In this era of buy old, tear down, build big, Liz Lange has bucked the trend. While she did buy old (a 100-year-old property in East Hampton, New York), she chose to respectfully restore and redecorate the home and its surroundings. Known as Grey Gardens, the storied shingle-style “cottage” near the sea possesses a unique and colorful past, having once been owned by the campy, cat-collecting cult figures “Big” and “Little” Edie Beale, Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and first cousin. The house was later bought and rescued by editor Sally Quinn and her husband Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post at the time.
With original plans drawn by Arts and Crafts architect Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe, the home was built for Mr. and Mrs. Fleming Stanhope Philips in the early 20th century. Robert Hill and his wife, Anna Gilman Hill, a gifted garden writer and plants-person, then purchased it and turned their attention to adding a substantial garden component to the property. Anna, taking the climate and locale into consideration, imported ornate concrete walls from Spain that would shield the garden from the briny sea spray and punishing Long Island winds. Then she and landscape architect Ruth Dean designed the gardens using a palette of pastel flowers, including lavender, phlox, delphinium, and climbing rose. “It was truly a grey garden,” Anna once wrote. “The soft grey of the dunes, cement walls, and sea mists gave us our color scheme, as well as our name.”
The home was later bought by Phelan and Edith Beale but eventually fell into disrepair when the Beales divorced. Edith, known by many as “Big Edie,” was left with no resources for upkeep and a somewhat eccentric frame of mind. She and her daughter, “Little Edie,” lived in unimaginable squalor for many years until the neglected property was acquired by Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee. The couple kept all the original furniture, including heirloom wicker pieces found in the attic, and completely restored and decorated the house for their own weekend and holiday enjoyment.
In 2015, Liz and her husband, a corporate lawyer, took the house as a summer rental. “It was love at first sight!” Liz says. “I knew I wanted to get my hands on it but didn’t think it would ever be possible. I had the idea to offer to rent it for the next 10 years—the closest thing to buying it. But then Sally decided to sell. Her husband had passed away, and her heart just wasn’t in it.” Liz tells of realtors trying to show her other bigger, newer houses on the beach while she batted them away with her knowing, confident “No, I want THIS one.”
The house could not have landed in better hands. A comparative literature major from Brown, Liz also had a penchant for fashion. Raised by a stylish mother on the Upper East Side of New York City, she developed a keen eye for chic. After college, she worked at Vogue and then apprenticed for a young designer. One day, while observing some of her contemporaries dressed in unflattering, muumuu-type maternity wear, she decided to draw form-fitting yet flattering clothes for expectant women. The collection took off, and Liz Lange Maternity later sold for a tidy sum to a private equity group. That instinct and imagination have been on display in Liz’s most recent, more bohemian, print-filled fashion venture, Figue. “I design for myself,” she says. “In the 90s and early 2000s, there was a cleaner, somewhat urban aesthetic that fit my life. Now, I’m in a more resort-y phase. I laughingly say that I’ve entered my caftan years.” She and everyone else.
This same bold vision has translated to the restoration and redecoration of Grey Gardens. Liz, though appreciative of the history and legend of her home, acknowledges that she also just loved the house itself. Having grown up going to “the country,” as the Hamptons were then dubbed in her world, she had a soulful connection to the neighborhood and was ecstatic to discover she could return and rehab a house that embodied everything she fondly remembered of that vernacular. “I spent my childhood just around the corner and knew the area like the back of my hand,” she says. “But several of the original, quintessential, shingle-style houses had been torn down, so I was so happy to see that Grey Gardens was still standing.”
When Liz took possession of the home, not much had been changed in the 40 years since Sally and Ben had renovated it. Armed with a sophisticated aesthetic and an enviable list of design and building contacts, she set about restoring and redecorating her new home. “I was a bit intimidated to begin with,” says Liz. “Lots of people have opinions and feelings about this house. It’s almost like a public museum, and I get that. But it’s also my house, so it’s been about the balance.”
