ISSUE 46  |  Painterly Landscapes

Dune Story: A Postmodern Masterpiece Saved from the Sea on Long Island

November 16, 2015 10:00 AM

BY Michelle Slatalla

Modernist architect Norman Jaffe transformed the landscape of eastern Long Island, introducing sharp-angled, boxy versions of the classic saltbox house to a land of rolling potato fields and dunes.

Sought after for his ability to impose a new vernacular on the classic shingled house, Jaffe at the height of his popularity would famously agree to take on new clients only if their properties were picturesque. His houses, he believed, deserved beautiful backdrops–atop a dune, for instance, overlooking the ocean. Which is where Jaffe sited a 1969 house he designed for real estate developer Stephen Perlbinder and his wife, Sandy.

The only problem is that weather takes a toll. Nearly three decades later, after enduring erosion, floods, angry winds, and a fire caused by a malfunctioning heater, the Perlbinders decided a a grand gesture was in order to save their home from the Atlantic Ocean. So they moved the house 400 feet away from the water, to the middle of a flat cornfield.

In the former cornfield, the backdrop was anything but beautiful. Enter Long Island-based landscape architects LaGuardia Design Group, with a bold plan. The design called for digging up 30,000 cubic yards of dirt to create a new “dune” and to create a 60,000-square-foot manmade pond to fill the cavity left behind by excavation. Today, you’d never suspect that bulldozers deserve the credit:

Photography courtesy of La Guardia Design Group.

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Above: To move the house to a protected site in 1998, a crew had to hoist it from its granite slab base, ease it onto greased I-beams, and move it with cranes across farmland.

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Above: Alongside the new driveway, a concrete retaining wall with a sharp edge contrasts with the untamed floppiness of the grasses planted at varying elevations.

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Above: “The landscape appears very natural, hosting a rich ecosystems of indigenous flora and fauna,” say the architects. “However,  exception is taken at the entry garden, where the meadow gives way to a rectangular mowed green, set squarely against the house and natural landscape. This contrasting space serves to highlight the effect of refinement as one enters the home.”

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Above: A meadow of red fescue grass creates a hazy, romantic focal point in the distance.

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Above: The pond has an irregular shape; it’s impossible to view its entire perimeter from any vantage point. The result is a mystery; it’s hard to tell how big the pond really is because its shoreline disappears into the horizon.

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Above: Native plants border the manmade pond (which is stocked with bass and sunfish).

sagaponack-garden-norman-jaffe-laguardia-mown-grass-path-gardenistaAbove: Hidden behind the mown grass path and a fescue meadow lies the driveway, disguised by dips and contours.

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Above: A border of liriope edges a path, softening the transition between fence slats and a straight-and-narrow walkway.

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Above: Where deck meets dune, steel retaining walls ease the transition and gloss over changes in elevation.

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Above: Bluestem and fescue grasses look particularly painterly when covered in autumn frost.

For more of our favorite eastern Long Island gardens, see: