Old Westbury Gardens, a Charles II-style mansion located on the...

Old Westbury Gardens, a Charles II-style mansion located on the North Shore, is offering guided "back stairs" tours for the first time since the estate opened to the public in 1960, giving visitors a glimpse at how the servers lived. Credit: Vince Kish

While much is known about John Phipps, the heir to a steel fortune whose family once inhabited Old Westbury Gardens, little has ever been said of the people who prepped their meals, fluffed their pillows and essentially kept the sprawling estate running for decades.

For the first time since the house opened to the public in 1960, visitors can take a guided tour of the "back stairs" of the Westbury estate to see how the servers lived.

"We at least want to show a few of the work areas, both to give a little extra value to the people who are visiting at a time of the year in which nothing is in bloom, and to give a feel for what it may have been like to be a worker here rather than as a resident," says Vincent Kish, director of communications.

Despite the massive space -- the mansion is part of a 200-acre plot that includes gardens, woodlands, ponds, lakes and open landscaped grounds -- the Phipps family lived modestly, according to Kish.

"They were relatively conservative," Kish says. "I'm sure they ate very well. But they weren't the type that walked around with the servants feeding them caviar and crackers or whatever."

In fact, Kish described the Phipps family's lifestyle as elegant, rather than opulent.


At any given time, there may have been as many as 14 servants living in the house, including housemaids, footmen, butlers, cooks, nannies, handymen and laundresses, Kish says. While the nannies and housemaids were exclusively female, the other jobs were held by both men and women, most of whom were not married.

Much of the Phipps' servers hailed from England or Ireland, a decision John likely made to appease his English-born wife, Margarita. The family matriarch was of Irish heritage but grew up in England, where she met her husband. It is believed that shortly after Margarita met John, who was born in Pennsylvania, he promised to build her a Long Island estate reminiscent of those in England so that she would always feel at home.


A grand wood-paneled kitchen pantry has a shelf lined with cheese, bread and butter boxes. Beneath, there's a series of 1940s quart-size milk bottles and a round white tin with a sweet, but fading, label spelling out the word "sugar."

On their own, the items seem like they would have been arranged by the matriarch of this early 20th century style kitchen. But across the room there's a dumbwaiter, a symbol of privilege and wealth that signifies it was the staff of Old Westbury Gardens -- not the owners -- who once made use of the room to prepare and serve food to Phipps' family in the 1920s.

The Phipps' children were cared for by nannies, who were typically referred to as nurses whether or not they had any medical training. There were also any number of workers, including the chauffeur, groomsmen and gardeners, who lived elsewhere on the property.


The mansion has remained largely unchanged since its construction in 1906. The interior was designed to be relatively modern for its time, incorporating a number of conveniences -- like the dumbwaiter -- that the upper crust had become accustomed to. As one of Long Island's architectural relics, Old Westbury Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Says Kish, "Basically, everything that everyone sees in the house was original to when the family lived here from 1907 till the parents died in the late '50s."

Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in a Country House

WHEN | WHERE 1:30 p.m. Nov. 8, 15 and 22 at Old Westbury Gardens, 71 Old Westbury Rd. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Reservations required.

INFO 516-333-0048, oldwestburygardens.org

ADMISSION $10 includes tour and access to house/gardens ($5 ages 7-17)

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