Legendary Grey Gardens Reborn Once More, by Fashion Star Liz Lange - 27 East


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Legendary Grey Gardens Reborn Once More, by Fashion Star Liz Lange

Number of images 7 Photos
Grey Gardens as it appears today, pristine and charming. STEVEN STOLMAN

Grey Gardens as it appears today, pristine and charming. STEVEN STOLMAN

One of the several garden rooms LIZ LANGE

One of the several garden rooms LIZ LANGE

The iconic entry and stairs.  LIZ LANGE

The iconic entry and stairs. LIZ LANGE

Papier-mâché bust of Big Edie by Mark Gagnon.   LIZ LANGE

Papier-mâché bust of Big Edie by Mark Gagnon. LIZ LANGE

Papier-mâché bust of Little Edie by Mark Gagnon. LIZ LANGE

Papier-mâché bust of Little Edie by Mark Gagnon. LIZ LANGE

Liz Lange’s daughter’s bedroom features custom DeGournay wallpaper.  LIZ LANGE

Liz Lange’s daughter’s bedroom features custom DeGournay wallpaper. LIZ LANGE

Fashion star Liz Lange. NICK MELE

Fashion star Liz Lange. NICK MELE


House Proud

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Jul 17, 2023
  • Columnist: Steven Stolman

For fashion designer and entrepreneur Liz Lange, who single-handedly revolutionized women’s maternity wear before moving on to her latest venture, Figue, a chic, globally inspired collection of apparel, accessories, jewelry and home décor, reimagination has always been a part of her DNA. So it should be no surprise that in choosing a Hamptons getaway for herself and her corporate lawyer husband, two children and three dogs, she took on an extraordinary challenge with gusto — that of putting her own unique imprint on what is arguably one of the most iconic houses imaginable.

The Hamptons is full of houses with stories, but none as cinematic as Grey Gardens, an unassuming 19th century shingle style house that sits quietly on a corner of East Hampton’s West End Road, a stone’s throw away from Georgica Beach. It has been the subject of a 1975 documentary, a 2006 Broadway musical and a 2009 HBO television movie. At first blush, it would be described as a pretty house, even sweet, what with its American Craftsman-style diamond-patterned bay window, awnings, climbing roses, hydrangea and neatly clipped hedges. But it wasn’t always that way.

Designed in 1897 by renowned local architect Joseph Greenleaf Thorp, the creator of many of the area’s “summer cottages,” the house was originally commissioned by Stanhope Phillips and his newspaper-heiress wife, Margaret Bagg Phillips, who had purchased the land in 1895. Amid suspicious circumstances, Stanhope died in 1901, before the house was even built, although it was finally finished and after a lengthy court battle over the property, was ultimately purchased from the Phillips estate in 1913 by Robert C. Hill, the president of Consolidation Coal Company, and his wife, Anna. Anna, in turn, hired landscape designer Ruth Bramley to imagine the grounds and create a series of “garden rooms,” incorporating elaborate imported Spanish stone walls. It was the gray color of these walls that gave the house its name.

In 1924, attorney Phelan Beale acquired the property for his young socialite wife, Edith, the daughter of Beale’s law partner, John Vernou Bouvier Jr., who owned Lasata, another iconic East Hampton estate three miles to the north. And so the story that swoops and spirals like a spider’s web truly began to take shape. The Southern-born, stoic Phelan and the bohemian Edith, who had three children — two sons and a daughter — were like oil and water. While Phelan would make himself scarce, proclaiming “business in the city,” Edith spent most weekends and every summer at Grey Gardens. As the Beale marriage further dissolved (Phelan served Edith with divorce papers by telegram from Mexico in 1946) Edith took full-time refuge in the house, which she received as part of her settlement — one that contained only child support but no alimony. Phelan remarried in 1947 and died in 1956.

An ensuing fight with Edith’s once-wealthy father over her eccentric lifestyle placed what little money was left in his estate into the hands of her sisters and later, only her two sons, who gave their mother just $300 per month, hardly enough to support Grey Gardens’ upkeep. She became increasingly paranoid and reclusive, and in 1952 summoned her aspiring-actress daughter, also named Edith, to live with her in the crumbling house, along with her menagerie of feral cats and more than a few raccoons. And so began the descent of both the house and these two women, an aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill, that resulted in the house becoming so neglected and the gardens so overgrown that the Suffolk County health commission issued a notice of eviction until the house could be deemed habitable.

Upon learning of the situation, Jackie and Lee stepped in and paid for the disconnected utilities to be restored and for some basic repairs, but it did little to improve the psychodrama of the inhabitants living in their own delusional world. Lee had hoped that two filmmaker friends, brothers Albert and David Maysles, would make a movie about her family and her East Hampton memories. While that project never took off, once the Maysles met the Beale ladies, they found a story to tell. Their documentary “Grey Gardens” became a cult classic and brought the world’s attention to both the house and its occupants.

Big Edie, as she was called, remained in the house, mostly bedridden, until her death in 1977. Little Edie stayed for two more years, refusing to sell the house to anyone who wouldn’t promise to not tear it down. It finally sold in 1979 for $220,000 to Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, journalist Sally Quinn. During their first visit with a real estate agent, who refused to enter the house, Quinn told House Beautiful in 2022, “Cats were crawling all over and there were raccoon skulls on the front porch.” There were many rooms piled high with old furniture or simply filled with garbage. “The smell and filth were unbelievable,” she said. But she recognized the potential and, after an extensive renovation, enjoyed the house with her husband until his death in 2014. Throughout their ownership, though, they would usually spend just the month of August at Grey Gardens, renting it out for the balance of the summer.

Enter Liz Lange and brood, who first rented the house in 2015 and purchased it from Quinn in 2017. An extraordinary three-year restoration followed, which included adding a proper full basement, which the house never had. The two original kitchens (one for family, one for staff) were combined into one large one, multiple French doors were added and the entire “guts” of the house — plumbing, electrical — were all updated to accommodate today’s technology.

The original layout of the house was kept intact, along with the iconic central stair banister and, of course, the garden walls that gave the house its name. “We saved all the moldings and doors, restored them and then put them back in the house. We studied the house extensively and tried to be as faithful as possible to its original glory years,” Lange said. “That said, we also wanted to create a home that worked for us and how we live as a family over a hundred years after the house was first built.”

Lange was determined to maintain a certain sense of reverence to the house’s provenance and its overwhelming patina, albeit imprinted with her own of-the-moment stylistic sensibilities and that of designers Jonathan Adler (a college classmate) and Mark D. Sikes. The result is a joyful house with a bold color palette along with hints of irreverence, such as leopard wallpaper and papier-mâché busts of the Beale women by artist Mark Gagnon.

“I think the Beales would feel right at home in its current iteration,” Lange said.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” says Little Edie wistfully in the Maysleses’ film. Wherever she is now in the cosmos, she can rest easy knowing that as far as Grey Gardens is concerned, that line remains unbroken.

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