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INTERVIEW: Anne Surchin On The Forgotten Wiborg Estate, Grosvenor Atterbury’s Hamptons Impact, And More

Nicole Barylski

The Wiborg estate has faded into Hamptons history. (Courtesy Photo)

How does one of the Hamptons' most prestigious estates fade into history, forgotten by most? Anne Surchin, R.A. and Daniel Cohen, Researcher, East Hampton Historical Society, will cover exactly that during At Home with the Wiborgs: The Family and their Fabled Estate, which will include an introduction by Laura Donnelly, Great Granddaughter of Frank and Adeline Wiborg.

The Tom Twomey Series lecture will take place at East Hampton Library on Friday, July 12 at 6 p.m.

We spoke with Surchin to learn a little about the Wiborgs' The Dunes estate.

Tell us a little bit about the Wiborgs' history in the Hamptons?

AS: The Wiborgs were a family of enormous wealth. They were kind of new money. It's one thing to say, what about them in the Hamptons? Then you have to say, well, what about them as they're trying to make it in New York City? And trying to get into that social circle, which they were not by birth really a part of. But, when they first came here, at The Dunes - it was 1896, so it was very early on, and it's now sort of a forgotten house, but they bought 600 acres along the ocean. It was one of the largest properties in the area and it was next to the Maidstone Club. It was this 30 room stucco mansion, and it was also clad in shingles as well, but the newer section was stucco. He was the ink manufacturing tycoon of his time. When he first came to New York, I think they leased a suite in the Gotham Hotel. They were from Cincinnati, but coming to New York, they wanted to promote their daughters into society.

In the Hamptons, they hired Grosvenor Atterbury to take this small existing farmhouse that was on the property into what would become one of the show places of East Hampton. This was one of Atterbury's very first major commissions. That's really what I'm going to be talking about, and what he did in this house, how much of what he did in this house, you can see in later commissions that he had. Mr. Cohen is going to talk more about the family themselves.

Frank Wiborg died in the early 1930s and the daughters inherited the estate. One of them, Sarah, married Gerald Murphy, who was an heir to Mark Cross. So then, the outgrowth of this was that they became one of these darling couples, Sarah and Gerald. They were friends with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. They spent time on the French Riviera, they were part of that lost generation society, which included Dorothy Parker. They were supposedly the models for Dick Diver and Nicole in Tender Is the Night. Gerald and Sarah were the real world characters that he [Fitzgerald] based the novel on.

The thing about keeping up such a huge enterprise, the family, they were under financial burdens. Then, they had a lot of damage to the house in the 1938 hurricane. Sarah actually had the house burned to the ground in 1941. But, they continued to live on the property in one of the much smaller farm buildings there. And today, almost nothing remains of the compound. You just have the walls of what was this Italian garden, a covered garage and stable complex. Both have been sort of updated and rebuilt. This was once a vast estate and, it's been parceled down into smaller lots that were sold off. There's a lot of little small houses that are on the land that were once part of a larger estate.

What would you say are some of the more interesting architectural elements of The Dunes?

AS: His use of a quasi-open plan. Now we weren't able at that time to really find plans of the house, which is very interesting, but the rooms open to one and other, which was a typical Atterbury plan. Lots of natural light, multiple exposures and it was a stucco house. He was doing a lot of that at that time. In fact, I think it was around 1900, just four short years later, that he did the subdivision in East Islip for the Havemeyer family. Havemeyer was known as "The Sugar King." He had four plans and they were variations on a theme but then, of course, if you change the colors or flip the orientation around, the four planned houses really look like they were 16 houses.

But, what he did in this house, and just in 1899, he took the house on Georgica Pond, which was nearby The Dunes and that was for Albert and Adele Herter, and once again he built a lot of the stucco. A lot of these houses at the time, these wooden houses burned down, so he built them an all masonry house with stucco exteriors. In 1900, when he did the Islip houses, once again, he did stucco exteriors. But in this case, where he had arches and things like that, he sprayed concrete onto metal glass. It's the same kind of installation that they use in gunite swimming pools today. It's almost as if each project was an experiment in construction and materials for the next one he was about to do. I think that even in The Dunes, when you look at the pictures of The Dunes, you sort of see that the germ of what was to come later on and in the design is well. He did very linear houses, he did houses with sweeping grooves that sometimes went down more than a story. Even in The Dunes, you could see that starting to happen in one portion of the house. Some of the stuff that he did was of that particular, but there weren't too many stucco houses out here at that time. He was among the first to really get into the stucco house business. So that's pretty interesting.

Earlier you mentioned that the daughter burned down the house. Is that because they couldn't keep up with the upkeep?

AS: Yes.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

AS: Grosvenor Atterbury was a nationally known architect - he did Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, for which he's very, very famous for because he was trying to build this affordable housing for middle class people. I think he is one of this country's great architects. He's not that well known outside of the New York area. I mean, you say McKim, Mead & White and people know McKim, Mead & White and they know Frank Lloyd Wright. But Atterbury had a very long and very prolific career. The Dunes was at the very start of his career. He had been a student at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art, where he studied under William Merritt Chase. He also went to L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, which was the best architecture school in the world at that time. It was very hard to get into, and there's a history of American architects having studied there like Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White and Richard Morris Hunt. The influence of those men who had architectural practices that were all trained there, they're still felt today, believe it or not. That's also a very important part of his background.

Admission to the Tom Twomey Series is free, however advanced reservations are requested, as seating is limited.

East Hampton Library is located at 159 Main Street in East Hampton. For more information, call 631-324-0222 or visit tomtwomeyseries.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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