Banfi’s headquarters, a 60-room manor, originally known as “Rynwood,” which also has served as a country retreat for a branch of the Vanderbilt family, sits amid squared lawns and formal English gardens on a heavily landscaped 55-acre estate in the exurb of Old Brookville, Long Island. Its vaulted ceilings, English oak paneling, long-sounding corridors, stained-glass medallions, Guastivino-tiled fireplaces and tapestries recall a charming yet opulent age of Long Island’s Gold Coast.
Harvard architect Roger Harrington Bullard built the manor house in 1927 on what local historians claim is the “oldest” road in America: Cedar Swamp Road. He was commissioned by Sir Samuel Agar Salvage, often called the “father of the rayon industry” in the United States, the chairman of the American Viscose Corporation.
In 1927, as “Rynwood” was nearing completion, he made the mansion available to the British government for “Empire Day,” a royal spectacle held every May 24th to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria. The event marked the beginning of the home’s prominent role in the social life of Long Island’s “Gold Coast” that was to last for more than three decades. All three Salvage daughters – Katharine, Margaret and Magdelaine – made their debuts there.
Shortly after Sir Samuel’s death in 1946, Lady Salvage placed the manor house on the market. In less than 24 hours, Miss Margaret Emerson appeared at the forecourt entrance. She was the widow of socialite Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and the daughter of the pharmacist, Isaac E. Emerson, who invented the headache remedy, Bromo Seltzer.
According to Magdelaine Salvage, Miss Emerson inquired only about the purchase price and the location of the “croakie-pitch court” (croquet court). When informed there was no croquet court, she departed “without looking at the pantry, the kitchen, even the swimming pool. My mother simply assumed we had lost a prospective buyer until the next day when Miss Emerson’s attorney arrived at “Rynwood” and negotiated its purchase.
“A team of decorators appeared shortly thereafter,” she continued, “and they worked on the home for nine months. Not once during that time did Miss Emerson ever make an appearance. But a croquet court did”.
The new owner ordered a hill on the southeast lawn leveled for that purpose.
In 1960, the manor house was sold to Frederick William Irving Lundy, a Sheepshead Bay restaurateur who claimed he fed about a million people a year. It was one of 70 properties he owned, including 30,000 acres in Ellenville, N.Y. Mr. Lundy rarely visited “Rynwood”; he kept increasingly to himself in his declining years and the property began to deteriorate. He died in 1977 at the age of 82, and Banfi purchased the estate two years later.
Assisted by architectural renderings and old photographs, two leading experts began restoring the manor in 1980. They were: Dr. Marcello Matteini, professor of architecture at the University of Rome; Mr. Hampton, whose clients include former President George Bush, described the Old Brookville assignment as, “Simply heroic. Our objective was to create the atmosphere of a magnificent home, not a crassly commercial office.” They succeeded. It took almost three years to accomplish and required the talents of 50 artists, artisans and horticulturists.
All 60 rooms, both great and small, have been appointed with an array of treasures from Europe, mostly English and Italian, reflecting the 15th-century custom of English gentry traveling to Italy to acquire rare paintings, marbles, bronzes and other objects of art. An eclectic, humanist assortment, they date from the Etruscan period (8th century B.C. to 1st century B.C.) through the 19th century A.D.
A grape-and-wine theme is evident everywhere: on carpets, wall sconces, windows and, of course, statuary. Dominating the main staircase is a bronze statue of Michelangelo’s “Bacchus,” which stands two meters high. A similar casting can be found in the Mellon Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The original figure was executed in marble during the sculptor’s first visit to Rome in 1497. He completed it in a year.
Many of the home’s furnishings and paintings were acquired by John F. Mariani, Banfi’s chairman, and his wife, Pamela. On numerous trips to Europe over a two-year period, they spent countless hours visiting historic homes and antique shops in London, Rome, Florence, Milan, Zurich and Geneva. “The last thing we wanted to create was a museum, but we wanted museum quality,” said Pamela Mariani.
The manor’s library, which extends the entire length of the building’s west wing, can boast of an unusual number of “conversation pieces,” including a 12th-century Tuscan table, medieval tapestries, a 17th-century George Brooke grandfather clock, a Queen Anne tallboy (circa 1710), an English “rent table” that now serves as a desk, even a choir loft. (In Elizabethan times, such a room which is shaped in the form of a cross, served as the manor’s chapel.) Several chairs in the library had been purchased by professor Matteini but their flame-stitch coverings, mostly blue and grey with gold highlights, did not appeal to Mr. Mariani. Before leaving on a business trip to Italy, he made arrangements to change the fabric. While in Florence, however, he spotted the identical fabric at the Uffizi Palace and learned that it featured the colors and signatures of the Medici. A fast call to the office saved the library chairs!
