June 22, 2023

Finding Art in Everyday Life at Robert Dash’s Madoo Conservancy

When visitors first step into the Madoo Conservancy, in Sagaponack, New York, on the East End of Long Island, it feels like a world distinct from the modern extravagance of much of the Hamptons. “Everybody’s favorite word to use is 'magical,'” said Alejandro Saralegui, who has served as the site’s executive director since 2009.

At barely 2 acres, the grounds are varied, taking influence from several different gardening styles, historical periods, and locations. Visitors might stroll across a bridge inspired by Asian architecture, pause under a strikingly purple gazebo surrounded by a sea of wildflowers, or peek around English Regency-style topiaries. Created to preserve the home and celebrated gardens of artist Robert Dash, the Conservancy became one of seven historic properties to join the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program in 2022.

View of a hidden garden at Robert Dash's conservancy in New York State.

photo by: Mick Hales

View of the Secret Garden at the Madoo Conservancy with a Dortmund Rose that Dash planted with a copper spire from the Cass Gilbert-designed Woolworth Building (1910-1913).

“It Winked At Me.”

Dash came upon the property in 1967 while looking for an escape from New York City. “It winked at me,” he often said, naming his new home Madoo, an Old Scots word meaning "my dove." At the time, he was already a celebrated artist who considered Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter peers and friends.

Born in New York City in 1934, as a child Dash became very interested in art, poetry, and particularly music—he even studied to be a concert pianist in his teen years. While attending the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, he fell in with an artistic crowd that included Georgia O’Keeffe, and when he returned to New York in the later part of the 1950s, he worked for the celebrated publication Art News. It wasn’t until 1958 that he began painting in earnest, with his first show in 1960. Seven years later, he moved out to Sagaponack, where his artistic talents truly flourished. Inspired by the landscapes of Long Island, said Saralegui, “he became an expressionist painter of the East End.”

A painting of a house and land in tones of browns and greens. This is how Robert Dash first saw his home before he bought it.

photo by: Robert Dash/Madoo Conservancy

In this painting Robert Dash depicts Madoo Conservancy as he first saw it.

Robert Dash standing on his porch, in profile. There is a table and chairs in front of him with some plants on either side of the frame.

photo by: Madoo Conservancy

Robert Dash in the Summer Studio at Madoo Conservancy c. 1972.

Though Dash continued to paint, Madoo inspired his artistic instincts in other ways, as well. Dash fell in love with gardening, and the property became a new sort of canvas for him. As Saralegui put it, “He started gardening from the inside out and the outside in,” and as the garden expanded, its styles shifted with Dash’s personal interests.

Yet Dash was careful to keep these varied pieces a coherent whole.

“Oftentimes you get either a gardener's garden or a designer's garden,” Saralegui said. “A gardener’s garden has got a zillion different plants, but they don't necessarily speak to each other. Whereas a designer's garden oftentimes has great design, but is lacking in variety … [Dash] was this person who planted all this interesting material, but also had very innovative garden design. It’s a wonky garden in a lot of ways, but it’s very personal and very beautiful.”

“It is this combination of the personal and the experimental that makes a place like Madoo so compelling,” said Valerie Balint, director of HAHS. “What Robert Dash created represents a wonderful example of the unique experience that awaits at many preserved artists’ sites in the HAHS program. At Madoo, Dash’s ongoing experimentation led to a completely immersive and holistic work of art, which today’s visitors inhabit, and which reveals insights into this multi-talented artist.”

A room painted red with various paintings and furniture. On the right is a window letting in light.

photo by: Mick Hales

The Red Living Room in the Summer House at the Madoo Conservancy.

Preserving Change at Madoo

In 1989, Frank Cabot, a celebrated gardener and friend of Dash’s, founded the Garden Conservancy, an organization whose goal is to preserve, share, and celebrate American gardens. Inspired by this effort, Dash founded the Madoo Conservancy Foundation in 1994, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving his own property. Dash continued to live on the property until his death in 2013.

