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Tea Under Thatch

by Vincent Kish

Peggie was an especially active little girl. She enjoyed hiking, fishing, ice-skating, horseback riding, taking dancing lessons, and acting in plays with friends and her three brothers. Peggie did most of her playing in the Long Island Gold Coast town of Old Westbury, especially on a plot of land of about 175 acres with a magnificent Charles II style mansion. She found this environment to be as comfortable as her own backyard; which in fact it was.

Peggie's parents were John and Margarita Phipps. John's father, Henry, had been Andrew Carnegie's partner in the steel business. Margarita's family owned the Grace Shipping Line. They were in a position to buy birthday presents considerably more elaborate than most parents, then or now, could afford.

In addition to her involvement in sports and outdoor activities, Peggie always had a special appreciation for the serenity of a tea party. So for Peggie's tenth birthday in 1916, John and Margarita had a playhouse built in the form of a thatched cottage. It was charming, yet with plenty enough room to house Peggie, her dolls, and perhaps a dozen of her friends.

In 1959, Peggie Phipps Boegner founded Old Westbury Gardens. Her long-time home, the amazing gardens that surround it, and her thatched cottage have been visited and appreciated by many thousands of visitors every year since.

Thatched roofs can last anywhere from a few years to several decades, as a function of climate, materials used, and levels of shade and air circulation. Peggie's cottage has a metal roof beneath the thatch and an interior ceiling. Some of the trees in the cottage garden have grown quite tall and shady. But none of these trees, particularly an especially majestic Silver Maple, are going anywhere soon.

The inner roof and ceiling allow an extra layer of protection against the chance of rain leaks, for preservationists are understandably concerned about the priceless dolls and other mementos within the cottage. Therefore, every five years or so, at least part of the roof requires the addition of new layers of Norfolk style water reed (Phragmites communis).

Old Westbury's thatcher is William Cahill of Custom Roof Thatch Ltd., one of only a handful of companies providing traditional thatching services in the United States. Cahill is a Midwesterner by way of Ireland, where he first learned his craft over 20 years ago. He travels all over the world, including 41 states, performing each of the labor-intensive tasks himself.

These include harvesting the wild reed from marsh areas in Southern New Jersey, tying the eight to ten foot high dried stalks into bundles or yealms, trimming and dressing the material with a leggett and other specialized thatching hand tools (a Dutch mallet being another), and cutting and bending hook-like thatching nails for permanently securing the thatch to the roof.

By the end of Cahill's two week tenure in the gardens, the cottage looked as good as it did 89 years ago.

One evening toward the end of his visit to Old Westbury Gardens, Cahill was greeted by a distinguished woman who, even more so than many of the other curious visitors to his work site, seemed to take a special interest in the thatched cottage. After briefly complementing him on his work, she turned and walked away, aided by a cane, an understandable necessity given her 99 years. The visitor, Peggie, who lives nearby, continues to enjoy the gardens in which she played as a child. And she still invites friends over for tea parties.

Old Westbury Gardens:

Custom Roof Thatch Ltd.:

** All photos, except the one of Peggie Phipps Boegner, by Vincent Kish. Kish is Manager of Communications at Old Westbury Gardens.

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published October 17, 2005

Photos to enlarge

Roof thatcher William Cahill at work on the playhouse roof.

On the lower part of the roof, all thatch was removed. At the top, a thin layer of old material waits to be removed. New thatch sits by the chimney.

Cahill kept piles of loose thatch on pallets about a hundred yards from the cottage. Each day he tied up a given amount into bundles and pushed them closer in a cart, periodically stacking some of the thatch vertically. He brought a few bundles at a time up on the ladder/scaffolding, and cut and dress as needed. The old thatch from the roof was tossed to the ground and disposed of.

Afteroon Tea

Peggie Phipps Boegner, Courtesy of Old Westbury Gardens

The new thatched roof.

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