Renovating Grey Gardens

Located in East Hampton, Grey Gardens used to belong to “Big Edie,” and “Little Edie” Beale: the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The house had been long-neglected before journalist/writer Sally Quinn and her husband, Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post, decided to take on the major challenge of renovating it.

In Sally's words: “When I first stepped inside, the cat smell was overpowering. The floor was part dirt. The ceiling was caving in. Raccoons peered at me through the rafters. Some twenty cats scurried as we entered each room. Still I thought it was the prettiest house I had ever seen.”

“We returned to the living room, stepping carefully over the rotting boards. I touched the keys on the grand piano and it collapsed. “Little Edie” didn’t seem to notice. She did a waltz in the middle of the living room, and when she finished, she waved her arms magnanimously and said, “All it needs is a little paint.”

Sally went back. This time with Ben. Even though Ben is allergic to cats and on his first visit his eyes were streaming and he couldn’t breathe, they decided to take on the challenge.

“I arrived in East Hampton to close the sale of the house. I ventured into the attic for the first time, to find everyone’s fantasy—a treasure trove of objects from a bygone era, unused for half a century. There was almost enough of everything to furnish the entire house. It was a true archaeological expedition, unearthing things that painted a perfect picture of the twenties and thirties. Everything I opened took me through the looking glass to discover another world—one of wealth and privilege, of travels and calling cards, of servants and beautiful clothes and, most of all, of a leisure that doesn’t exist in many lives today.”

Architect E. L. Futterman and builder Robert Langman took care of the intensive restoration of the turn-of-the-century house.

In the entrance hall: like much of the furniture throughout, the table and side chair were among the treasures found in the attic. The pencil drawing depicts Grey Gardens years ago. Hemp floor matting.

Other attic finds included the chaise longues, brass lamps and wicker tables and chairs in the living room.

Sally Quinn comments, “All of the colors and chintzes I chose were to complement the garden, since it was the garden I used as the theme for my decorating scheme.”

The Bradlees collect old newspaper posters, one of which, in the living room, is a turn-of-the-century French example.

A part of the large kitchen is given over to a sitting area. The stove—a new one—resembles the antique version it replaced.

Master bedroom. The bed was also found in the attic.

When the secret garden was finally cleared of debris, it revealed, says Sally Quinn, “wonderful zany stucco Italianate walls, with a rotting pergola and a crumbling thatch-roofed cottage. It took cranes to lift bulldozers inside the wall—once we found it—to accomplish the clearing. “The garden, of course, was the whole point of the house, the reason for its name.”
The rebuilt thatch-roofed cottage is a child’s playhouse.

One of the entrances to the secret garden.

Photography by Peter Vitale.
All images and information from here.

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