LongHouse Reserve weaves gardens and sculpture: Dune path, pavilion, and tropical rill

January 06, 2022

My visit to LongHouse Reserve on October 10, a cool, drizzly afternoon, was almost an afterthought. I’d detoured through the Hamptons on my Northeastern road trip largely to visit Madoo, garden of the late artist Robert Dash. With two days to fill in the Hamptons I did a little online research, and LongHouse in East Hampton sounded intriguing — not to mention covid-safe being outdoors. I understood it to be a sculpture garden — all well and good. But as I discovered immediately upon entering, it’s so much more.

LongHouse Reserve is a harmonious marriage of gardens and art, woven together with creativity and humor by its master-weaver and textile-artist creator, the late Jack Lenor Larsen. Revered in the world of textile design, Larsen made his Hamptons home and 16-acre garden a culmination of his life’s passions: design, art, unconventionality, and a generosity about sharing knowledge and beauty with others. The house (not open to visitors when I was there) is a repository for his handicraft collections, including textiles, ceramics, and furniture. The garden and its sculptures — some pieces on temporary exhibit, others on long-term loan or part of the permanent collection, yet continually moved around for varying effect — opens to the public on select days from April through mid-November.

Larsen passed away a year ago at age 93, and LongHouse soon became mired in controversy over the board’s firing of longtime director Matko Tomicic, with some private donors withdrawing their support in response. But it’s too marvelous a place to see it falter, and I hope it will find its footing without its founder and continue to inspire visitors with his vision.

And now let’s tour! Here’s Part 1 of my 3-part exploration of LongHouse’s gardens.

Dune path

Walking into the garden, you find yourself on a sandy path surrounded by beachy dunes — a humorous reminder that the Atlantic Ocean is just three miles away. It’s a bit of manmade fancy created from the excavated soil for the house. Rather than pay to haul the stuff away, Larsen turned it into a striking feature that anchors the garden to its place.

Tall ornamental grasses bend and sway along the dune ridges, hiding and revealing the entry garden. In the distance you catch a glimpse of a tall female figure…

…a sculpture called Bronze Eroded Venus de Milo by Daniel Arsham.

A bit of fall color in the dune garden

Near the house, black stepping stones lead the way through junipers, grasses, and, I think, furcraeas.

Red doors beckon under the house’s gabled entrance, reached via a bridge to the upper level. Nearly the entire roof’s length is capped by skylights, which must flood the interior with light. The 13,000-square-foot home’s design was inspired by ancient shrines in Japan, a country Larsen visited many times, and which informed not only the design of his home but his gardens. These depend not on flowers but structure, texture, and shades of green, with bones that look just as good in winter as in summer leaf.

Following a mulched path around the house, I encountered Eye of the Ring by Takashi Soga, its chunky horizontal band seeming to float on its tether.

As I’d see throughout the garden, chairs and stools invite you to sit and stay a while.

Pavilion garden

At one end of the house, the Pavilion garden comes into view. Potted perennials and tropicals flower along a tall hedge, which hides the view beyond.

I enjoyed seeing Texas favorites Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) and bulbine flowering happily here, with shell ginger and sago palm joining the subtropical party in back.

And now, look left — wow! Twin vine-cloaked pillars support Y-shaped beams. They frame a view of a large pond and shapely weeping trees on the far side. In the foreground, a raw-edge wooden bench topped with ceramic bowls and a stone birdbath-style fountain help focus the view. Behind me, a second-story terrace on the house overlooks this composition.

The Y-shaped pillars echo rafters extending out from the house, which you’ll see from a different angle in Part 3 of my tour.

The stone fountain drips water into a small rectangular pool. Beyond, grasses in autumn’s tawny hues ring the pond.

Salvias, a sago palm — it almost looks like home except for that feathery green hedge.

I love the color harmony here, starting with the orange bulbine and stretching across yellow-variegated shell ginger to the burnt orange of pond grasses and tan weeping trees.

Scree garden

Continuing around the house, you come to the Scree Garden, with meadowy plants that appreciate gravelly soil.

Idol by Judith Shea stands watch. I read that this sculpture and others of mannequins in business wear, their eyes lifted to the sky, were a response to 9/11. Shea was living near Ground Zero on that day.

Tears in rain

A sunken garden with bookend-like blocks that proclaim “Art” and “Design”

The lovely scree meadow runs the length of the house — which is very long indeed — facing banks of windows.

Another work by Takashi Soga, Floating Rain, stands tall in the meadow, its boulder-cloud balanced on a rain-slicked pedestal. A cross-path leads through the hedge to the next garden room.

Lap pool and tropical rill

Formal framing with pairs of clipped hornbeams leads the eye out from the house along a long axis. Unfortunately the lap pool was covered for the season, so I had to imagine the effect of a summertime visit.

At the end of the pool, a sleek elephant bench offers a place to sit and enjoy the continuing view through a tropical garden.

Bananas and flowering annuals flank a long rill that ends in a round millstone-style fountain. Beyond that, two sculptures — Tumbling Woman and Bridge — attract the eye to the far end of this axis. But I’ll save that for my next post. There’s still a lot to see here.

The elephant bench by Judy Kensley McKie makes a fun addition to the tropical garden.

De Kooning lawn

But let’s back up a bit. As you walk along the lap pool, views extend to the right and left. On the right an expansive lawn terminates at a horizontally trained weeping conifer– LongTree? — and a Willem de Kooning sculpture, Reclining Figure.

The monumental Legacy Mantle (Mao Jacket) by Sui Jianguo stands nearby, at a path leading into a woodland garden.

Hornbeam allée and sculpture court

At left of the lap pool, the clipped hornbeams framing the pool reveal themselves to be part of a stuttering allée (with intentional gaps) running crosswise on another long axis.

The hornbeam allée frames a very narrow view of sculpture in the distance…

…curved steel arcs by artist Bernar Venet. I love its juxtaposition with the reddening tree behind it.

Mandala by Tony Rosenthal also serves to frame views from different angles. The strong geometry of both pieces complements that of the allée.

Black Mirror pool

Not far from the exuberance of the tropical rill, a more solemn space appears, entirely green and serene. In the center Black Mirror, a rectangular pool designed by Larsen, draws you in.

Black Mirror’s dark water spills into a cross-shaped well, reminding me of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.

On one side of the pool, a bowed man sits on a pile of worn suitcases — a sculpture titled In Transit by Yoan Capote. Perhaps because Black Mirror reminded me of 9/11, I didn’t associate In Transit with immigration and displaced peoples. Rather, my mind went to thoughts of mortality.

He seemed to me to be in-transit between earthly and heavenly realms, waiting to be plucked from the baggage of life. A bit maudlin perhaps, but that’s where thoughts can lead on a quiet autumn afternoon in Year 2 of a global pandemic. At any rate, I love a garden that evokes strong emotions, and clearly LongHouse was going to be one of those.

Up next: Part 2 of my ramble through LongHouse Reserve, including a woodland garden, more thought-provoking sculpture, and Larsen’s famous Red Garden. For a look back at Part 1 and Part 2 of my tour of Madoo, click here.

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LongHouse Reserve weaves gardens and sculpture: Dune path, pavilion, and tropical rill