“Chickens are the new frontier,” architect Pietro Cicognani tells me as he speeds down the Long Island Freeway. “There is a chicken war in the Hamptons. People don’t want Bentleys or high fashion. They want to save endangered heritage chickens. I have known Cicognani for decades. Along with his considerable architectural abilities, he is one of New York’s great charmers and easily gives the best bear hug in town. (He honestly comes hugging the bear: his grandmother was the daughter of Pyotr Stolypin, one of Russia’s last prime ministers under the tsars.) Cicognani’s work draws inspiration from an eclectic mix of architects and of styles, including Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, Islamic architecture. , and his beloved Baroque. His commissions are equally eclectic and notable, including a church in Venice, which he is about to convert into a family residence, a private mausoleum in Delaware, and his own apartment in Rome. Lately, however, Cicognani has become the master of the high-end, high-end, brilliantly over-the-top chicken coop. And today I have to contemplate his greatest masterpiece yet.
We arrive at Woody House, the East Hampton home of Katharine Rayner (known as “Kathy”), a noted philanthropist (she sits on the boards of the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library & Museum ) and gardening enthusiast, who commissioned Cicognani for past projects. The property, originally owned by Pan Am founder Juan Trippe, is sandwiched between the ocean and Georgica Pond, as heavenly a piece of land as you can find in the Hamptons, buzzing with bees and fluttering with butterflies during the summer, and always surrounded by the chicken’s natural enemy, the falcon. On a winter’s day, the sky a harsh Atlantic blue, I can almost imagine the lushness of the gardens in bloom, but I’m content with the steam rising from the pool. After climbing up to the main house, I see the cupola of Cicognani’s chicken coop against the icy gray of Georgica Pond.
“It looks like an Armenian stone church,” I tell him, and he agrees.
Rayner arrives to fortify us with glasses of prosecco, then we walk through the maze of shrubbery and rose gardens to the Basilica of the Chickens, which is flanked by a guest house (Rayner: “The chickens are permanent, unlike to the guests”) and a pair of cedars. Soon we are surrounded by many brightly colored examples of Gallus gallus domesticus. Rayner is an amusing and irrepressible steward of these noisy, sometimes combative creatures, and she welcomes them like long-lost friends at a meeting of Vassar. “Silky! Sophie! Georgia! You older girls are showing off now. They clump together, pecking food, playing rough with the amorous rooster. A rare chicken of Polish origin, white and with a fashionable bun , catches my eye. Rayner suspects this example of an endangered hen may be blind, but chicken lover Isabella Rossellini later tells me that it’s the bird’s feathery pompadour that makes her picky. In any case, my love for these beautiful, well-fed creatures is contradicted only by my desire to eat them.
Above the doors and columns salvaged from the temple of the chicken, Cicognani wrote in Latin “In Hoc Loco Gallinarum Fuit”, which roughly means “At this place there was once a chicken coop”. It turns out that after the project was completed, Rayner fell in love with it so much that she wanted to make it her personal space. Eventually his love for his feathered companions trumped his affection for Cicognani’s architectural whimsy, and the chickens were allowed to flourish under a Latin motto testifying to their near-expulsion.
Although from a distance the chicken coop reminds me of the churches of the Caucasus, Cicognani was initially inspired by the Chinese pavilion of the Sanssouci Palace of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, near Berlin. Up close, you can also see how the Foro Boario in Rome played a part (in addition to his Russian heritage, Cicognani’s ancestors come from Italy). The interior is bathed in bright, pale, ecclesiastical light, but the overall effect is one of northern European comfort, a space in which to admire the chickens in their earthly divinity as they perch peacefully in their spawn boxes.
The design was admirably done by master builder Neville Burke, with interior design provided by Shatzi McLane. There is a classic frieze of lichens and pinecones; wood shavings conceal checkerboard tiles. The roof was designed to span four half-ellipses, two short and two long, providing an interesting yet calming geometry. Cicognani also contacted his friend Isabella Rossellini, who in addition to being an actor, author and philanthropist also acts as a curator of rare chicken breeds.
“He called me several times to make sure the welfare of the chickens was being respected,” she wrote to me in an email. “I suggested to him that he give the chickens some sort of branch or stick where they can wrap their legs, as they like to perch and don’t keep their legs flat on the ground like us. Of course, they also need comfortable spaces to lay their eggs. Rossellini said that, in part because of factory farming, the world’s 20 billion chickens are genetically similar, pointing to a world in which almost all dogs were part of a monoculture of pugs for comparison. His and Rayner’s chickens are an attempt to diversify and preserve the bloodlines of these endangered creatures.
Rayner tells me that her daughters have been laying eggs at a prodigious rate, aided by the radiant warmth and comfort of their surroundings. “We had four dozen eggs one day, and we don’t even have four dozen birds,” she says. Rossellini notes that heritage breeds are much fitter than modern breeds.
This conservation work is serious, but there’s also something inherently funny and charming about these gluttons. “Isabella has a rooster that looks like Andy Warhol,” Cicognani tells me, smiling as he imagines the bird. “It’s a very nice chicken,” he said. We adjourn for lunch in the loggia, watching the Atlantic lap on the shore in the distance, then say a final farewell to the inhabitants of Cicognani’s crazy new creation. “They are the luckiest chickens in the world,” he says.
This story appears in the April 2022 issue of City & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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