The Test of Time on Georgica Pond

At 10,000 square feet, Briar Patch remains an understated family home
“We live out here,” Priscilla Rattazzi said of the large back porch facing Georgica Pond, which she and her husband, Chris Whittle, added to the house when they bought it in 1989.

For as long as the water is warm enough, Priscilla Rattazzi and Chris Whittle keep a fleet of kayaks, paddleboards, and two small sailboats at the edge of Georgica Pond, ready for a jaunt around the pond or a trip across it to the ocean beach in the near distance. 

“I’m a big boater,” Ms. Rattazzi said on a sunny day in late August, so the water was a major selling point when she and her husband first toured the 11-acre estate on a winter day nearly 28 years ago. “When we walked onto the property before we bought it, I looked at the pond and said, ‘Oh, my God, I can sail to the beach.’ ”

Not 48 hours later they had bought the sprawling house, a 10,000-square-foot fixer-upper built in 1931 and ready for a breath of new life. “We knew it would be a lot of work, but we were young and full of energy,” she said. With the help of the architect Peter Marino, they began renovating the Georgian-Revival house immediately and moved in two and half years later. It has been their summer and weekend refuge ever since.

Although the couple put the house on the market for a record-breaking asking price of $140 million two years ago, one gets the sense that they are in no hurry to say farewell. “I have a romantic vision of somebody walking in and buying it in the spirit in which we bought it, but that hasn’t happened and the market has changed,” Ms. Rattazzi said. “It would take a special buyer, but that person hasn’t turned up, and we’re quite happy about that.” 

The property had been listed for a year in 2002 for $46 million, but was pulled off the market. “If the right person appears, we’ll all have a family conference and discuss it, and if the right person doesn’t come along, we’re going to keep it — happily,” Ms. Rattazzi said. 

 While there is no denying that Briar Patch, as the house is called, is among the biggest houses here, it has understated, impeccable style and is a true family home, which has been the backdrop for three growing children, the youngest of whom will finish college in May, several beloved dogs, and myriad guests and family celebrations, most recently the wedding of Ms. Rattazzi’s son, Maxi Moehlmann, in August, to Annabelle Caufman Soudavar.

The house was still topsy-turvy in late August as a result of the wedding, with shoes, scarves, sweaters, handbags, and wedding gifts of uncertain origin in neat piles here and there. Now, Sasha, the younger of the Whittles’ two daughters, was preparing to head back to Middlebury College in Vermont, Mr. Whittle was away on business, and Ms. Rattazzi was set to head off to Greece for a week. “When we bought the house, it seemed very big,” Ms. Rattazzi said. “I had just one child; I was pregnant with my second.” There were so many bedrooms at the time — before they removed four to make way for a three-story great room — that “it felt like an inn.” This summer, with their three grown children and their children’s friends and a steady stream of houseguests passing through, not to mention a golden retriever and a dachshund, Ms. Rattazzi sometimes wished for those extra bedrooms again, despite the four-bedroom guesthouse they built just a few steps away.

Ms. Rattazzi is from Italy, and her creative touch and European sensibilities can be seen throughout the house: custom Italian fabrics, black-and-white photographs of her own and many by the great Edward S. Curtis, pine antiques from English Country Antiques in Bridgehampton and the now-defunct Balasses House in Amagansett, hand-crafted Italian and French furniture that has stood the test of time and changing trends, and a subtle palette that seems born of its surroundings. 

“The light is muted here,” Ms. Rattazzi said. “Bright colors don’t work. . . . I’ve been in new houses here and they have a completely different look. The whites are whiter and the fabrics are more modern. Me, as a European, I like this palette.”

The beginnings of one of Ms. Rattazzi’s books of black-and-white photographs, “Luna and Lola,” and an ongoing memoir project can be traced in part to Briar Patch’s long dining room table, which tends to serve as her desk most days. Meals are usually taken in what the family calls the breakfast room, a sunny space across the hall with its own small kitchen and a door to the back porch.

 Mr. Whittle, an education entrepreneur who was chief executive officer of the for-profit charter Edison Schools and more recently Avenues: The World School, finds fruitful solitude in his office overlooking Georgica Pond, and also likes to work in the adjoining great room. Intended to be a spot for gathering together and entertaining, the great room “is more, on some level, his sanctuary,” his wife said. 