Saralegui helped care for Dash in the last years of his life, so it’s no surprise that the project to preserve Madoo is deeply personal to him. When discussing the site’s goals, plans, and projects, he remains attuned to what the artist would think of each choice. Even when making additions and changes, Saralegui said, “We use his palette.”

View of the gardens at Madoo Conservancy with a lavender gazebo in the center of the image.

photo by: Madoo Conservancy

Dash used to say that Monet described the color of the atmosphere as mauve, which is what inspired the color of this Gazebo.

View of some of the flowers and lush gardens at Madoo Conservancy. They are against the gray walls of a building with blue window trim.

photo by: Madoo Conservancy

A view of the Secret Garden at Madoo Conservancy.

Sometimes, in big ways and small, Saralegui also uses ideas that Dash discussed with him, but never came to fruition.

“At one point he wanted to paint the winter house like a Swedish country house," Saralegui said. "He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be beautiful if it was light blue?’ So there are two pieces of furniture that are light blue because I remember that conversation with him.”

Saralegui wants Madoo to remain a place with Dash’s stamp on it, somewhere that he would recognize as his home, even decades from now.

Yet preserving the spirit of a place created by an artist who was constantly innovating is a unique task. Sometimes honoring Dash’s legacy and ensuring the longevity of the site means making significant changes. Reflecting on changes they have made over the years, Saralegui said, “It’s a much more contemporary way of looking at preservation.”

One of the Conservancy’s largest projects involved the renovation of the 1740 farmhouse that was original to the property. Eight years ago, it was in serious need of repair, and the board made the decision to strip it to the beams and rebuild it. They improved the electrical wiring and added climate controls, changes that Saralegui sees as balancing the need to keep historical buildings both standing and usable.

Though the garden’s design largely remains the same, the fickleness of the natural world means that the site has to be willing to make changes there, as well.

“Trees die. Today there’s a problem with beech trees," Saralegui said. "If they die, we’ll have to deal with it.”

And sometimes, trees become overgrown. In the year before his death, Dash had noticed that the property's grove of magnolia trees was no longer serving the purpose he wanted it to. Visitors couldn’t easily walk around the trees and admire the differences among the nine different varietals. Nothing came of Dash's musing until after his death. In the spring of 2014, Madoo was gifted a dramatic marble table by Australian designer Mark Newsom.

Displaying such a large piece would require a change in garden design, and Saralegui thought back on Dash’s observations about the magnolias. Inspired by that older idea, the Conservancy cleaned up the grove, built a terrace in its center, and placed the table on the terrace. Like so many other changes that have happened at the site over the years, this one was both dramatic, and done with Dash’s particular vision in mind.

View of one of the structures at the Madoo Conservancy with a green door and a fence and yellow flowers in the foreground.

photo by: Madoo Conservancy

The courtyard of the Winter House at the Madoo Conservancy.

The Madoo Conservancy Today

What remains unequivocally the same is the site’s spirit of simplicity and its embrace of natural beauty, which echo Dash’s artistic vision and his approach to the landscape of Madoo itself. In an area of Long Island known for its wealth and extravagance, Madoo seeks to preserve a different era in the Hamptons. “We’re one of the last properties out here that has a certain casualness about it that reflects the way the Hamptons used to be,” said Saralegui. “It’s a country house. It’s not meant to be a 50-million-dollar mansion.”

That, in the end, is what makes Madoo so magical. When the garden-loving visitors who flock to the site walk onto the property, they are encouraged to disappear into another world and gain another perspective on a place they thought they knew.

Said Saralegui, “I hope that we can show people that an older, simpler way of life is possible, that they can find the art in everyday life.”

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Rebecca Ortenberg is a public historian, digital storyteller, and wrangler of people and ideas. She has served as the managing editor for Lady Science, a magazine and podcast about women in the history of science, and has written for the Science History Institute's Distillations magazine. Though she has adopted Philadelphia as her home, she will always be a West Coaster at heart.


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