Xanadu in Connecticut
Architect’s rendering of the bathing pavilion interior. The Riegel family used the pavilion for parties and gatherings. The design included a musicians’ gallery, a wooden floor for dancing, and exterior lights for night bathing.
In addition to donating the historic images, the Riegel grandchildren funded professional photography to document the property today, including architectural features, furnishings, and decorative finishes that remain from the 1920s and ’30s. These images enrich SPNEA’s growing collection of photographs documenting intact New England houses.
A gift of architectural drawings and family photographs chronicles the creation of a Connecticut country house and the lives of those who lived there over four generations.
In the early 1920s, New York businessman Benjamin DeWitt Riegel and his wife, Leila Edmonston Riegel, began the ambitious transformation of a former onion farm in Fairfield, Connecticut, into a splendid estate called Riegel Point. On the twenty-acre site, they constructed a main house of twenty-eight rooms, plus a bathing pavilion and guest house, tennis courts and swimming pool, and handsomely landscaped grounds.
To create this remarkable environment, the Riegels commissioned prominent New York architect Henry C. Pelton to design the house and bathing pavilion and well-known landscape architect Armand R. Tibbitts to plan the grounds. No expense was spared—for example, the mature boxwood plants imported from all over the southeastern United States filled twenty-two freight cars. In addition, F. N. Dowling, a New York firm that specialized in “antiques, decoration, furniture, cabinetwork, painting, exclusive fabrics, and upholstery” was hired to decorate the interior.
During the next seventy-eight years, four generations of the family enjoyed the estate for both its natural beauty and its social life. Earlier this year, the property passed out of the family. At the same time, the grandchildren of Benjamin and Leila Riegel, wishing to preserve the history of the estate, made a large donation of archival material to SPNEA’s Library and Archives.
The gift includes more than 300 architectural drawings of the main house and outbuildings as well as building specifications and correspondence with the architect. In addition, several original colored pencil sketches of landscape plans and site features survive, together with planting plans. The interior of the house is documented by many detailed invoices from F. N. Dowling that describe wallpapers, paint colors, upholstery, furnishings, and imported architectural elements such as mantels and lighting fixtures.
Approximately 3,000 photographs depict nearly all aspects of early to mid-twentieth-century life at Riegel Point. They range from snapshots that show the growth and changes to the property over time, including fascinating images of the house under construction, to professional photographs dating to the late 1920s that document the interior of the house upon its completion, fully decorated and furnished in the latest style.
Many of the photographs illustrate family activities, such as outings in the automobile along the Connecticut shore, gatherings at the beach, and children’s birthday parties. Others chronicle the guests who attended events such as tea parties and weddings. Still others depict the life of the domestic and outdoor staff at the estate.
The gift from the Riegel grandchildren is exceptional in its comprehensiveness. The collection will provide insight into a way of life that developed around the turn of the century, when first the railroad, and then the automobile opened the Connecticut shore to New York’s social elite.
—Shantia Anderheggen, Director of Stewardship