It’s one of those glorious autumnal days that make you feel good to be alive: a cerulean sky with puffball clouds on the horizon; a gentle sea breeze with just a hint of fall in the air; the last hurrah of beach roses, bayberry and seaside goldenrod delivering a splash of late October color before the silvery-gray of winter sets in.
As I turn off a picturesque coastal lane near Bridgehampton on the east end of Long Island, N.Y., my car tires crunch along a private driveway covered with crushed oyster shells.
I can hear the sound of waves, smell the heady aroma of sea salt and see gulls whirling overhead. I know the beach and ocean are close by but I can’t quite sense in which direction.
A sinuous boardwalk made of sturdy ipe snakes around to the front entrance of a strikingly contemporary home, greeting visitors with a monumental stairway rising to a second-floor living space with spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean.
But I choose a different route, weaving around the staircase, under the main house and out onto a sun-splashed patio and pool deck, bordered by a long rectangular bocce court and a narrow but handsome strip of neatly clipped lawn.
And beyond the lawn, another boardwalk rises over a natural sand dune thick with native beach grass, bluestem, beach plum, bayberry and seaside goldenrod, leading to a sundeck with panoramic views of the beach and ocean beyond.
There are many private residences in The Hamptons with heavenly coastal surroundings, but surely few can rival the sublime beauty of this singular ocean home garden – a masterful design by Edmund Hollander, one of America’s leading landscape architects.
Principal of Hollander Design, based in New York City and with a satellite office in Sag Harbor, N.Y., multi-award-winning Hollander has taken a challenging tract of oceanfront land and blended natural and manmade design in perfect harmony.
“I wanted to make it look as though the house and garden have somehow miraculously grown out of this wonderful but old natural dune area,” he says.
The resulting landscape looks almost effortless – a testament to Hollander’s deft and meticulous master plan – but belies a two-year and highly collaborative design process between client, architect and landscape architect to bring the original concept to fruition.
The client – a high-profile executive chef and restaurateur – had commissioned Fred Stelle of Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects in 2012 to design the house. Hollander had worked on a previous home with the client and the architects, and all three agreed that he should join the design process from the outset.
“Because of the ecological sensitivity of the site and all the required permitting that goes along with building on the ocean, we got involved very early in the process,” says Hollander.
The first major task that fell to Hollander Design was an entire restoration of the natural sand dune buffering the house from the ocean, much of which had been severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“We had to make sure we had a healthy and stable dune, with the correct grading, contouring, sand and native plants, before the client started investing all this money in creating the house,” he says.
“A dune is a growing, living thing and you have to make it feel like Mother Nature placed the sand and plants and not the hand of man,” he adds. “It’s almost like giving a child a good education. If you build it the right way and it’s healthy, it will take on a life of its own.”
The restored dune has delivered multiple benefits. “It helps protect the house and helps maintain the landscape around the house and on adjacent properties,” says Hollander.
“It’s also a major food source for migratory butterflies and birdlife. You’re not just doing this for the benefit of the client. You’re doing it for the benefit of the beach, the area and the larger overall coastal ecosystem. It’s wonderful,” he adds.
With the dune restoration well under way, Hollander’s team could turn its attention to the home’s landscape design, drawing inspiration from the beach and ocean; natural surroundings; and the clean, linear horizontal planes of Stelle’s spectacular house.
“The reason people are willing to spend the money to be on the ocean is because they really want to be on the ocean,” he says. “You want to swim, surf and have clambakes and fires on the beach.
“So we went for lots of outdoor activities: the pool, bocce court, covered spaces for ping pong, a deck on top of the dune for stacking surfboards and paddleboards and enjoying the ocean views. The whole property is very beach oriented.”
The oceanfront setting played a key role in almost every landscape design decision. “The driveway of crushed oyster shells and curving boardwalk to the front door establish the feeling that you’re at the beach as soon as you arrive,” says Hollander.
He and his design team even had the boardwalks curve in both a horizontal and vertical plane, much like a sinuous snake, to heighten the anticipation – and evoke childhood memories – of being at the beach.
Hollander opted for “flow-through” decking, allowing water, air and light under the boardwalks to encourage native beach grass to grow and help prevent pockets of erosion.
He also selected ipe – a dense, very tolerant and chemical-free tropical hardwood – in place of the more traditional cedar or pressure-treated lumber typically used for this type of construction.
When it came to the landscape closest to the house, Hollander cleverly mirrored the linear architectural vernacular of Stelle’s house design, creating long rectangular forms in the pool, bocce court and lawn, a favorite play area of the client’s two young children.
The house also has multiple outdoor dining, cooking and entertaining areas – designed by Stelle’s architects – reflecting the passions of its renowned chef owner.
“We wanted it to feel like architecture and landscape were created with two hands attached to one head and to break down that hard line between inside and out,” says Hollander.
“So it’s not just building to landscape, but the transition from building to built landscape to planted landscape to native landscape becomes seamless. And it’s the elegance of these transitional spaces that really helps tie the overall design together.”
Born and raised in Manhattan, Hollander says he didn’t plan to become a landscape architect. What he describes as “a serendipitous journey,” from majoring in history at Vassar and studying horticulture at the New York Botanical Gardens to gaining a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, led him to found his own company in 1991.
Today, his team of 20 design and horticulture professionals creates exceptional residential landscapes from New York to the Caribbean and China, with up to 30 projects on the books at any one time, while garnering an array of major awards and honors.
With an abiding passion for landscape architecture, especially in bucolic oceanfront settings like The Hamptons, Hollander’s greatest pleasure comes from creating something for his high-profile clients that money can’t buy.
“A place where they can escape the public realms, relax and enjoy multi-generational interactions, where they can grow with their family, and savor the essential elements of life,” he says. “And when you’re surrounded by the ocean, beach and nature, it’s just wonderful.”