Sutton Place, an elegant Tudor mansion here with 14 bedroom suites, surrounded by a thousand acres of lovely fields, has already had quite a history. Henry VIII built the place for one of his favorite courtiers in 1521, then chopped off the head of the man's son and heir, who dared to dabble with the monarch's wife, Anne Boleyn. Other descendants lived on.
Centuries later, in 1959, the house and grounds were bought by J. Paul Getty, the oil billionaire, who, among other things, installed pay telephones in a cabinet on the first-floor landing for the use of his guests. He also limited central heating to the small part of the house where he lived -- and, in 1976, died.
Today, under the beneficence of another rich American with a strongly personal style, Sutton Place enters a new era, which should prove its most dazzling. The new money man is Stanley J. Seeger, a 52-year-old bachelor patron of the arts, whose inherited wealth is estimated in the vicinity of $200 million. According to Roger Chubb, who is supervising the lavish refurbishing of Sutton Place, Seeger is "incredibly shy, today's version of Howard Hughes."
What does he look like? Chubb won't say. Where does he live? "Abroad." Where does the money come from? Railways and oil and--"Please," says Chubb, "Don't ask me more . . . "
Mystery aside, Stanley J. Seeger has plainly put a great deal of money into Sutton Place since acquiring it and plans to spend very much more. The estate, about 45 minutes from London, was sold in 1980 to a Houston property investment company called Anglo-Texas Corp. for about $16 million. Seeger then paid an undisclosed (but large) sum for a very long lease, which in Britain usually means 999 years. Why this method of sale was used is yet another unanswered question.
His intention, explains Chubb, a former executive at Sotheby's, is to turn the house and gardens into a model of perfection, the best example extant of a British country house, "the ultimate 20th-century landscape" and, Chubb adds, an "expression of confidence in the future."
In practice, that means Sutton Place is home for Seeger's art collection, which includes works by Manet, Monet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Rodin, Matisse, Delacroix, Whistler, Picasso, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon and David Hockney, not to mention erotic Indian miniatures, some older masters, drawings, tapestries and furniture gems such as an oak table that seats 42 and was last owned by William Randolph Hearst.
But the most spectacular feature of the establishment may in time be its gardens. Seeger has retained Sir Gordon Jellicoe, Britain's leading landscape architect, now 80, and given him what must be virtually unlimited funds to turn the grounds into a series of outdoor masterpieces. Already under way are Paradise, Child's Paradise (a great bed of moss under a tree that has to be 400 years old) and a cascade of waterfalls with a glass-bottomed fountain. All these will supplement a lake inspired by Henry Moore, a series of trick perspectives in the style of the surrealist Magritte and and a swimming pool designed to look like a Miro.
You might think that a person as reclusive as Seeger plans to keep this beauty for himself and what Chubb calls "his three friends." But in fact, just recently Seeger put Sutton Place into the hands of a Heritage Trust which opened it to the public for concerts, exhibits, lectures and tours. At a cost that Chubb estimates to be about $5,000 a day for staff (there are 60) and maintenance, Sutton Place is Stanley J. Seeger's gift to his fellow humans.
"He is fulfilling a dream here," says Chubb, a 39-year-old who, as executive trustee, is the only person now living in the house permanently. "He can enjoy what is happening here in a detached way, making visits from time to time to assure that his vision is still being fulfilled."
Not that Sutton Place is going to become another Disneyland. The number of visitors is restricted; tour groups of no more than 15 are admitted by appointment only; concerts are limited to about 150 persons. Fees of $7 and up are charged. There are no souvenir or soda stands. The entrance is an ornate remote-controlled gate (installed by Getty) onto a half-mile road. Security is discreet but pervasive. There are television cameras monitored by a central control, and for good measure, trained Alsatian watch dogs.
But as word gets around (only one small advertisement has appeared so far and already there are almost no vacancies for the rest of the year), Sutton Place is bound to be a major draw for lovers of music and art, flora and fauna. Some may be attracted too by the ethereal, benign presence of Stanley J. Seeger, dispensing largesse in the manner if not the amounts of J. Beresford Tipton in the old television series, "The Millionaire."
Chubb's reluctantly tendered tidbits, plus a check of computerized newspaper clipping libraries in London, Washington and New York, provide a few more tantalizing details on Seeger's identity. He comes from Wisconsin, reportedly attended Princeton and is sometimes described as a musician, but aside from his art patronage apparently is not employed. At the time he acquired Sutton Place he was on his way home from Greece, and the Manchester Guardian said he was a specialist in Hellenic studies.
Also about that time, he was said to be in Mexico, producing a movie on the life of writer D.H. Lawrence called "Priest of Love," starring Ava Gardner. A short while later, he bid $6.3 million by telephone from London on a landscape by the British master J.M.W. Turner, which was being auctioned at Sotheby's in New York. He lost out by $100,000 to Flora Whitney Miller, who paid the highest price ever recorded for a painting.
Chubb met Seeger through Sotheby's and was chosen to run the Heritage Trust, he says, because of his background in art acquisition and estate management. His spacious apartment in a wing of the mansion is clearly meant for gracious entertaining, featuring much of the modern and erotic art collection, the best of silk and velvet coverings , the Hearst dining table and two expert chefs. "Pull down the blinds," he says contentedly, "and you could be anywhere in the world."
The public areas are also being updated. Oak paneling in the large halls is being taken down and replaced by pink and gray walls. The artistic centerpiece of the main drawing room is an abstract triptych by the British painter Sir Francis Bacon, whose specialty is ravaged female anatomy. There is a contemporary Italian sofa set against medieval chests and Middle Eastern rugs, an electic assemblage that Chubb explains reflects Seeger's tastes.
In Chubb's view, "Most English country houses stopped in time around the First World War. You get the image of faded chintz. Few people have the money or courage to do a house for the 1980s. People generally want to embalm a house like this. But Sutton place is alive."