At Home With Edwina von Gal - 27 East

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At Home With Edwina von Gal

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To Edwina von Gal, her property's real magic is in her chemical-free garden. JD ALLEN

To Edwina von Gal, her property's real magic is in her chemical-free garden. JD ALLEN

Edwina von Gal is the founder of the Perfect Earth Project in East Hampton. JD ALLEN

Edwina von Gal is the founder of the Perfect Earth Project in East Hampton. JD ALLEN

The rear decking has views of the Accabonac salt marsh and nature preserve. JD ALLEN

The rear decking has views of the Accabonac salt marsh and nature preserve. JD ALLEN

Nesting ospreys and migratory birds can be watched from the house. JD ALLEN

Nesting ospreys and migratory birds can be watched from the house. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

Edwina von Gal's coffee table, which is actually a Mexican wooden mennonite bed, is loaded with books. JD ALLEN

Edwina von Gal's coffee table, which is actually a Mexican wooden mennonite bed, is loaded with books. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

Most of the art featured in Edwina von Gal's home was given to her in exchange for her landscape design, including this Maya Lin glasswork. JD ALLEN

Most of the art featured in Edwina von Gal's home was given to her in exchange for her landscape design, including this Maya Lin glasswork. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

The interior has an open layout design, combining the kitchen, dining room, living room and study only separated by a large fireplace. JD ALLEN

The two bedroom, two baths was built in 1974 by Marcel Breur architect Hamilton P. Smith. JD ALLEN

The two bedroom, two baths was built in 1974 by Marcel Breur architect Hamilton P. Smith. JD ALLEN

Edwina von Gal's "tiny box on stilts" on the Accabonac Harbor nature preserve in the Springs. JD ALLEN

Edwina von Gal's "tiny box on stilts" on the Accabonac Harbor nature preserve in the Springs. JD ALLEN

To Edwina von Gal, her property's real magic is in her chemical-free garden. JD ALLEN

To Edwina von Gal, her property's real magic is in her chemical-free garden. JD ALLEN

Bridgehampton Robotics co-captain Claudio Figueroa works on a robot part with the help of the team's

Bridgehampton Robotics co-captain Claudio Figueroa works on a robot part with the help of the team's

author on Aug 16, 2018

When Edwina von Gal, the intrepid environmentalist who started the Perfect Earth Project nonprofit in East Hampton in 2013, moved to her Springs home in 2003, her “little tiny box on stilts” positioned in the Kaplan Meadows Sanctuary was frozen that winter. Miniature icebergs could be seen from the back deck, floating in the marsh. Inside, the 1974 Marcel Breur-designed home had miminal heat—but the land showed great promise for Ms. von Gal’s ecological sandboxing.

“This property is all an experiment, and it’s a classroom,” Ms. von Gal said on a recent August afternoon.

With the challenges of climate change and the local hordes of deer destroying forest, farmland and garden vegetation, her home has become a “chemical-free ecological sanctuary” where she’s able to test out solutions.

The environmental steward had made a name for herself running a landscape design firm, Edwina von Gal + Co, since 1984. Her claim to fame has been working for exclusive clientele and with renowned artists including sculptor Maya Lin, architect Frank Gehry and fashion designer Calvin Klein. Her work focusing on natural, sustainable designs split the New York native between Long Island City and the South Fork.

In the early 1990s, she bought an old Sherrill’s Dairy milk bottling plant in Southampton to have a foothold for her firm in the Hamptons, and eventually bought a house in Sagaponack with her husband, Jay Chiat, in 1997. When Mr. Chiat died in 2002 after a battle with cancer, the Springs compound that houses her home and the Perfect Earth Project office became her full-time residence.

“I have made a promise to this house: I will never leave you,” Ms. von Gal said with her hand resting on the rustic wooden exterior of her home.

The towering one-story home on stilts would not be approved this close to the Accabonac Harbor nature preserve today. Most structures are set back at least another 100 feet from the 200-acre diverse tidal marsh system that is home to raccoon, red fox, piping plover, least tern and osprey, as well as other wading birds and waterfowl. Nestled in long, saltmarsh cordgrass, the Breurist architecture was “a weekend utopia,” she said, for architect Hamilton P. Smith.

The architectural design of the home is certainly unique. There is no cross bracing, and the stilts are extremely small, giving the home a light, elegant feeling. The front and back decks are stabilizers, aided by industrial braces, to prevent the house from torquing.

Inside are just two bedrooms and two baths, with an open living room, dining room, kitchen and study floor plan.

