As you turn onto Meadow Lane in Southampton, the green bulwark gives way to the privet hedge – a signature of this greedy enclave – dune grass, seaside goldenrod and skeletal pines. The five-mile land finger between the Atlantic Ocean and sleepy Shinnecock Bay is possibly the most valuable strip of real estate in the country. So it is being built everywhere: a new billionaire moves in, tears down the palace of the last billionaire and starts working on another Ozymandias. In the midst of these dunes, however, are a handful of humble architectural triumphs built during a brief gust of modernity that swept through the area in the mid-20th century. One of them, known as Sugarman House, a hyper-minimalist concrete shrine of protruding rectangles from 1963 – part sandcastle, part bachelor camp – serves as a case study of the work of the underrated American designer Ward Bennett.
Largely self-taught, Bennett, who died in 2003 at the age of 85, was not a licensed architect and built only a handful of houses in his multidisciplinary career spanning five decades. He is better known for the office furniture that defined the aesthetics of the glass and steel skyscrapers of the 1950s and 1960s, including the Landmark, a pared-back reinterpretation of an English side chair, and the Scissor, which is reminiscent of a 19th century foldable beach lounge , but he also created everything from textiles and cutlery to Tiffany glasses. Still, it may be his interiors and the houses he designed from the ground up, like Sugarman House, that best convey the entirety of his aesthetic.
In these residential projects, Bennett created a warm American modernism that eschews the shiny metal angles and concrete planes of the international style. Although he loathed excess and cultivated a simplicity that could border on the monastery, he was one of the first to mix antiques with contemporary art and to use useful materials such as cork floors and metal mesh room dividers in his interiors. And although its neutrally-toned surroundings seemed calm, they were covertly subversive and full of radical juxtapositions: the old and the new, the cheap and the opulent vintage glass vases on a stainless steel hospital cart. He was sought after by the flag-bearers of the ultra-modern, including David Rockefeller, who had him design the corporate headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1961, with box-shaped, oat-colored upholstered seats and low floating shelves. Almost a decade later, Fiat President Giovanni Agnelli and his wife Marella Bennett commissioned the architect Philip Johnson to transform their apartment in Rome into a loft-like space filled with objects and materials traditionally relegated to the garden: willow, Hammocks, coconut mat.
While many European architects and design theorists of the time, including the Swiss-French Le Corbusier and the Finnish Alvar Aalto, were driven by philosophy, religion, or social constructs, Bennett’s reduced modernism on a human scale was shaped by his own peripatetic life. Bennett was born Howard Bernstein in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan to a vaudeville actor. At the age of 13, he left home and pushed his way through the clothing district with delivery trucks to finally get a job as a draftsman of women’s clothes. During a stay in Europe in the twenties, he sought a meeting with the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who became the guiding star. Back in New York, Bennett dressed windows and designed furs for fashion designer Hattie Carnegie, shared a studio with artist Louise Nevelson, took night classes with German-born Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, and experimented with ceramics and jewelry. (Bennett’s jewelry was included in a group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946.)
By the late 1940s, he was a sought-after interior designer and skillful furniture maker (his gently curving university chairs can be found throughout Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidential library in Austin, Texas). But in Bennett’s interiors, you’ve seen the designer at his most innovative side. In 1962 he bought an apartment on the tip of the Dakota in Central Park West, a tangle of maid quarters under the heavily raked mansard roof. He opened up the space completely with vertiginous walls of windows, a daring choice in a time before lofts became popular. The retreat he created for himself a few years later in Springs, New York, a wooded bohemian neighborhood of East Hampton that attracted artists like Willem de Kooning, also included novel design idioms with a 20-foot skylight and a couple of floor-to-ceiling, accordion-like redwood doors that opened to the sea.
