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Southampton Village: The Premier Resort

Originally Posted: May 30, 2007

Mary Cummings

The Meadow Club in the early 1900s. Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

In 1880, prescient pioneers of what was not yet the premier resort it was about to become might have purchased an acre of Southampton Village's prime real estate on the shores of Lake Agawam for $300. By 1888, the price was up to $4,000 in a spectacular escalation that has yet to lose its upward momentum.

With no less an authority than The New York Times on record as of August 15, 1897, declaring in its Sunday supplement that Southampton could no longer be considered "an unpretentious little resort" but had achieved a "fashionable position and reputation which promises to be lasting…" Southampton entered the new century not only as a choice place to put down summer roots but as a place where money invested in real estate was likely to bring spectacular returns.

Samuel Longstreth Parrish. From "Southampton" by Mary Cummings

That the village was so well positioned by 1900 was due in no small part to the civic-mindedness of that first wave of professionals, bankers, and players from the power circles of New York City. It was Samuel Parrish, the rather eccentric Quaker lawyer (a lifelong bachelor until he took a wife at the age of 79), who conceived the idea for an art museum for the enjoyment and edification of villagers (though it was his more prosperous brother, James, who financed it). Indeed, Samuel Parrish, sometimes referred to as "Southampton's Carnegie," had a hand in just about every improvement envisioned for the resort—the new library, the hospital, William Merritt Chase's summer art school, the golf club at Shinnecock, the Meadow Club and more. And like his friends, the Betts brothers, Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, Dr. Albert H. Buck and others, he also understood that one could do well by doing good, and invested heavily in real estate.

If this first group of summer settlers had a genuine longing for an informal, healthful existence, preferring their "cottages" to Newport-style mansions and giving generously of their time and money to improve Southampton's infrastructure and cultural life, they were no less committed to creating amenities intended for their use exclusively. They established the Meadow Club for tennis, the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club for what was then the new sportsman's craze, and the Southampton Club, a summer retreat exclusively for gentlemen—no women allowed. Theirs was, by most standards, an elegant lifestyle—countrified but hardly rustic—long golden days devoted to morning swims, afternoon tennis, and evening gatherings, all carefully orchestrated and managed by household servants.

The wealthier brother - James Parrish. Collection of the Southampton Historical

As the new century progressed and Southampton's status as a first-class resort solidified, it was perhaps inevitable that a taste for excess would begin to assert itself. Increasingly, the cottage gave way to the mansion. The garden evolved and expanded and became an elaborate landscape design maintained by huge crews of groundsmen. The afternoon teas and soirees and musicales lost favor to be replaced by the formal balls and extravagant celebrations earlier arrivals had disdained.

For the socially nimble, it was sometimes possible to keep one foot on each side of the divide. James Breese, for example, a wealthy New York stockbroker, bought a farmhouse on Hill Street which, aided by his pal the architect Stanford White, he transformed into a mansion resembling Mt. Vernon (now the main building at the Whitefield condominiums). There he settled his family each summer, occasionally appearing himself to host a benefit for the Red Cross or some other charity.

Meanwhile, back in the city, Breese moved in far racier circles, throwing naughty parties, among which the most infamous was the "Pie Girl" dinner. A stag event attended by White and others among Breese's bon vivant friends, it featured nearly nude young women serving the wine and a huge pie out of which popped the beauteous Susie Johnson accompanied by a flock of canaries and wearing either nothing at all or a bit of gauze (accounts vary).

The Orchard, residence of James L. Breese, early 1900s. Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

In 1906, in what was probably the architect's last job before he was shot by Evelyn Nesbit's jealous husband, Stanford White unleashed his taste for the opulent on Breese's Music Room at The Orchard, adding gilt columns, a painted ceiling, animal skins, taxidermy, heraldry and more. White also set the bar high for landscaping splendor when he redesigned the gardens at the Orchard, creating an extraordinary Italianate series of garden rooms that were illuminated at night by Breese's private power plant.

All pretense of rural simplicity was dropped when H.H. Rogers, the son of Standard Oil magnate Henry Huddleston Rogers, built Black Point, his Mediterranean style villa in 1914-17. Rogers, who had a few traits in common with Breese, built his lavish villa atop a dune and surrounded it with a wall. A clear departure from the standard sprawling shingled affair, it was commented upon disapprovingly in the press for looking as though it "belonged in Newport." Its interior boasted Renaissance frescoes, rare 18th-century tiles and exotic ironwork. Its gardens were by Frederick Law Olmsted, and a $250,000 Pompeian-style swimming pool was designed by John Russell Pope.

