Inside a Spectacular Hamptons Garden by the Sea

Photographs by Rishad Mistri, David Netto
Photo credit: Rishad Mistri

From Town & Country

Photo credit: Rishad Mistri

This is a story about a box of tools, but we’ll get to that. The philanthropist Mrs. William Rayner (known as Kathy; her late husband was the noted watercolorist and travel writer Bill) has a little place on the ocean in East Hampton called Woody House.

The property, acquired in the mid-1980s after the Rayners had rented it from the Trippe family for years, is fabled for many reasons, but most notably for the view. It occupies the end of a spit of land with the ocean on one side and Georgica Pond on the other—all water and sky, and no better place exists to appreciate the changing light and weather of the South Fork.

Regarding the irregular terrain of Oscar de la Renta’s farm in Connecticut, the British landscape artist Russell Page once told the designer, “You can’t have a garden, you can only have a view.” The same is usually true of a beach house, but in the decades since Kathy’s family bought the place from the descendants of Juan Trippe (the founder of Pan Am, he liked Georgica Pond because he could arrive by seaplane), Woody House has improbably become known not just for its dramatic site but for its gardens.

Photo credit: Rishad Mistri

These have grown into a series of lush outdoor rooms, romantic and dense. They’re something of a miracle. “There are other great gardens out here, but mine was against all odds,” their creator says. Kathy has also been on the front lines of pesticide-free organic gardening on the East End, and, like landscape designer and Hamptons neighbor Edwina von Gal, she was green before green was cool. The Rayner method of tick control? Live guinea hens.

Behind every great house is a great relationship between architect and client. Woody House as it appears today is the product of years of improvements by New York architect Pietro Cicognani and decorator Peter Marino.

“I knew she was fun and had imagination,” Cicognani recalls, “but I didn’t know she would be the reason I finally got to work on a grotto! Not in Italy, even, but on Long Island."

Photo credit: Rishad Mistri

When the architect decided it was time to surprise his patron with a gift to commemorate their work together (to designers who think you’re cutting it with a thank-you note, pay attention here), he made two observations about his client. First, she’s a real gardener who doesn’t mind putting her hands in the dirt. Second, she has a well-known passion for significant and stylish jewels.

We’re now getting to the box, and the point: Cicognani designed his gift with infinite care and fabricated it after substantial research. It is a box of gardening tools.

Photo credit: Rishad Mistri

Not just any box, but one that conveys all the taste and craft that have gone into his work at Woody House. The contents are encased in solid walnut, the lid and trunk hollowed out. When opened it reveals six humble but exquisite implements set in a blue suede interior, like jewelry. The tools were procured by Cicognani in Austria (“I asked John Hill, the gardener, what she would want”) and made of an earth-friendly bronze alloy that, unlike steel, enriches the soil.

Photo credit: Rishad Mistri

True to the spirit of Woody House, this is real gardening equipment, no matter how precious, and it sees real service—but only in the hands of its owner.

“Of course I use them,” Rayner says. “But only in my cutting and vegetable gardens, where I do a lot of the work myself. I used to just leave the box open, but now it’s more fun to have people come in and say, ‘What’s that?’”

Asked if this is the best present she has ever received, the mistress of what was once just a sandy spit responds in her typical wry style: “It’s pretty great. But when my mother gave me the house, that was nice too.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story appears in the May 2020 issue of Town & Country.

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