The day couldn’t have been more cooperative. The sky was moody, a bit overcast. There was a distinct nip in the air. Mid-afternoon, the sun would set in just a few hours now. Turning on to Huntting Lane, it seemed to lead right to the Woodhouse Playhouse. Autumn leaves circled the ground in haphazard little whirlpools, the first real windy day of fall.
Joseph Aversano, the chairman of the East Hampton House & Garden Tour, stood in the driveway of the Woodhouse Playhouse alongside Richard Barons, the former executive director and now senior curator of the East Hampton Historical Society.
A medieval gargoyle gazed down as the two men approached the side entrance of the 100-year-old Tudor-style home. They were meeting here to discuss the House & Garden Tour, now in its 33rd year, and in particular, how the Woodhouse Playhouse, a stop on the tour this year, would look on the big day. They were considering having a pianist at the Steinway in the great room. (The room once housed two Steinways; piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz played here.)
Mr. Aversano and Mr. Barons stepped through the door of this Francis Burrall Hoffman Jr.-designed house as a black bird landed on a nearby edifice and cackled out loudly.
Reached by telephone at his home in New York City, Dr. Richard Brockman, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, playwright and current owner of Woodhouse Playhouse, commented on the spirits.
“The ghosts—especially the ghost of Marjorie Woodhouse for whom the Playhouse was built as a 16th birthday present, and who died a short time later—are a constant presence and source of comfort,” Dr. Brockman said. “The Playhouse is their home.”
He said that he and his wife, writer and documentary filmmaker Mirra Bank, are the ghosts’ guests.
Indeed, you can feel them. The grounds and the house itself give off a unique, emphatic feeling—you can simply feel history here.
“Mary Woodhouse, the original owner, was very philanthropic with Guild Hall and the [East Hampton] Library and donated the nature trail to the village of East Hampton,” Mr. Aversano said of the legendary arts patron.
“That was all a magnificent sunken Japanese garden,” added Mr. Barons, pointing to a formal garden.
Now age-old gnarled woody vines of climbing wisteria line worn brick pathways and trails around the nearly 3-acre property.
“This was considered one of a dozen great gardens in New York State in the 1920s,” Mr. Barons said.
“A lot of this land was David Huntting’s farm. And the original house, Rowdy Hall,” Mr. Aversano said.
“It stood down on Main Street by the church,” Mr. Barons added. “The original house, not the current restaurant!”
“I think [Mary Woodhouse] had the Isadora Duncan dancers here!” Mr. Aversano said.
“It was more a playhouse as in somewhere to play,” Mr. Barons said. “But they held little productions here.”
Inside, the great room looks and feels like a theater.
“Remember when it was built—no one originally lived here—it was a playhouse,” Mr. Barons said.
A playhouse that welcomed the likes of John Drew and John Barrymore and the Westminster Choir, among its storied guests and performers.
It was purchased by Dr. Brockman’s parents, Elizabeth and David Brockman, who added bedrooms and bathrooms to make it more habitable. Dr. Brockman and Ms. Bank made more renovations but adhered to the integrity of the original structure.
“My parents bought the Playhouse from Mrs. Woodhouse’s estate in 1958,” Dr. Brockman said. “The Woodhouse and Brockman families are the only families who have owned the Playhouse since it was built in 1917. The Playhouse was this “one-room theater”—no heat, one bathroom, impossibly uncomfortable, totally impractical. ‘Perfect’ was my mother, Elizabeth Brockman’s, response,” he said.
Dr. Brockman recalled his own history in his home.
“My favorite event was the benefit that my parents hosted in the early 1960s for the then quiet new New York Shakespeare Festival,” he said. “The eminent producer, Joseph Papp, was there for the weekend. I was this long-haired little boy who at that time was a fanatic tennis player. I had just returned to the Playhouse from the village courts when my mother introduced me to Mr. Papp. He shook my hand and said, ‘You know, you should play David Copperfield.’ To which I replied, ‘In singles or doubles?’ Needless to say, it was the end of any career I might have had as an actor!”
Just some of the stunning original features of the home include a gigantic open-hearth fireplace, an Æolian-Skinner organ, and gargoyles on wooden beams in the 75-foot-long great room as well as original metal and glass paned windows, weathervanes and a host of other treasures.
“What I love about the Playhouse is that it has no heat, is impossibly uncomfortable, totally impractical and is the perfect antidote to the over-development that has been happening on the East End since 1958,” Dr. Brockman said.
And if architectural treasures are what you seek, you can do no better than the self-guided East Hampton House & Garden Tour, which features five distinct and stunning houses, creatively selected to express the unique spirit of living on the East End. There’s a traditional shingle-style house on Further Lane; the home of interior designer Joe Nahem, with an extensive art collection; Kilkare, an 1877 house in the Georgica estate section; and a village cottage with French and English influences.
Mr. Aversano and Mr. Barons’s enthusiasm for the Woodhouse Playhouse, and all the homes, is contagious.
“It’s an exciting day and it’s for such a good cause,” Mr. Aversano said. All proceeds benefit the East Hampton Historical Society.
The House & Garden Tour will be held on Saturday, November 25, from 1 to 4:30 p.m. There is also a kickoff party on Friday night, November 24, held at the Maidstone Club from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets to the Opening Night Cocktail Party are $200 each, which includes entry to the House Tour the following day. Tickets to the self-guided 2017 East Hampton House & Garden Tour are $65 in advance and $75 on the day of the tour. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to easthamptonhistory.org or call 631-324-6850.