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May 28, 2008 1:54 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

East Hampton's Playhouse becoming a real house

May 28, 2008 1:54 PM

There will be a well-attended concert on Saturday, June 14, in East Hampton, but it won’t be at Guild Hall or any of the other well-known venues in town. However, it will be at a place that is closely linked to the cultural history of East Hampton—and to some extent, New York City—that is now, for the first time, as a true residence.

The structure on Huntting Lane is now known as the Brockman House, but for many years it was referred to as the Playhouse. It is now home to the Playhouse Project, a series of master classes in classical music. It is also home to Richard Brockman and his wife, Mirra Bank.

And given that Mr. Brockman and Ms. Bank offer it for rent each summer, it can be home to anyone else with $100,000.

The Playhouse was one of the properties—perhaps the most overlooked one—owned by Mary Woodhouse, who played a major role in the evolution of East Hampton as a center for cultural events featuring well-known performers. Among the other properties once owned by Mrs. Woodhouse are the East Hampton Library, the Nature Trail and Guild Hall.

“I learned early on that it is hard to read about and even walk about the village of East Hampton and not encounter the influence of Mrs. Woodhouse,” Mr. Brockman said in a recent interview. “If she had not lived here, East Hampton would not be the way it is. She was a remarkable person and dedicated patron of the arts, a sort of de Medici of East Hampton.”

A History Lesson

Lorenzo Guernsey Woodhouse and his wife, Emma, had a house designed and built in 1894 on Huntting Lane. It was called Greycroft, and it is now owned by Alan and Susan Patricof. Lorenzo, who died in 1903, was partners with the department store magnate Marshall Field. His daughter, Grace, married Theodore Roosevelt’s first cousin and they had a daughter, who was only three years old when her mother died of blood poisoning on Shelter Island. Teddy visited Greycroft in 1898 after returning from Cuba and his Rough Riders were bivouacked at Camp Hero in Montauk.

Lorenzo Easton Woodhouse was Lorenzo Guernsey’s nephew. He was president of the Merchants National Bank of Burlington, Vermont. He married Mary Lelan Kennedy in 1896. The couple first came to East Hampton and Greycroft two years later, and so enjoyed the village that they acquired property across the street on Huntting Lane in 1903. J. Greenleaf Thorp was hired to design a house that became known as the Fens. Lorenzo and Mary had a son, Charles, and a daughter, Marjorie.

As she grew up, Marjorie expressed an increasing interest in the theater and was determined to become an actress. For her 16th birthday, in 1916, her parents built her a “playhouse” on Huntting Lane. The structure was routinely referred to as the Playhouse as the years passed. The Woodhouses set it up as a school for dramatic arts. Faculty were housed elsewhere on Woodhouse properties, and the wooded area with a stream at the end of Huntting Lane was for faculty and students to walk and contemplate and rehearse their scenes. This property was later donated to the village by Mary Woodhouse and it is now the Nature Trail open to the public.

Marjorie was married at the Playhouse in 1921 to Frederick Proctor, an heir to the Proctor & Gamble soap fortune. They had two children. Then the couple divorced and she remarried. Marjorie also liked to paint and she exhibited her works in New York City galleries and at Guild Hall, which her parents endowed and built in 1931. She died at the age of 32 in 1933 when her car plunged into a river. Marjorie left four children.

Lorenzo Easton died in 1935 and Mary Woodhouse remained in East Hampton during the warm-weather months, continuing her philanthropic efforts. She was often referred to as “East Hampton’s First Lady.” Her public gifts to the village included the building that became the library as well as Guild Hall and the restoration of the Clinton Academy, which was built in 1784, all on Main Street.

The Playhouse continued to function as a school for dramatic arts until World War II began and the pool of potential students dried up. Mrs. Woodhouse spent most of the war in Palm Beach, where she had wintered for decades. When the war ended, she returned to East Hampton and had a wall built in the Playhouse to create a bedroom for herself. She lived there for a short time before returning to Palm Beach, where she remained until her death at 96.

Architectural, Cultural Significance

The Playhouse has received much less notice in Woodhouse lore than Guild Hall and the East Hampton Library, though it is a remarkable structure. The architect Robert A.M. Stern once wrote that it was “the most perfectly preserved” of the Woodhouse family properties. It is an Elizabethan-style building with a grand salon 75 feet long and a gable that rises to a peak of 30 feet. Gargoyles, each playing an instrument, decorate the massive beams. The stage is at one end, and at the other is a balcony containing a Skinner-Aeolian pipe organ.

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