A heavily paneled room, appointed with a 7th-century Tuscan table flanked by 8th-century Tuscan chairs, serves as Banfi’s boardroom. The decorators also borrowed selectively from periods within England’s golden age of furniture, everything ranging from florid Baroque to elegant Queen Anne. There’s a George 1 lowboy and a chest of drawers (circa 1775), an Irish Chippendale tall case clock (circa 1790), “Gothick” (so spelled to distinguish it from medieval Gothic) Chippendale side chairs (circa 1830); and, of course, smooth Cabriole legs and ball-and-claw feet are much in evidence.
A few pieces are modern, albeit with a period look. The dining room table, which seats 12, and the board room table were both made by Italian craftsmen in Locust Valley, N.Y., based on Mark Hampton sketches. No tables could be found in Europe large enough to meet Banfi’s needs.
Other appointments are 18th- and 19th-century Chinese lacquer screen panels, French Empire urn lamps, Ludovican benches of the 12th century, an Italian Renaissance refectory table and fireplace equipment and wall sconces with a grape motif hand-crafted by Swoboda, the Austrian swordmaker. Flemish tapestries of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and medieval banners decorate the walls. One tapestry, depicting Putti harvesting grapes, is based on a 15th century Italian vintage cartoon by Gaetano Romano, a disciple of Raphael; its mate hangs at Chateau Beychevelle in Bordeaux. John Mariani, Sr., founder of Banfi, acquired the banners at an auction held at the Harvey Firestone estate in Florida in 1929.
Also on display are acquatints, sketches, prints, lithographs, water colors, Grisaille panels (two white-on-gray tompe l’oeil murals), and a notable collection of paintings by Gabriel Carelli; such American artists as Ryder Platt Powell and Granville Perkins; and the works of five members of the Royal Academy, W. H. Collingwood-Smith, William Henry Hunt, Arthur Joseph Meadows, C. T. Bale and C. M. Powell, and the noted Victorian army surgeon-turned-painter, Henry Pillau.
A unique boast of the manor is a wine cellar that houses some 6,000 bottles of rare vintages, including vertical collections of Castello Banfi’s Brunellos, Super Tuscans, and single-vineyard varietals. A safe-type door, 8 feet high and almost a foot thick, guards the treasure.
Like all English manor houses, this one too is haunted by a ghost, Banfi executives always tell visitors, noting it “performs” in the living room. They admit they’ve never seen the ghost but insist that he (or she) occasionally sits down at the Baby Grand to play. Guests laugh off the suggestion, sometimes derisively, and direct their attention elsewhere. Then the keys begin to move, offering up Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” or a Bach prelude, inspiring at least questioning looks. (The piano operates electronically when triggered surreptitiously by the guide.)
A tall glass showcase, dubbed the “reliquary,” rests against the living room’s south wall. It contains the relics of the late Saint Pope Pius X, including his silverware, which was given to the Marianis by their great aunt, Teodolinda Banfi, who served at the Vatican as chief of the household staff of Pope Pius XI. (He obviously preferred his own silverware.) Other shelves display Etruscan artifacts that date back to the third or fourth century before Christ: arrow- heads, vases, lamps, mirrors and jewelry.
Another conversation piece in the living room is a 15th-century “cassone” or “bride’s chest,” precursor of the “hope chest,” used in the days of Catherine de Medici. They usually doubled as benches. Measuring almost 10 feet in length, the side panels are etched in Greek and Roman motifs.
The terraced gardens of Banfi Old Brookville were designed by Ellen B. Shipman in 1927. Shipman was considered in her time the “dean of women landscape architects” and is perhaps most famous for her estate gardens. Banfi Old Brookville’s gardens create a smooth transition from the natural landscape to the imposing structure of the house, which sits between a paved court with massive oaks at the entrance and a grass court behind the house formed by the dining room wing on one side and the library wing on the other. Broad stone steps lead to a wide grass terrace with another set of steps leading to a sprawling lawn and wooded ravine.
To the west of the terrace is a walled-in rose garden which lies directly below the main flower garden. A round dovecote, a structure typical of old English estates, is nestled between these two gardens with a small tea house designed with an open porch standing opposite to the north.
To the west of the main garden, semi-circular steps lead down to a reflecting pool and yet another garden, with winding steps leading to a tennis court below. This network of terraces, gardens, and decorative buildings allowed for a house of the proportions of Banfi Old Brookville to fit perfectly on an irregular building site without losing the natural character of its surroundings. One might say that Shipman’s design shows nature and nurture in a near perfect harmony.
Banfi officials view their “home” as a showcase for world-class wines, much like the chateaux, schloss’ and castelli found in the great wine regions of Europe. Their penchant for historical buildings and treasures also led them to acquire in 1979 an 1860 cellar and winery in Strevi, Piedmont, and some 7,100 acres in Montalcino, on which Banfi has built what it considers the most technologically advanced winery and vineyards in Europe, perhaps the world. The Montalcino property is crowned with a castle that was built by the Longobards in 800 A.D. It also has been restored.
“The wine trade is a gentleman’s calling,” says John Mariani, Jr. in explaining Banfi’s preference for historically appointed surroundings, “and the integrity of the business should be reflected in an atmosphere that, like wine itself, is gracious and steeped in tradition.”