, no matter how remotely, with a congregation of bona fide, rotogravure society figures in a cause about which she may or may not have profound convictions."

Unfortunately, Charles Sabin did not live to see his wife's triumph. On October 10, 1933, he was dining alone at Bayberry Land—his wife was making a speech for repeal in Pennsylvania—when he suffered a stroke. At eight o'clock, "Mr. Sabin had just finished dinner," according to the Times obituary, "and was about to light a cigarette when the butler saw him slump in his chair and topple over on the table." Dr. George H. Schenck was called to his bedside but within three hours Mr. Sabin was dead.

Bayberry Land continued as a summer home for the widowed Pauline and, later, when she and Dwight Davis were married, for their combined families. During World War II Pauline was named director of volunteer special services for the American Red Cross, while Bayberry Land provided a welcome summer refuge for Mr. Davis's daughter and grandchildren, who came from war-torn England to stay in "the cottage." With Pauline's American grandchildren, who always headed for Bayberry Land as soon as school was out, they formed a jolly group, despite some wartime restrictions.

Pauline Willis, a granddaughter, remembers that every afternoon, "We'd gather while the governesses had tea and we played. We had hide-and-seek games that covered however many hundreds of acres." One rainy day she and the other children went up to the attic and were "dumbfounded to find that the whole thing was set up as a Red Cross station with cots and little chests with bandages."

Her grandmother's war work notwithstanding, "there was a houseful of help and houseguests all the time on weekends," she said. Among the small army of help, the butler, James Coker, was perhaps the most devoted, having arrived as a footman and risen in the ranks to the top job. Along the way, he married one of the maids and the couple raised their family on the estate. Besides overseeing the meals with the under-butler, dressed in white jackets with green and gold epaulettes, he evidently made himself indispensable in countless ways.

After Dwight Davis died in 1945, Bayberry Land went on the market, where it stayed "quite a while," recalled Ms. Willis. Her grandmother rented a house in the village and Bayberry Land "just sat out there with the gardener and his collection of gardeners. Everything was just kept up with the idea that someone might come along and buy it."

Eventually the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers did buy it and used it as a retreat and meeting place until the present owners bought it three years ago. They have promised that the handsome wrought-iron entrance gates will remain, providing one reminder of what has been lost. Another can be found in the Southampton Cemetery, where Pauline Sabin Davis (1887-1955) and Charles Hamilton Sabin (1868-1933) are buried in a pair of imposing sarcophagi. Hers is marked simply with her dates, while his bears this inscription:

"E'en as he trod that day to God
So walked he from his birth
In simpleness and gentleness and honor and clean mirth."

At some distance away on the same well-bordered plot stands a considerably smaller stone marking the graves of the butler James Coker (1894-1961) and his wife Clara (1902-1987).





Updated: June 10, 2009, 8:54 pm
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