At Home With the Channings


All Walter Channing was really looking for was an acre of land—a place to build a little weekend retreat and studio space for his sculptures made of scavenged wood.

Having rented in the Hamptons for years, in waterfront summer shares with the likes of George Plimpton and friends, Mr. Channing also dreamed of a finding a view that would inspire his artistic imagination.

Then, unexpectedly, his friend, artist Jack Youngerman, called and said some farmland around his house had come up for sale—40 acres located on the then-unfashionable Scuttle Hole Road in Bridgehampton.

It was much more land than he wanted to buy, but it was back in the mid-1970s and the real estate market was in a precarious position at best. Mr. Channing—a savvy Harvard MBA who had founded the CW Group, a successful venture capital management firm in Manhattan—knew a good deal when he saw one, and snatched up 22 of the north-of-the-highway acreage for a song.

He called upon friend and “architect of substance” Sean Sculley of New York City to design a simple one-and-a-half story structure (half of it devoted to studio space) with four bedrooms and three baths. Wanting freedom from the road, he placed the building on what had been a 2-acre cattle enclosure.

“I was very tight on money because I didn’t want to get a mortgage, so frugality was key,” Mr. Channing said during a recent interview at his home. “I decided not to put a full basement in, which I regret to this day.”

During construction, Mr. Channing spent weekends living on site in a rented construction trailer with a generator. It gave him a place to work on art commissions while overseeing the work of local carpenters and tradespeople.

The house was completed in 1979 and, over time, Mr. Channing acquired 80 more acres of adjoining farmland. On a whim and as a hobby, he planted 500 grapevines and serendipitously discovered that the land had the perfect soil and weather conditions for growing red and white grape varieties. His first vintage (19 cases of chardonnay) was ready for uncorking in 1987, and he proudly poured glasses to friends amid “thunderous applause.”

Sadly, around the same time, Mr. Channing’s wife died of cancer, leaving him alone to raise two young daughters, Francesca and Isabella. (Mr. Channing’s first marriage, to actress Stockard Channing, ended in divorce in the late 1960s.)

In 1989, a pair of matchmaking Scuttle Hole Road neighbors—Jody and Larry Carlson—stepped in and encouraged a blind date with their friend, Molly Webb Seagrave. A beautiful blonde Dickinson College graduate, Molly was the vice president of International Cablecasting Technologies, a cable music service, by day and sang in rock ‘n roll bands at night.

Walter and Molly met over a drink at the venerable Century Club in Manhattan, quickly fell in love, married in 1990, and had two daughters, Sylvia, now 15, and Nina, 11. Both girls are students at the Ross School in East Hampton.

The couple spent the early 1990s learning more about the winemaking business. Turning a hobby into a business venture, they officially launched Channing Daughters Winery (named after their four daughters) in 1996. Today, the winery is considered one of the East End’s most cutting-edge estates, renowned for its traditional and artisanal methods.

Although Mr. Channing’s Scuttle Hole Road property has grown in the last 29 years, one thing has remained constant—the original house and art studio still stand, largely unchanged.

“After Molly and I married and had two girls, the living component of the house was clearly inadequate, so we reduced the size of my studio and I built sheds out back to store things,” he said.

Although they still maintain a small townhouse on 26th Street in New York, the Channings moved to Bridgehampton full-time five years ago.

“We’re now in a transition process of deciding how to expand this space or renovate it rather dramatically,” Ms. Channing explained.

As a gourmet cook—and proprietor of an organic heirloom tomatoes business that grows 50 varieties for stores in the Hamptons and New York City—Ms. Channing dreams of finally having a home with a state-of-the-art kitchen. And as a singer with the Choral Society of the Hamptons, she wishes their house had space for a grand piano, although she admits the sturdy upright piano in the dining area has served their family well over the years.

“This is a classic summer house,” she says. “We’ve tried to live within the footprint because it has huge sentimental value for Walter.”

One of the things Ms. Channing has done to put her mark on the interior space is to bring more of Mr. Channing’s artwork out of the cramped studio and into their main living area—a 20-foot-by-30-foot rectangular with the kitchen, living and dining areas. Wide-plank pine floors, Kilim rugs, an oversized Vermont Castings stove, and walls painted a butternut squash color give the space a warm, cozy feel.

“Every piece of art in this house was created by Walter, or done by one of our relatives,” Ms. Channing said, pointing out a Maine seascape painted by her cousin, Andy Benoit, the brother of Joan Benoit, the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist.

The living room also features several paintings by Mr. Channing’s relative, William Draper, the late portrait painter who depicted many of the world’s wealthiest and powerful.

“He did the only seated portrait of John F. Kennedy while he was president,” Mr. Channing pointed out. (Today, that painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.)

