Frances Benjamin Johnston’s early-20th-century photos reveal forgotten glories of the Hamptons’ past.
“There is more to photography than just taking pictures!” wrote Frances Benjamin Johnston, one of America’s first photojournalists, in 1922. Unlike painting, photography was not considered a fine art at the time—thus the field was open to women. And Johnston’s background served her well: Her art studies at Paris’s Académie Julian gave her the strong sense of composition and color that sets her work apart, while her wealthy parents’ connections among the Washington, DC, elite helped her build a successful career. She shot Alice Roosevelt’s wedding portrait as well as other newsworthy figures, including Booker T. Washington and salon socialite Natalie Barney. In the early 20th century, Johnston turned her camera to gardens, capitalizing on the chief passion of the upper-class women of the Garden Club of America.
This spring, the Library of Congress celebrated Johnston by spotlighting her hand-tinted glass slides of Gilded Age gardens. Sam Watters, whose book Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895–1935 catalogues the massive collection of prints and negatives that Johnston donated to the library, explains that “most of the estates of this time were built with first- and second-generation banking, industrial, and railroad fortunes. With rare exceptions, this established society owned the gardens pictured in Johnston’s slides.” The East End, of course, did not escape her lens. Watters walks us through three luxe Hamptons estates Johnston captured that all but disappeared during the Great Depression.
Black Point, Southampton
“Southampton is a little backwater of God,” a society matron once remarked. Long Island’s ocean air was considered a cure-all when the city was being increasingly polluted by industry. And unlike Newport, Southampton offered a healthy atmosphere without the oppressive formality. But when H.H. Rogers Jr., the son of the Standard Oil magnate, built Black Point, his Italianate oceanfront estate on Gin Lane, in 1917, all notion of pastoral simplicity came to an end. The bucolic idea of ladies in white cotton dresses languidly watching bees pollinate meadows became a utopian fantasy, as a group of women calling themselves the Dreadnaughts commanded the social seas, enforcing a strict code of manners.
Rogers commissioned the firm Walker & Gillette to design the residence and Olmsted Brothers to handle the landscaping. Accessory buildings were constructed for the superintendents, a butcher, an engineer, a pump tower, and a private dairy. (Walker & Gillette won a Gold Medal from the Architectural League of New York for their trouble.) The mansion’s plain gray-pink stucco walls and simple blue awnings belied interiors bearing the family’s coat of arms and frescoes of Renaissance life in Florence.
The gardens were also deceptively simple. An oval marble lily pond sat at the center of the entrance courtyard, and below the porch, a large rectangular pool in the middle of a wide lawn held a statue of Minerva. Formal parterres were arrayed to the west, while the children’s playhouse, with a small garden off the main lawn, “was both for flower arranging and educating children through play about nature and domestic life,” Watters says.
Johnston’s Black Point slides are fine examples of how to represent a garden by carefully framing its vistas. Although she referred to the “natural colors” of the images, they were in truth artistically enhanced, and in Johnston’s work we never see the whole garden or even any people enjoying it. “Weedless, everblooming, flawless,” says Watters, “the photographed garden was timeless.” Indeed, the slides are still around for us to admire—unlike this estate, which was divided and sold as property taxes rose in the late 1930s.
Près Choisis, East Hampton
The home of artists Albert and Adele Herter embodied the spirit of Paris’s bohemian elite before the Great War. Albert had grown up in a household that lived and breathed Aesthetic Movement design (his father’s firm, Herter Brothers, had famously decorated William H. Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue mansion).
The couple met in art school in Paris, and they honeymooned in Japan, where they began to amass a collection of Asian objects. In 1894, Albert’s mother gave the couple 75 acres on Georgica Pond. After glamping on their land for a summer, the Herters decided to align their house with the solstice paths of the sun and moon. They hired Grosvenor Atterbury, who had designed the Parrish Art Museum, to build their Sicilian-style salmon-pink villa and gardens. The warm color scheme was carried through inside, as in a striking red lacquered balustrade. In an interview, Albert said, “Orange and red are the colors of welcome, so that is why we place them at the doorway.”
Also organized by color, the estate’s flowers were tended daily by a staff of 30 gardeners. White and blue blossoms spilled from Sicilian oil jars and blue pots in a shade garden along the porch steps, while an orange-and-yellow entrance court, called the Garden of the Sun, bloomed all summer long with tulips, climbing roses, dahlias, and sweet william. Johnston had a great affinity for the Herters’ romanticism and photographed their garden several times between 1913 and ’15.
The Herters were very active in East Hampton civic life, supporting the library and Guild Hall, hosting the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society Fair, and decorating the new Maidstone Club. While at Près Choisis, the couple staged plays and held costume soirées, sometimes lighting the two-mile driveway with Japanese lanterns and welcoming their guests in Kabuki garb. In the 1920s, Enrico Caruso rented the house and sang in Albert’s painting studio, and Isadora Duncan danced there in a play Albert had written and directed. Painter Alfonso Ossorio bought the estate in 1952 and continued the tradition of hosting gatherings of young artists in the adjacent barn.
The Orchard, Southampton
James Lawrence Breese, owner of the estate known as the Orchard, engaged renowned architect Stanford White, his friend and carousing companion, to expand what had originally been a sea captain’s house that was dwarfed by a 30-acre farm. “Many of Johnston’s commissions to photograph Beaux-Arts buildings and residences came from McKim, Mead & White,” notes Watters, referring to the architect’s legendary firm. Not simply another wealthy financier, Breese was also leader of the Carbonites, a salon of amateur photographers. He occupied the Orchard intermittently between 1895 and 1906.
The main section of the building, considered one of the area’s best examples of Greek Revival architecture, was modeled after Mount Vernon, but the austerity stopped at the door. Inside, White’s flamboyant tastes came through in the 75-foot-long music room with ornate Italian ceilings, one of White’s final masterpieces before his death in 1906. Despite the house’s many frescoes, tiger skins, bronze chandeliers, and Renaissance tapestries, life there was “pretty informal,” wrote Breese’s daughter, Frances Miller. Yet her father’s penchant for throwing bacchanalian stag parties at his New York City photo studio—often including White and naked women—did not extend to his Southampton home.
Olmsted Brothers designed the axial gardens that ran from the front of the house to the back. The company kept the eponymous orchards along the driveway and added specimen trees next to a lawn as wide as an airplane runway. In the back, parterres divided the property into formal green rooms with vegetation so lush it looked tropical. A path paved in a herringbone pattern, dotted with statues, urns, and marble benches, connected the gardens to an arbor.
As their fortunes fluctuated in the 1920s, Breese and his wife started renting out the house in the summertime. In 1926, he subdivided the estate and sold a 16-acre parcel, including the fully furnished house, to Charles E. Merrill of Merrill Lynch fame. The main residence is now the Whitefield condominium complex. The herringbone path—and Johnston’s photos—is all that remains of those gorgeous gardens.