Madoo Grows Up, Irreverence and All

Alejandro Saralegui, who took the helm of the Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack has kept its spirit alive
Madoo has a revitalized mission under the guidance of Alejandro Saralegui, below, who has refined and modernized the vision of Robert Dash, above, the garden and arts center’s founder, who died in 2013. Durell Godfrey

There are not too many organizations around here where you meet up with the executive director in the potting shed — as he’s potting — but Madoo has always defied expectations. Alejandro Saralegui, who took the helm of the Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack after the 2013 death of its founder, Robert Dash, has kept its spirit alive, while honoring Mr. Dash’s request that it “not be preserved in amber.”

An overgrown and, in many places, unhealthy garden has been tamed and revitalized. Plans are under way to give the property’s buildings a much-needed structural and face lift. Last fall, Madoo received a $600,000 facade easement from Southampton Town, provided that the town has approval over repairs and changes to the structures and that they remain in the same location.

As the basis of a capital campaign and renovation budget, Mr. Saralegui said, the grant would allow the property’s summer house to be given a new foundation, roof, cedar shingles, and electrical systems. These are important updates and modifications that have not been addressed in any major way since Mr. Dash first converted the barns and sheds to living spaces in the 1960s. The barn of the summer house dates back to 1740. Kathrine McCoy, a Bridgehampton architect, has donated her services to the project. 

“We close on Sept. 17 for the season. That Monday, I’d love to be digging,” Mr. Saralegui said earlier this month on a tour of the grounds. The changes will also help protect Mr. Dash’s library of rare garden books and his works of art. The renovation will make the building “more secure for the art, will improve the studio lighting, provide a state-of-the-art [heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system].” The current furnace was installed in the mid-1960s. “It’s hysterically giant-sized, and we are replacing it with a unit the size of a suitcase.”

Madoo is also working on its endowment and attracting more summer community interest. There are now 250 members, its highest number yet, but it is surprisingly difficult to get its millionaire neighbors interested in spending $125 for annual dues. To encourage their connection to the garden, Madoo is increasing its children’s programs, from story times to Madoodles art classes, and expanding its adult programs. In addition to a flower arranging class on Saturday, there are art classes and tutorials on identifying plants and trees, and a botanical Latin class is in the works for June 4.

Bringing the barn into the 21st century will serve two purposes. “I’d love to have the barn be a great exhibition space so we can have more shows about Bob and Bob’s art,” Mr. Saralegui said. In addition to being a garden designer, building refurbisher, poet, and columnist for The Star for decades, Mr. Dash was also a visual artist. A protégé of Fairfield Porter early in his career, he eventually developed his own more abstracted style of capturing the local landscape.

A summer show will feature prints the artist worked on with James Schuyler, a poet of the New York School, from a series they called “The Garden.” It opens the weekend of Much Ado About Madoo, the conservancy’s annual garden party and bazaar, to be held on June 17 and 18 this year. “We’ve already been using the studio as an exhibition space and have spent a lot of money on climate control and using a portable dehumidifier,” he said. The upgrades will greatly reduce Madoo’s overall operating costs in their energy efficiency alone.

The other purpose, which may sound familiar to those paying attention to the South Fork’s arts institutions, is to start an artist residency program in the summer house. For several years now, the winter house has been rented out for 11 months out of the year. It is available from June to Sept. 7, for anyone interested in spending a month or a summer on the property, which is also within biking distance to the beach. (The rent ranges from $15,000 to $22,000 a month for an open-plan main floor with sleeping, living, and dining areas and two upstairs bedrooms, a new bathroom, and a courtyard with an outdoor shower. Utilities are extra.) The rent from the winter house helps pay for Madoo’s programs and expenses.

The residency would take place in the “shoulder season” of the early fall or late spring. “It would be for people involved in Bob’s worlds of gardening, poetry, painting, even music, since he was also a pianist.” A composer staying for the month might give a concert, an artist could show work in the studio, poets might give readings. Talks, lectures, and informal gatherings could also be planned. 