Ms. von Gal often starts her day with a cup of tea on the back deck. Her dog, Clover, is usually found scampering down the steps into the surrounding open fields after voles. An osprey nest perched on a slender wooden pole has become a familiar sight in the distance.

“I sit out here mesmerized at the landscape,” she said. “I am a steward of this amazing place.”

When it is too cold outside to enjoy the marsh’s sweeping vistas, Ms. von Gal is inside reading. Her coffee table, which is actually a Mexican wooden Mennonite bed, is loaded with books, including “Cacas: The Encyclopedia of Poo” by Oliviero Toscani, “Animal Architecture” by Ingo Arndt, “Forest Bathing” by M. Amos Clifford, and “Made To Measure: Meyer Davis, Architecture And Interiors” about her neighbor Will Meyer, to name a few. There’s no television in the house, although sometimes she streams off her “belly telly” iPad.

Light filters in from tall sliding windows positioned on all sides of the house. The wicker chair near the central brick fireplace—that doubles as a room divider—is a cozy spot to stay warm. She also installed proper radiant heating after the first cold winter.

The furniture was selected by her design mentor, Joseph D’Urso, and carried over from her Sagaponack home. Artwork is everywhere—many pieces were given to her by clients over the years as a quid pro quo for her landscape design.

“I really like incorporating art into my projects, and because of that I have become friendly with many of them. In the front yard, that mound of glass is a Maya Lin,” she said. There’s an airship by Bryan Hunt hanging by the ceiling, and a painting of “a pensive woman in a bikini top with a little colorful bird whispering in her ear” by David Salle, to name a few.

All of the artwork pales in comparison to a few keepsakes around her house, including an image of her late husband in glass on her desk, and a few toys and photographs of her daughter, Ariel Sheldon, and 3-year-old grandson, Dylan, who live in Brooklyn.

The real magic of the 4-acre property is, of course, outdoors. The self-described “hippie gardener mom” spends most of her days in the garden, which is on the far side of the cottage which serves as office for the Perfect Earth Project. The front of the property used to be lawn, but Ms. von Gal has let it grow out into a meadow, pulling out invasive flora when needed.

The lean meadow soils reach slightly uphill into the woodlands. Patches of clay and sand don’t make for a great garden but her vegetable and flower garden is nothing to shrug at: kniphofia, dahlias, tomatoes, winter squash, hot peppers, salad greens, asparagus, peonies and onions, to name a few. There is also a restoration garden to restore the woodlands—American beech, American holly, witch hazel, Comptonia, asters and mountain mint—and, to help the bee population, lavender and santolina.

Near the roadside, Ms. von Gal has an “exclusionary garden” to keep the deer out. She said tall fencing isn’t the way to go. She has planted hornbeams, American holly, red maple, American beech and various oaks in between two rows of 4-foot fences, about 4 feet apart.

“The deer have destroyed what is called our recruitment, the baby trees that replace the older trees. But right now our forests are in a way that—it sounds terrible, but are kind of doomed, because when these trees age out and die, there are no trees to replace them,” Ms. von Gal said. She noted she is trying to plant a successional forest on her property.

“It works because the deer can’t jump distances, they can jump height. And they won’t land in anything that looks entangled. They cannot risk an injury. So they will not jump into anything that they can catch their hoof in, or if they can’t see what they are landing in.”

In patches, she’s also planting climate change trees, like sourwood, which is typically found in Southern states. The dogwoods aren’t doing so well. But it’s all a game of chance to see what sticks.

But all of the resources on her properties stay. Nothing gets thrown out. Any cedar trees that are chopped down are chipped to ward off ticks. Then there’s composting.

On either side of the small community of six homes—two of which Ms. von Gal owns, and another owned by Cile Downs, the founder of Accabonac Protection Committee—is also preserved land. They’ve removed many “typical Hamptons hedges” and barriers to have better views of the landscape.

On the marsh side, Ms. von Gal said the Town of East Hampton has been buying up all of the property on Gerard Drive and razing homes, making the vista even more pristine. She has a winding walkway out the back of her property on raised thin planks to a small dock. This past spring, she seeded 1,000 oysters to help filter the water. She acknowledged they would make for a tasty food source, too.

“If more people were educated in how to grow and what plants offer us as our companions in life then the landscape and horticulture industry would engender a great deal more respect, and more people would want to do it,” Ms. von Gal said.

“If every single piece of land that is in one’s private hands, if they made a vow to their land—they don’t have to promise to stay there forever—but to just take care of it, we’d be better off.”

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