BUT IT WAS NOT UNTIL Marvin Sugarman, producer of the groundbreaking children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” and his wife Ronnie hired a beach house so Bennett could fully realize his extreme vision. Although he was a notoriously prickly character who usually worked alone, the project was ambitious enough to hire 22-year-old Joe D’Urso as an assistant, who would later become the forerunner of high tech, a synonym for industrial style in the early 1980s.
The cubist stucco concrete house on 2.75 hectares by the sea was intended to be a peaceful amalgamation of form and landscape. It was held above the sand by nine-foot-high stilts, making it one of the taller structures on the beach at the time. It offered an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic. Bennett’s approach was forward-looking: the house also had a built-in hedge against rising sea levels.
From a distance, the structure appears to emerge organically from the dunes, and its stucco membrane mimics the texture and hue of the sand. The public areas of the house can be reached from the beach via two trackless, zigzag teak stairs with steps that protrude from an angled wall. Once these precarious steps are overcome, the influence of the Mexican modernist architect, Luis Barragán, one of Bennett’s idols, becomes apparent. The walls are unbroken except for the deeply sunk windows, and the materials are limited to teak, stone tiles and plaster. Like Barragán, Bennett adopted an almost pious visual austerity, in which natural light and shade, not furniture or decoration, set the scene. In contrast to Barragán, however, Bennett opted for monochromatic decorations: Inside there are door knobs made of ebony orbital glass, hardly any track lighting and a black metal spiral staircase that leads to the nest-like room of an eagle on the third floor. “Ward was involved in every element,” says D’Urso, now 77. “Most architects are not interested in interiors. Ward took care of everything from the furniture to the sheets and towels. He found the placement of light switches as important as the windows. “
The house has had several owners since it was sold by the Sugarmans in 1978. The current owners, longtime admirers of Bennett, bought the property in 2012 and spent three years restoring it, even bringing the painted mills back to their original matte grain. One of the few major changes they had made was hooking up and covering a deck to add to the tiny kitchenette that was typical of Bennett’s houses – he wondered if he should cook an afterthought. Previous owners had enclosed the ground floor in glass (it now includes an additional bedroom and den, increasing the total living space to 7,000 square feet) and installed a rectangular pool. Works by Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, and Cy Twombly hang on the cream walls of the main level, and several Bennett pieces, including an X-steel base sleigh chair and wicker seat, are scattered. (Geiger, a subsidiary of Herman Miller, still makes some of his chairs that are deceptively comfortable. Bennett had back problems, so he designed them with great sensitivity to tilt and angle.) There is also an elongated steel dining table that in the 1970s by D’Urso, which the owners found in a local antique shop.
The building may be of a technical severity, but the owners say the home is actually surprisingly informal. “The point of the house is that it should be cold,” says one of them. “It’s a beach house. You can walk through sand, you can throw it around. “To more explicitly connect the property to its surroundings, as Bennett had envisioned, they covered the terrace tiles around the pool with sand. East Hampton-based landscape architect Edwina von Gal, who laid out gardens nearby for fashion designer Calvin Klein, cookbook author Ina Garten, and artist Cindy Sherman, relied largely on native species – mostly hardy pines – when redesigning the area around the house and grasses, dune thrivers that can make a name for themselves in unstable terrain. A Hollywood juniper with its twisted, irregular branches stands like a sculpture by the pool. “I tried to make the landscape look like it had always been there,” says von Gal. “The house is particularly conducive to this because it looks like it’s floating down from the sky.”
A few years after Bennett finished the Sugarman housing, he completed a much larger Hamptons home for a stockbroker named Hale Allen in Amagansett, his last in the area. This fortress-like concrete building would get better known – Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone, and his then-wife Jane bought it in 1990 and commissioned 72-year-old Bennett to restore it by adding a pool house. ornate lattice walls and Asian antiques. Still, it is the house on Meadow Lane that can be the designer’s most passionate creation. It is a subtle rebuke for contemporary excess and gaudiness, engraved on the sparse landscape like salt fog: quiet, transparent, elemental.