Let’s Play! Changes at the Playhouse

This October, you may notice some changes at the little house near the beginning of the Pumpkin Path of Peril. What is the house? Is it a house? Did Newfields build it? We have your answers!  

It seems the only thing missing from Oldfields when the Lilly family purchased the estate from the Landon family in 1932 was a private club house. That changed in 1939 when Mr. Josiah K. and Mrs. Ruth Lilly commissioned architect Frederick Wallick to design a Recreation Building. Wallick had worked with the Lillys in 1933 to renovate the main house of the estate to suit their lifestyle. Included in the unrealized renovation plan of Lilly House was a shooting range and a pool under the terrace where the garage is now. We don’t know why, but this part of the renovation was not completed and instead they elected to build a completely separate building; today it’s known as the Playhouse. 

The Playhouse was built in a Regency style very different than any of the original buildings on Oldfields Estate. It is a split-level brick structure with limestone details. The French doors and casement window extend from floor to ceiling with the majority having Juliette balconies. But what really sets the building apart from the other structures on the estate is its use. The main building on the estate, Lilly House, is very formal, and most all the other structures from the Madeline F. Elder Greenhouse to the barn all served a utilitarian function in the workings of the country estate. Called “Recreation Building” in the blueprints, the building was built with one purpose: to have fun! 

The building was originally designed with a 20,000 plunge pool, an exercise room, and men’s and women’s locker rooms with showers on the lower level. On the lower level, the pool area was filled with light due to the split-level design of the building. The symmetrical curved steps from the exterior doors on the upper level allow for additional windows, which allowed more natural light into the space. On the main floor, there was a full kitchen, sunroom, “men’s lavatory,” and “powder room” (presumably reserved for the ladies). The majority of this floor is taken up by the game room: a large rectangular space complete with a fireplace and 13-and-a-half-foot high barrel vaulted ceiling. The French doors and tall casement windows throughout the main level provide views of the surrounding gardens and exterior pool. 

Yes, that’s right. Besides all the amenities already mentioned, there was also a 100,000 gallon, six lane, 25 yard lap pool just outside. The pool was 11 feet deep at the deepest end with a diving board. It was lined with aqua green tile, 500-watt underwater lights, a wide gutter for capturing recirculating water, and a surrounding hardscape of bluestone. The network of pipes, pumps, and other mechanical systems was immense, requiring a separate pump house connected by a tunnel just north of the main building. Today, having this type of building at a private residence would be a luxury, but in 1940 it would have been nothing short of extravagant. Mr. Lilly was an avid swimmer and Mrs. Lilly enjoyed card games with friends, and this building provided space for both.  

Unfortunately, the pool is no longer there, but guests will notice a wavy tile on the patio. This is the exact footprint of where the pool used to be; there is even a long planter in the shape of a diving board where the original diving board would have been. It is currently brimming with fall foliage and plantings by our Horticulture team.  

The construction of the Recreation Building greatly added to the amenities and lifestyle of the residents and guests at Oldfields from the 1940s to the 1960s. As Oldfields transitioned from a private estate to the historic heart of the public gardens at Newfields, the Recreation Building (now named the Playhouse) begins a new chapter as the heart of Newfields’ festivals, serving as the backdrop for Harvest and Winterlights while honoring its original intent—a place for FUN! When it is entirely completed in 2022, The Beer Garden will find a permanent home on the Playhouse Pool deck.