Having provided a suitably splendid summer seat for his family, Colonel Rogers provided himself with his own, separate summer headquarters, the "Port of Missing Men," an elaborate "hunting box" where, safe from the ladies, he hosted shooting parties for his hunting buddies.

Just as her father had introduced the tastes of a new caste of corporate tycoons, whose social aspirations no longer reflected the genteel ideal of Southampton's first wave of summer colonists, Rogers' daughter, Millicent, brought to Southampton the new style of the flapper. She was beautiful, headstrong and reckless, qualities that just about every modern young woman of the roaring '20s aspired to. Not just Southampton, but the whole country was captivated by Millicent's elopement with Count Ludwig Salm von Hoogstraeton, which was covered in gossip columns nationwide.

"The bride has held a high place in New York society since her debut in 1919," reported the New York Herald in 1924. The marriage, divorce and Millicent's subsequent marriages were all relentlessly covered by the press, while the paparazzi provided photographs of the glamorous Millicent boarding various ocean liners to and from Europe with her retinue of maids carrying her jewels and her pedigreed Pekinese.

The Gardens at Black Point, residence of H.H. Rogers. Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

As it did elsewhere, the decade of the '20s brought good times to Southampton. A not insignificant contributor to the boom was rumrunning, sometimes euphemistically referred to as "the oyster importing business," a lucrative, if unacknowledged source of extra income for many locals and a few summer residents whose beachfront locations made ideal ports for the contraband. With its miles of waterfront, full of hidden inlets and coves, the East End was an ideal place for local speedboats to set up offshore rendezvous with Canadian boats bearing illicit cargo, which was unloaded, rushed to shore, and reloaded onto waiting trucks for a breakneck trip to New York City and delivery before dawn.

It was common knowledge that there was little enthusiasm in Southampton for enforcement of the Volstead Act, passed in 1919 and otherwise known as Prohibition. Speakeasies, where booze was served in teacups, flourished and respectable citizens reveled in their new role as outlaws. When, in 1933, the whole foolish experiment was ended, the return to reason owed much to the efforts of Southampton summer resident Pauline Sabin.

The Sabins were Southampton's power couple before the phrase gained currency. At Bayberry Land in Sebonac they had created a virtual fiefdom, a self-sufficient estate about which The Southampton Press of September 5, 1918, had this to report: "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 show places of Southampton. It leads in the assessments at $160,000." (H.H. Rogers' Black Point, assessed at $120,000, came in second, while James L. Breese's Hill Street estate trailed at $55,000). To lay out the grounds, the Sabins hired Marian Coffin, a pioneer in the then new profession of landscape architecture, who created an elaborate landscape scheme that required the delivery of full grown trees and the purchase of an entire East End farm for its topsoil.

Pauline Sabin, whose father had been Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of the Navy, was as staunchly Republican as her husband was Democrat but the two were in total accord on the necessity of Repeal. It was Pauline who took the lead, however, and her efforts as leader of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform put her on the cover of Time magazine in 1932. Eventually, she and her organization carried the day in 1933 but her husband, who died in October of that year, did not live to see her victory.

Unlike so many of the cottages and mansions that had been built on the dunes, Bayberry Land was spared the worst effects of the terrible hurricane of 1938, which struck with virtually no warning on September 21 of that year, taking two lives in Southampton and leaving many a beachfront mansion in ruins. If there was a silver lining, it was in the jobs reconstruction provided, giving the area an early start toward recovery from the Great Depression. It was not until after World War II, however, that good times would return to Southampton.

Bayberry Land survived through it all, most recently as a retreat for members of an electrical union, only to be torn down in 2006 to make way for a golf course.

It was the last of Southampton's great estates. One by one, they had all disappeared in the post-war years, as taxes and changing times made them impossible to sustain. The impulse to live like a lord in Southampton remains, of course, and it is still going to cost you. But in 2007, the megamansion is not likely to sit on 20 park-like acres and the estate manager is more apt to rely on electronic aids than on a huge staff of groundskeepers, butlers and maids.

View across Lake Agawam from Gin Lane, looking Southwest, early 1900s. Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

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