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Old Westbury Gardens

Long Island is fortunate that of the 500 Gold Coast estates that were built on the north shore between 1900 and 1925, two of the very best remain for us to enjoy - Old Westbury Gardens and Planting Fields Arboretum. Both have gracious mansions and superb landscapes and gardens that we can envy and perhaps try to copy. Both are large enough in area and diverse enough in their features to allow strolling about, continually discovering new aspects to admire.

On balance, we're inclined to prefer Old Westbury Gardens. Built in 1906 by John S. Phipps, American financier and sportsman, for his English wife, Margarita Grace Phipps, and their children, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Its 150 acres include magnificent linden and beech alleés, several ponds, and eight formal English gardens that are a tribute to the taste of George Abraham Crawley, the London-born designer of both the mansion and gardens.

You enter Old Westbury Gardens through magnificent eighteenth-century wrought-iron gates and drive through a towering alleé of linden trees. After parking you can choose your own path or use the map you received at the entrance booth to embark on a 1.3-mile self-guided tour that could take up to two hours. Following the map, you are directed to the Boxwood Garden with its reflecting pool and classical Corinthian colonnade that features a terra cotta statue of Diana the Huntress flanked by huge, century-old weeping beeches. Continuing along the path through the Lilac Walk (in full bloom and deliciously fragrant in mid-May), you will pass through an exquisitely detailed wrought-iron gate into the two-acre Italian-style Walled Garden, that features an ever changing display of blooming bulbs, shrubs, trees, perennials, flowering vines, ornamental grasses, annuals and green lawns. The terracing, balustrades, summerhouses, lotus and lily pool (filled with flashing koi and goldfish), and pergola that supports aged, but still vigorous Chinese and Japanese wisteria, all speak of its Italian design. But, the kaleidoscope of blooming tulips, pansies, English daisies, delphinium, swaged roses, both herbaceous and tree peonies, iris, phlox, Japanese anemones, chrysanthemums, dahlias and so much more, provide a very good reason to visit often throughout the season. When you leave the Walled Garden through its east gate, you can follow the Ghost Walk, lined with hedged hemlocks past the English-style Pinetum into the formal Rose Garden. Patterned after seventeenth century parterres in a complex pattern of interlocking circles and squares, the Rose Garden is planted with fragrant pink tea roses. A locust wood trellis that surrounds the Garden and continues up the Primrose Path supports climbing and rambling roses of white, yellow, peach, rose, coral and red. Near the top of the Primrose Path, the walk branches off to the right and provides a glimpse of the small thatched-roof Cottage with its own lovely garden -- built as a playhouse for the Phipps' only daughter, Peggie. If you continue across the South Alleé into the Demonstration Garden area, you can visit a shade garden filled with shy blooms and sparkling variegated foliage plants, a daylily garden that peaks in July and August, the formal Grey Garden with drought-tolerant plants in full sun, the shady Green Garden that features a relaxing and cool color scheme, a vegetable garden to tempt the most demanding palate, several beautiful mixed borders, and an American Rose Society All-America test rose garden. From the Demonstration Gardens, you can follow the path past the beautifully maintained swimming pool, and walk around the East Lake. The landscape around the lake is an ever-changing parade of flowering bulbs,
native and exotic flowering trees and shrubs, a charming wooden bridge and the Temple of Love -- a romantic stone gazebo with a lacy wrought-iron roof that offers an smashing view of the house reflected in the still water of the lake. On the north bank, follow the hillside Woodland Walk, which is at its best in early spring when ephemeral bulbs and wildflowers are in bloom. There is much more to see -- vistas, statuary and grand alleés and hedges of beeches, hemlocks, and linden stretch a half-mile to the north and south of the mansion.

At any time, you can stop to tour the stately, terra-cotta brick mansion, built in seventeenth-century, Charles II style. The designs of the house and the gardens are completely integrated -- each is half of a perfect whole.

When you enter the mansion, you will see that there are fresh flowers in all the rooms, and that the dinner table is set, as though the Phipps family have just stepped out but are expected back shortly. The rooms are pleasant - light, airy, welcoming, and tastefully decorated, illustrating the gracious lifestyle that John S. Phipps and his family enjoyed. Although the home is not ostentatious, it displays evidence of considerable wealth - English antique furniture and decorative objects, gilded mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and fine paintings by Reynolds, Raeburn, Gainsborough, Constable and Sargent. Each room contains original furnishings, arranged just as they were during the more than fifty years that Mr. and Mrs. Phipps and their four children lived here.

Old Westbury Gardens can be reached easily from the Long Island Expressway.  Take Exit 39 South and follow the service road east 1.2 miles to Old Westbury Road. Turn right and head south 1/4 mile to the entrance. The Gardens is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 A. M. to 5:00 A.M. from late April through October, and also in December for special holiday events in the mansion. There is an $8.00 admission fee to visit the grounds; admission to the grounds with a mansion tour is $10.00. Members enter free. Besides a Gift Shop in the mansion and a Plant Shop near the parking lot, special events (antique auto shows, English Country Fair, Scottish Games, etc.), "Talks & Tours," with Master Gardeners, garden demonstrations by the professional horticultural staff and musical presentations (including music in the gardens, classical concerts in the Red Ballroom, Picnic Pops in July and
August), lectures and symposia are among the many events offered throughout the season. For more information call or visit their website at www.oldwestburygardens.org.

Other amenities include a picnic area (no fires) and the rustic "Café in the Woods" which serves delicious light lunches and treats. All in all, Old Westbury Gardens is a place to visit again and again, ever fresh and lovely.

Hiking Long Island endorses buying a friend an annual membership as a lovely gift idea.

Short Nature Walks on Long Island revised and edited by Kenneth Kindler


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Ken Kindler
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