East Hampton’s Playhouse becoming a real house East Hampton's Playhouse becoming a real house - 27 East

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East Hampton’s Playhouse becoming a real house

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authormy27east on May 28, 2008

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.

“Though not an official title, it was always referred to as the Playhouse,” said Ms. Bank, a documentary filmmaker. “It attracted many of the bright lights of the theater like John Drew, Isadora Duncan and the Westminster Choir, who would come here and perform, either for a public or a private audience. To be invited here was a big deal and it attracted a very interesting circle of people.

“What was happening here in East Hampton at the time mirrored the cultural groups who were active in Provincetown with Eugene O’Neill and Taos with D.H. Lawrence,” she explained.

In an essay on Mary Woodhouse, Enez Whipple, the director of Guild Hall from the early 1940s to 1981, recalled being invited to have high tea with the grand dame of East Hampton society: “We always sat in front of the tall, leaded glass windows that looked onto the terraces, with the butler in attendance. Mrs. Woodhouse, wearing one of her famous hats (I never saw her without one—outdoors or indoors), presided over the gleaming silver tea service and trays loaded with delicious little sandwiches, coconut honey on toast and cakes. Although she was a short, plump lady, there was something regal in her bearing, in the tilt of her head, in the way she turned a French phrase and quoted the classics to make a point. On one of our visits, Mrs. Woodhouse entertained us by playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ on the organ in the balcony.”

In 1958, after seeing the Playhouse, Marian Javits, wife of U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, went to her good friend, Elizabeth Brockman, and urged her and her husband, Daniel Brockman, to purchase it.

“Mrs. Javits believed that this building was exactly the sort of place my stepmother would love to run as a culture center,” Richard Brockman recalled. “She was right.”

Elizabeth Brockman was a graduate of Juilliard and, with her husband, a prominent tax lawyer and patron of the arts, was involved in the successful efforts to save Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. The American Symphony Orchestra was founded in their Manhattan apartment with their neighbor, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, and they underwrote free classical music concerts in Central Park. The couple bought the Playhouse from Mrs. Woodhouse. The only changes they made were the installation of a 15th century Gothic carved wood circular staircase and the new second-floor bedroom.

When Mr. Stokowski visited, he played Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on the pipe organ and praised the Playhouse’s acoustics. He wanted to found a music festival there, but the Brockmans were concerned that the site would become another Tanglewood, which would upset the neighbors.

And Joseph Papp, after visiting, found inspiration to continue developing the Public Theater in New York City.

The first major event the Brockmans staged at the Playhouse was a benefit in 1960 for Papp’s Shakespeare In the Park program, with Tony Randall as the host. In 1968-69, the notorious film “Maidstone,” directed by Norman Mailer, was filmed on the property. In August 1981, “A Night For Remembering,” a tribute to Mary Woodhouse to mark the 50th anniversary of Guild Hall, was held at the Playhouse. Among the performers was the actor Michael Moriarity.

Daniel Brockman died in 1990 and several years later, when Elizabeth Brockman died, Richard Brockman inherited the Playhouse. Fittingly, though Richard Brockman has a day job as a psychiatrist in Manhattan, he loves the theater and is a playwright whose works have been produced off-Broadway, in Chicago, and elsewhere. His most recent play, “Informed Consent,” is being directed by his wife in a run in London in October.

The Next Generation

The Playhouse, now the Brockman House, and the grounds have been undergoing a transformation of late. It began four years ago when the couple founded the Playhouse Project and the Elizabeth Brockman Award in Music. Every May, master classes in music are held on the Playhouse property.

“That was the mandate—an informal one—from Mrs. Woodhouse, that the playhouse continue to host theatrical events and at least some of them would be open to the public,” Richard Brockman said. “That has worked out well because doing this with the students and hosting the concert are events we have become very passionate about.”

The grounds have been part of the transformation too, thanks to the next-door neighbors, who are landscape architects. The Brockmans have enjoyed their “experiments” of design with trees and bushes and the installations of outdoor sculpture.

And after 92 years, the Playhouse is finally being transformed into a year-round residence. Among the renovations are more living space and a heating and air-conditioning system. The structure now contains six bedrooms and five baths along with Mrs. Woodhouse’s bedroom on the first floor and the fireplace in 5,000 square feet on 2.8 acres.

Ironically, the home may be offered for rent this fall too, thanks to the professional and theatrical commitments that Richard Brockman and Mirra Bank have through October.

“We’ll make up for that when the time comes,” said Mr. Brockman. “Even though this structure has been here since 1916, because of what has been done to it and the plans for future events, once we settle in it will be like discovering the Playhouse and a part of East Hampton’s culture all over again.”

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