The room has billiard and foosball tables, ample bookshelves, a grand piano, and a big fireplace. A massive portrait of Margaret Hyde Hamilton by the painter John White Alexander hangs over the fireplace, and on the opposite wall is an equally grand lithograph of the 19th-century Sutro bathing house in San Francisco. The great room’s Italian earth-toned fabrics, pine country antiques, and wallpaper made to look like Italian tile conjure images of lively nights and warm conversation, but the family tends to congregate in a much smaller den off the breakfast room.

Family photographs fill many of the hallways and there’s a hat on every hook in the mudroom off the kitchen. The playroom beyond that, at the opposite end of the house from Mr. Whittle’s office, remains an enchanting children’s space all these years later, with stenciled floors, a big dollhouse, and drawers still filled with toys. “Someday I’ll have grandchildren,” Ms. Rattazzi, who just turned 60, said. 

Briar Patch is in an East Hampton historic district that is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Designed by Arthur C. Jackson for Dr. Shepard Krech, the original house had no porches. Ms. Rattazzi and Mr. Whittle added a big one in back — “We live out here,” she said — and another on the front of the house. The back porch has weathered wood tables and wicker couches and chairs to accommodate at least two dozen people. Ceiling fans provide added breeze on the rare occasion when there isn’t a gentle one coming off the pond. 

From the porch, which runs nearly the full length of the house, the pond can be seen just past the edge of the gently rolling lawn. Across the pond, separated from it by a sandy spit of beach, is the ocean. The setting is as much a part of the property as the house itself. “It’s the house on the land that’s special,” Ms. Rattazzi said. And large as it is, “it’s in proportion to the land that it sits on.” 

You could do a book about that view. In fact, Ms. Rattazzi has: “Georgica Pond,” a collection of photographs with short essays by Robert Benton, Eleanor Kennedy, Kelly Klein, and Donald Petrie published in 2000. It is a love letter to the pond.

“Whether spring, summer, fall, or winter, we are blessed with a view that has brought enormous happiness to our family and that has clearly inspired me,” Ms. Rattazzi wrote in the book’s preface. More recently, her love of Georgica has inspired a crusade to save it. After two summers in which elevated blue-green algae levels prompted warnings against shellfishing, fishing, and swimming in the pond, Ms. Rattazzi helped form the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation, a nonprofit that is monitoring the pond and working to improve its health. 

For her part, she uses no chemicals on the lawn, “not even organic chemicals,” she said, and is considering shrinking the lawn by 30 percent to increase the natural buffer around the pond. She was heartened that a large aquatic-weed harvesting vessel the foundation operated this summer seemed to have had some success in reducing the number and duration of algal blooms. 

Briar Patch’s gardens, like the house itself, are graceful and simple, punctuated by some very old trees. Tall 100-plus-year-old lindens help frame the view. Although they also obstruct it, Ms. Rattazzi has long resisted any suggestion that she cut them down. For the wedding, she had some branches pruned “so they were like a cathedral.”

“It’s always peaceful here, but September is my favorite month; everybody’s happy,” Ms. Rattazzi said. “There’s a big difference in the light. You see a shimmering on the pond and that’s when you know fall is coming.”

Kayaks, sailboats, and paddleboards are always at the ready at pond’s edge. Durell Godfrey
Tito, a dachshund, and Leo, a golden retriever, relaxing on the front steps with Ms. Rattazzi, are the latest in a line of beloved dogs to call Briar Patch home.Durell Godfrey
A portrait of Margaret Hyde Hamilton by the painter John White Alexander hangs over the fireplace in the house’s great room, where earth tones add a sense of warmth to the large space. The custom wallpaper was made to look like Italian tile. Durell Godfrey
The grass is not always greener: A founder of the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation, Priscilla Rattazzi, who is dedicated to improving the pond’s health, eschews landscaping chemicals, even organic ones. Durell Godfrey
Photographs by William S. Curtis fill the wall in the front stairwell. Durell Godfrey
The family eats most meals in what they call the breakfast room, which has its own small kitchen. Durell Godfrey
Chris Whittle’s office, just off the great room, occupies its own quiet space, but the great room also is “his sanctuary,” his wife said. Durell Godfrey
Two towering linden trees, each more than 100 years old, frame the view of the pond from the house. Durell Godfrey
The Whittles’ own children may be grown, but the playroom, with its large dollhouse and toy-filled bench seats, remains intact. Durell Godfrey