She embarked on the project knowing she wanted to retain the architecture and feel of the original house. “No additions, no popping out of windows, etc. We watched the ‘Grey Gardens’ documentary over and over and would pause it and say, ‘Wait, what’s that behind her?’ We really tried to identify each fixture and picture. Our architect also knew many historical details, like the size of the diamond windows. The original ones were smaller and more expensive, but I wanted that, so that’s what we used.”
Having witnessed the successful restoration of the nearby Arts and Crafts manse, Lasata, the childhood summer home of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Liz knew she wanted the same architects to help in her efforts. Ferguson & Shamamian were enlisted to handle the larger, more mechanical architectural duties, including adding an entire subterranean level. Architects Bories & Shearron then took on the more decorative architectural details, such as the plaster palms in the sunroom and the fantastical pool pavilion, among other elements.
An unabashed lover of color and glamour, Liz enlisted the help of potter and designer Jonathan Adler, a dear friend of hers, to reflect her personality in the public spaces. The designer is known for his use of bold color, mid-century modern shapes, and graphic pattern. “He just gets me,” Liz says. “But I also really liked what Mark Sikes was doing. I hired him to decorate the bedrooms. I really wanted a few different voices that reflected my taste—not a one-designer interior. I wanted to have a big say in the overall look.”
To honor the home’s past, Liz did incorporate a few quirky artistic references to the Beales. And since Little Edie had once been a stylish beauty and a debutante, she wanted to acknowledge that with a nod to elegance. Liz has always loved the sophisticated look of film producer Bob Evans’s round swimming pool, so she added one. Sikes then designed blue-and-white striped chaise longues to go along with it. He also envisioned jaunty stripes in the pool pavilion to further reflect Liz’s love of old Hollywood, and he engaged legendary decorative painter Bob Christian to paint the same stripes on the walls and ceiling for a tent-like effect.
With so much of summer in East Hampton being lived out of doors, the design team also considered the outside as much as the interior—a hallmark of Sikes’s process. Liz shares, “I’m not a gardener, but it was important to me to honor the visions of Anna Gilman Hill and others who had lived here. At the same time, I wanted to incorporate my ideas of what I liked in the garden. We saved as many trees as possible, restored all the fountains, and even kept the little ancient gravestone for a dog named ‘Spot’ flush in the ground near a hedge.”
New York-based landscape architect Deborah Nevins worked with Liz to restore Hill’s pergola, walled garden, and thatched hut that had all grown a bit tired over the years. She also laid out an extensive kitchen garden and an overall wilder English-style garden, both inspired by Liz’s visit to Babington House in England, as well as her particular fondness for Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst gardens. But the new chapter in the garden story is the Indian Garden on the east side of the house just off the dining room.
A consummate and enthusiastic hostess, Liz wanted the vista beyond the dining room to be interesting and a bit alluring. The design decision was inspired by a pair of Maya blue, vintage, Indian palace doors discovered at John Derian. “We decided to place them at the entrance to the future Indian Garden at the end of the Linden Walk,” says Liz. “Debby (Nevins) knew of a company in India that could fabricate the white marble planters, fountain, and furniture that we thought would pair beautifully with the doors, so we commissioned them.” The pieces are dramatic and unexpected for East Hampton, yet they work and even seem to reflect Liz’s recent foray into fashions with a more international profile.
Another voice Liz incorporates into her design scheme is that of the Bridgehampton florist Michael Grim. Having known Liz for years, starting with when he graced Liz’s childhood home with flowers for her mother, Michael understands and interprets her floral preferences beautifully. “Liz loves garden flowers and is never afraid of color,” he says. This unfussy attitude is representative of Liz’s overall ethos. “I don’t take myself—or my homes—too seriously,” she says. “I’m mostly barefoot, but that’s ‘cause I’m feral. People walk in and say, ‘Oh my, should I take off my shoes?’ And I always respond, ‘Only if you want to.’ ” One might imagine the Edies somewhere nodding in approval.