In the early years of the 20th century, when East End villages were still small enough that a single individual or family with the will and the wherewithal could exercise enormous influence over their development, Southampton, Sag Harbor and East Hampton each acquired patrons who fit the mold.
Southampton had Samuel Parrish, Sag Harbor had Mrs. Russell Sage and in East Hampton it was the Woodhouse family whose members, and particularly the women, are remembered for their largesse.
Confusingly, there were two Mrs. Lorenzo Woodhouses, neither of course nee Woodhouse. Emma (1848-1908) married Lorenzo G., whose money derived from the Marshall Field department store empire and funded his wife’s spectacular Water Garden, one of those marvelous indulgences that the civic-minded rich of that era (unlike our own) were expected to share with the community—and did.
Mary Woodhouse (1865-1961), who married the patriarch’s nephew, Lorenzo E., left a more durable legacy (among other things she funded the library, the restoration of and ). Though she, too, created admirable gardens, for fearless horticultural extravagance (what one wag called “promiscuous planting”), she was no match for her husband’s Aunt Emma.
In 1994, the celebrated the legacy of the Woodhouse family with lectures, tours and a booklet in which the late Ellen R. Samuels shared her extensive research into the creation and history of Emma’s amazing Japanese Water Garden.
She noted that it was in 1894 that Emma Woodhouse began transforming four swampy acres southeast of her Huntting Lane home, Greycroft, into an extravagantly exotic enclave of oriental enchantment complete with two Japanese teahouses, rustic half-moon bridges and a profusion of flowers and foliage.
Samuels notes with interest that while Mary Woodhouse employed a trained professional head gardener as her guide, “Emma Woodhouse was content to hire Remington H. King of Sag Harbor, “a whaler and farmer turned gardener.” Interviewed when she was a centenarian, King’s daughter Mary King Weight told Samuels that it took three men several years to shape the water channels, working with what had been no more than a “mud puddle.”
Quoting from Alice Lounsberry’s 1910 book, “Gardens Near the Sea,” Samuels offers this description of the Water Garden at its peak: “At its high tide it seems to have sacrificed every thought in the world to sumptuous beauty. Then, the mistress of the garden relates, each morning her gardeners take off about fifteen hundred faded flowers, sparing the garden in this way the apparent tragedy of death. Yet in spite of this vast number that disappear daily, there is, for a long time, no diminution of splendor.”
After Emma’s death in 1908, her heirs continued to maintain the Water Garden and open its paths to the public. For several years in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s an acting school had the use of the gardens but, even then, Mary Woodhouse saw to it that the paths were kept open. According to records of the East Hampton Garden Club, they remained so as late as 1946.
Mary Woodhouse eventually gave the Water Garden to the Garden Club (which she had founded) and the club, in turn, gave it to East Hampton Village for a nature trail and bird sanctuary, affectionately known as “Duck Pond.”
Sources from East Hampton’s Archives: “The Woodhouse Landscapes of Huntting Lane” by Ellen R. Samuels in “East Hampton Invents the Culture of Summer: The Legacy of the Wood house Family of Huntting Lane,” a Woodhouse Centennial publication of the East Hampton Historical Society; “1630-1976 Life Styles East Hampton,” Booklet published to accompany Guild Hall’s bicentennial exhibition, April 24-June 6, 1976.