On Retreat

The owner of the late Ward Bennett’s estate has preserved the designer’s vision
The panels in the large ceiling skylight form a square that is echoed in the railings outside and in the floor plan of the room itself. The straight lines quietly set off the sweep of nature. Durell Godfrey

When Andrew Sabin bought a house and 26 acres in Springs in 2002, he knew the estate had been owned by someone deemed an American icon. If he had any question about what he should do with it, the answer was quickly apparent — “very little.” The property had belonged to the late Ward Bennett, the noted 20th-century designer of fashions, jewelry, furniture, and houses, including this one, which he built for himself.

Mr. Bennett was a protean influential. The Museum of Modern Art gave him a solo show of jewelry; the Whitney Museum exhibited his sculptures. He created chairs for Chase Manhattan Bank, jewels for Tiffany; he remodeled an Amagansett house for Jann Wenner. The architecture critic Alastair Gordon, reporting on the designer’s extraordinary achievements, wrote that in any medium, he “could mix seemingly incompatible elements with effortless grace.”

In the early 1970s, Mr. Bennett started devoting some of that grace to the construction of a house at the end of a wooded road, perched on a small rise overlooking Accabonac Harbor with a spectacular water view, lush wetlands grasses, Gardiner’s Island in the distance, and a clump of trees that neatly blocks out the houses across the harbor on Gerard Drive.

Raised on a platform for flood protection (it was untouched by the rising waters of Hurricane Sandy), with decks on three sides, the house is a modest, seemingly undistinguished square until countless small refinements become apparent. The horizontal redwood louvers of the outside walls add texture and are arranged as barnlike doors that can be slid to cover the many windows. At the back of the house, large overhanging awnings shade the first floor.

Mr. Sabin has left the architecture of the house undisturbed, while filling it with a collection of mostly contemporary Asian furnishings. The 40-by-40-foot central pavilion of the living room is formed by intriguing unobtrusive columns that are made from four, four-by-four-inch vertical beams held together in an open square arrangement by large bolts. The room is dominated by a dramatic frosted-glass skylight, 20 feet square, with a peak 16 feet high. 

A wall of glass doors facing the harbor provides the view. At one side is a dining area, and behind a small screen on another side, a tiny guest bedroom with two tatami mats (and a wall-mounted TV). Mr. Bennett’s piano, once owned by the artist Lee Krasner, is in place as a room divider, as is Mr. Bennett’s giant monstera plant with a small turtle sculpture among its leaves. To the rear is a raised kitchen with dark slate walls set off by elegant horizontal bands of wood.

A motif emerges behind the kitchen in a glass-walled sitting room. Its windows are set in nearly square steel mullions that quietly echo the house’s play of squares in the floor plan, the square columns, the wood squares that form the railings around the deck, and even the checkerboard pattern of the fencing around the house’s yard. A stairway, built against an outside wall so it would not intrude on the interior symmetry, leads to a bedroom suite with a dressing and bathroom area and small office.

Mr. Sabin did rearrange the furniture to de-emphasize the views from the two back rooms. Photographs from Mr. Bennett’s era show arrangements facing the woods, but now the bed upstairs faces the har bor, seen through a large horizontal window Mr. Sabin added, and a large couch in the downstairs sitting room faces away from the woods toward a fireplace and another TV.

Mr. Sabin’s subtle changes may be most evident in the landscaping of the two acres around the house, which has become a place of refuge. He has left the swimming pool where Mr. Bennett had it, in a patch of lawn away from the house, and a detached open-air gazebo. However, he has repaved a good deal — the paths, the floor of the gazebo, and a sunken Oriental courtyard with a round, Japanese-flavored “moon gate” that is outside a downstairs bedroom. All have mortar rectangles in which masons have painstakingly embedded, in contrasting light and dark sections, more than a thousand water-smoothed rocks imported from China. 

Statues adorning the yard include Asian carvings and large sculptural rocks that formerly were underwater in China’s Lake Taihu. A statue on one of the decks recalls the large terra-cotta Chinese soldiers of Xi’an.

The path to the house starts between two six-foot-high ceramic Chinese lions, leading past a gingko tree under which Mr. Bennett’s ashes were placed. Nearby, at shoulder height, a vertical cylinder with embossed characters is one of two prayer wheels (the other overlooking the view) that Mr. Sabin had made for the estate. Guests are instructed to pass each one to the left so they can give it a slight spin with their right hands, dispersing the prayers within into the air. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags are strung between trees on the driveway and in the yard, releasing prayers more gradually as they slowly decay in the weather.

Mr. Sabin, an amateur herpetologist with a particular chelonian interest, has now started developing a retreat of another kind. One gets an inkling of it from the signs posted on trees along the driveway. One warns that “nothing here is worth dying for,” but most simply say “Turtle Crossing.” At the end of the road a cleared area contains a pond and vegetation, interspersed by more Chinese rocks. It is what Mr. Sabin calls “a first-class retirement home” for Eastern box turtles that have been rescued after injuries from cars or lawn chemicals but are too damaged to survive in the wild. Designed by an expert who is Mr. Sabin’s fellow board member on the Turtle Conservancy, the turtles’ miniature park is surrounded by an electric fence to keep off predators. The first of its future inhabitants will be turtles rescued by the three-year-old nonprofit Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons in Jamesport. “They’ll reproduce,” Mr. Sabin said, “and we’ll introduce their offspring into the forest.”

Except for the area around the house and a small studio, the grounds will be preserved in perpetuity with conservation easements granted to the Peconic Land Trust. Mr. Sabin has no plans to open the property to the public. Instead of its becoming a recreational site, he intends that it remain a sanctuary — for owls, bats, wild turkeys, deer, and, of course, turtles.

The estate seems to function almost as a turtle’s shell for its owner, who also has a house in Amagansett but spends one or two nights a week in Springs. “It’s a retreat,” he said. “I like to sit there, not see another human being, and listen to the birds the plantings attract. I think of it as a spiritual place.” 
 

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As a child, Christopher Cory was impressed when his father stopped the family car to move a box turtle to the side of an Amagansett road.

The sofa separates the room from the kitchen behind it. Durell Godfrey
The master bedroom looks out at the woods.Durell Godfrey
In the basement, a hot tub adjoins a room that leads to a sunken garden. Durell Godfrey
Asian furniture is set against a monster Mexican monstera.Durell Godfrey
"Seemingly incompatible" modern lines, redwood louvers, and old-fashioned awnings are original to the design, while a sculpture of an ancient Chinese warrior stands at attention. Durell Godfrey
A "moon gate" guards the entrance to the basement and a "rug" of small Chinese stones enhance Ward Bennett's penchant for squares. Right, one of two lions at the main gate commands respect. Durell Godfrey
A water course in a sanctuary for rescued turtles is protected by larger and heavier stones, which also were imported from China. Durell Godfrey
Tibetan flags and a rotating prayer wheel help define the estate's meditative environment.Durell Godfrey
A leather couch offers peaceful seating in the sitting room, where windows with nearly square mullions meet in the corners.Durell Godfrey