In the Channing house, Draper’s 1949 oil painting of Mr. Channing’s mother, Eleine Channing, looking glamorous with long waves and an off-the-shoulder dress, has a place of honor on a wall by the staircase.

“I remember she spent a month away from home at Draper’s Park Avenue studio sitting for the portrait. I was only a little boy and was sure glad when she came home,” said Mr. Channing, who grew up in Sherborn, Massachusetts.

Draper’s oil sketches of Mr. Channing (completed in 1982) and Ms. Channing (1992) hang on the opposite wall. Mr. Channing’s mother also was a painter, and two of her works, including a sweet portrait of Walter as a young boy, can be found in the dining room. Also from the Channing clan, a charcoal of a nude couple drawn by a cousin hangs in the small TV room/guest room off the living area.

Although Mr. Channing’s father was a businessman, his “avocation was building wings” onto the Channing homes. Like his son, Mr. Channing Sr. was a talented furniture maker, who also relied on discarded wood as his medium. Today, the Channings enjoy meals at a well-worn pine dining room table crafted by the elder Mr. Channing in the late 1930s from wood that came from the attic of their circa 1708 house.

But, by far, the pieces that stand out the most are Mr. Channing’s whimsical wood sculptures, which take the form of wall sculpture, furniture and art objects created from roots and trunk forms.

“The dump is heaven for me,” said Mr. Channing, who turned a salvaged mahogany armoire from the East Hampton Town dump into a “house” wall sculpture whose doors and windows open to reveal photos of his youngest daughter, Nina.

“I love when Mother Nature washes wood up at the beach and when a storm blows trees down,” he adds.

Twisted driftwood found on the shore at Moosehead Lake, Maine, years ago has been turned into the base of a glass coffee table in the living room. Nearby is a sculpture that fools the eye: a wooden bench with a faux upholstered seat cushion (made entirely of carved walnut) that looks so realistic and soft that it begs a tush-test.

These days, extracted grapevines from the vineyard, and pulled up Bayberry roots, have given Walter his latest inspiration.

“About every twenty years or so, vines—even very productive ones—run out of energy and have to be pulled up. When I look at these extracted vines and turn them upside down, I imagine highly irritated people who want revenge—the roots become wild-looking hair and the stalks are the legs,” he says.

One of his larger “vine people” works can be found in the corner of the living room. On top of an oak wine barrel, he’s placed a grouping of these anthropomorphized vine people, who wear earrings and necklaces and “cackle as they dance and stomp on crushed glass.”

In the front entry, several pieces are so realistic they make visitors want to reach out and touch them. A cabinet whose handles look like female breasts hangs on the wall. When asked the title of the piece, Mr. Channing laughs, and says, “I don’t think it needs one!”

On an opposite wall, an inlaid wood sculpture is so perfectly carved that its smooth surface looks like the folds of velvety fabric. Mr. Channing admits that it gives him great pleasure when he gets an “ah-hah” from people who marvel at this work.

A hallway (where a work by Larry Rivers hangs) leads to pantry space, a guest bedroom, bathroom, a sitting area/TV room for Sylvia and Nina, and Sylvia’s bedroom. The 15-year-old has graffitied her pink walls with sprawling, uninhibited drawings that prove she has inherited her father’s artistic genes. Behind that, Mr. Channing’s studio, filled with wood sculpting equipment and works in progress, anchors the hallway.

Back in the living room, with Blue, the couple’s black Lab, and King Tut, their cat, nearby, Ms. Channing explains that, for this family, the great outdoors is where they want to spend most of their time. A brick patio, topped with a wisteria arbor, is a stepping off point for an expansive view of acres of vineyards and a sunken Olympic size pool (the Channings wear wet suits and swim spring through fall).

Nearby, two illuminated green fiberglass spheres (the largest is eight feet) add visual impact to the green lawn. In designing the sculptures, Mr. Channing placed a reconstructed electric wheelchair inside in the largest one.

“It has a remote control, so it can follow people around when they are on vineyard tours. Kids go wild with excitement and adults are mystified and slightly disturbed trying to figure out how this huge ball is following them around,” he laughs mischievously.

Visitors to the winery marvel at Mr. Channing’s massive tree sculptures made of scavenged walnut, sassafras, cherry and oak trees planted upside down in the vineyard’s sculpture garden. The tree roots shoot up to the sky, and the branches are buried: sculptures take the form of people and even a yellow No. 2 pencil.

Although Mr. Channing still operates his venture capital business, he is looking forward to a new era where he can focus more fully on his art.

“We don’t have much of a house, but for us, it’s all about art and the outdoors,” Ms. Channing said.

Facebook Comments
Previous articleRoss School
Next articleBridgehampton School News