Homes of the descendants of Lion Gardiner, the first English settler in New York, are scattered around the Hamptons, most notably on Gardiner’s Island. But perhaps none are as extraordinary as the Gothic Revival pile constructed by Lion’s descendant Dr. John L. Gardiner in Bridgehampton.
Sitting 200 feet above sea level and resting on a base of 475 tons of local rock, the house includes a 40-foot tower from which, in winter, Mecox Bay, the ocean, and other bodies of water are still visible. Gardiner called the place “Dulce Domum,” or “Sweet Home.”
John Lyon Gardiner, MD (1823-1908) was the eighth grandson of Lion Gardiner. His previous seven grandfathers were all named David, down to Lion’s son David (1636-1689). His great-grandfather David was the sixth proprietor of Gardiner’s Island, and he was cousin to the David Gardiner who wrote Chronicles of East Hampton, a series of articles first published in the Sag Harbor Corrector in the early 1840s, and who was the father of Julia Gardiner Tyler. Dr. Gardiner purchased the Captain William Topping House at 39 Lumber Lane in Bridgehampton in 1855 and lived there until he decided to retire from active practice and build his own house.
The site he chose was very elevated, part of the glacial moraine. In 1913, great excitement came when a bed of fossil shells belonging to the Tertiary period were found nearby, about 10 feet below ground and about 140 feet above sea level. And during the Revolution, a farmer named David Cook, who enlisted in 1780 at the age of 60, hid his cattle in a deep dell in the woods on what would later be the Gardiner property, known as Purgatory Hollow. Until then, the Hessian troops stationed in the area would steal his stock and farm produce. According to Memories of Old Bridgehampton (1916), “to call anyone a Hessian was the lowest, vilest epithet that could be bestowed.”
Dulce Domum was built in the Gothic Revival style mixed with Shingle Style. By 1891, the Gothic style was fading in popularity in more urban areas, but was still popular in more rural settings. It was part of the picturesque and romantic movement in architecture, reflecting a taste for buildings inspired by medieval design rather than the classical look of Greek Revival. In a rural setting, the complex, irregular forms of Gothic buildings were thought to fit in better with a natural landscape rather than Greek.
The Portrait and Biographical Record of Suffolk County (1896) stated of Gardiner, “At the present time he resides at “Dulce Domum” or “Sweet Home,” and from that point he can see fifteen lighthouses in the Sound, and has a view of about fifty miles over the Atlantic. He can see all the vessels that pass the Sound, and Groton Monument, near New London, a distance of thirty-five miles. The Doctor’s home is a very pleasant one, and he has many old Indian relics. His old nurse, Tamar Wright, a Montauk Indian, is still living, and would be queen of her tribe if she cared to return to it.”
The tower at Dulce Domum is crenellated like a medieval castle. A crenellation is a parapet with open spaces for shooting arrows, and for many years the house’s surrounding privet hedge was crenellated too, which gave rise to the property being called “The Castle” locally. Mrs. Gardiner personally chose the stones for the fireplace in what is now the music room, including a relic from the Civil War.
Unfortunately, Dr. Gardiner didn’t get to enjoy his home all that long–he died in 1908 and is buried in Bridgehampton Cemetery. His widow lived until 1925.
Dulce Domum, known now as Tower Hill, got a new lease of life when purchased by supermodel Christie Brinkley in 1998 for $3.2 million. She restored and added on to the dignified old house, including outbuildings. One of the most extraordinary additions by Brinkley was a fire surround in the kitchen, made of local stones from Sag Harbor and beach glass, that spells out “Sweet Home,” just as Mrs. Gardiner designed the music room fireplace.
There’s now also a four-bedroom guest house, a greenhouse conservatory, a barn Brinkley uses as an art studio, and of course a pretty pool and spa. The grounds are especially appealing, with winding walking paths, an organic garden, and a tennis court, all on 20 acres.
To end, we’d like to quote Miss Hannah Elliston, who in 1901 visited and wrote a long, long poem called “Dulce Domum.”
Upon a sun-kissed hill fair ‘Dulce Domum’ stands.
In form like ancient castle seen in other lands.
Here, crowned with years of honored. useful life,
Lives Dr. Gardiner and his loving wife.
Here let us enter, for we’ll always find
A gracious hostess, and a welcome kind.
We’ll chat awhile on subjects old and new,
Then “go aloft,” for you’ll enjoy the view.
Sadly, we haven’t the space to reprint all 14 stanzas, but rest assured they’re all equally as good as the above.