Yet, this will not be as social as other residencies here. “In thinking about how to differentiate Madoo, we are thinking seriously about the work they will ac complish and not the social environment,” Mr. Saralegui said. “We’re still in the beginning stages, but whenever we talk about it, people are excited, thinking of it as another way to keep Madoo alive.”

The library will also continue to grow, particularly once the barn becomes a more accommodating environment for books. They will continue to expand Mr. Dash’s original core of garden design and poetry books, and they will be catalogued and well kept. The same goes for the artwork, which is being catalogued, photographed, and inventoried. The paintings are finished, and the work continues on the prints and drawings. There will eventually be a study center for scholars to visit.

Mr. Saralegui said a Madoo board member, Fernanda Niven, told him it was hard to describe Madoo to those unfamiliar with it. His two-second pitch is “Madoo is a center pulling in all of Bob’s skills in these different areas, with children’s programming, adult education, and painting, all in this paradisiacal setting.” He added that it was also a garden for the enjoyment of the public, and in that way an important community resource, despite its sometimes insular and inward-looking feeling, particularly when Mr. Dash was in residence. Opening up the house and rethinking the property is part of the effort to change that perception.

Madoo has begun working with the Bridgehampton School, with third and eighth graders coming in for tours and art projects. In describing and demonstrating Mr. Dash’s richly creative life, Mr. Saralegui said he hoped that it inspired the students to think about accomplishment outside of financial concerns and the world of McMansions that surrounds them here, “a successful, happy life in a different way.”

Claudia Thomas, a Madoo board member, said, “There’s more life in the garden today than there has been in years.” She added that Mr. Dash and Mr. Saralegui shared a similar irreverence. “They are always surprising you, making you wonder who else could have thought of that color combination or arrangement.” 

Close followers of Mr. Dash’s garden will notice some subtle and larger changes, mostly to protect valuable and prized plants that were languishing under too much shade or being overrun by others. “Nature is ruthless. One thing is always going to win out over the other,” Mr. Saralegui said. Near the pond a “scrappy white lilac with one living branch on it” was removed to give a giant weeping beech the space it deserved. While Mr. Dash planted heavily, “he didn’t plan for them to have a sad, slow death.”

Mr. Saralegui said he sees his role as a forensic gardener, which can involve moving plants around to optimize their growing conditions to thrive. He has spent his winters reading each of Mr. Dash’s “Notes From Madoo” columns, learning tidbits — for one, the garden around the frog fountain is a tribute to Elaine Benson, an art dealer, neighbor, and friend who died in 1998. 

Citing Ms. Benson’s “bottle-blond hair,’ Mr. Saralegui noticed that everything in the garden, the sycamore, the variegated holly, the gold cypress around the fountain, was yellow to some degree. But everything was growing on top of the other and some of the plants were dying. He found an arborvitae called Franky Boy with golden foliage and a lower profile, and used it to save the rest. “It’s a good example of what we’re doing throughout the garden.”

Another creative move was to take some dead iris junipers in the garden, bind them to create tall posts, and train honeysuckle around them. It’s one of those unexpected delights, in the spirit of making the best of what you have, that followers of Mr. Dash would no doubt appreciate.


This article has been modified to indicate that the Madoo winter house is available for rent all summer. It originally only mentioned August.

A few of the many views of Madoo, now celebrating its 50th year of organic gardening.Jennifer Landes
The purple gazebo is one striking example of Robert Dash's ebullient use of color throughout his garden.Jennifer Landes
An interior view of the studio and exhibition spaceDurell Godfrey
A photograph of Robert Dash in 1972 indicates just how dramatically he transformed the landscape of his property. The bench is still there, now painted in orange and blue. John Reed
An aerial view of the property before it became Madoo.
Alejandro Saralegui demonstrating how they will train honeysuckle to grow up the dead iris junipers to give them a new purpose in the garden.Jennifer Landes
A view out to the garden from Madoo's new greenhouse.Jennifer Landes
The pond will soon have a new liner and the bridge will remain a quiet respite with colorful accents.Jennifer Landes
New trees and shrubs will continue to be trained into whimsical shapes and designs.Jennifer Landes