Magic Garden Ride: Designer Robert McKinley on the Enchanted Trees of Ruschmeyer’s Montauk

PHOTOS BY RYAN BENOIT

“What spoke to me was how it was so hidden — this really just felt like a big old camp,” said Robert McKinley, creative director and co-owner of Ruschmeyer’s, now open for its third season in Montauk. “It had a lot of character, it had its own spirit.”

A booming hotspot on the weekends, Ruschmeyer’s hotel, kitchen and bar is located on a serene curve of Second House Road, overlooking Fort Pond and its rose-gold sunsets. The aesthetic? Nautical summer camp meets Dirty Dancing, with un peu Jacques Cousteau. Lanterns hang from a variety of oak tree species shading the “Magic Garden.”  Hibiscus prospers by the bar. New this season are the chef, the menu centered around local seafood, and the fashionable Love, Adorned gift shop.

We rolled through Montauk — the woodsiest and hippest of the Hamptons sisters — earlier this month, and stopped by Ruschmeyer’s for a visit.

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Oaks, salvia and lavender frame the sign at the foot of the driveway overlooking Fort Pond lake.

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A variety of Quercus (black, white, red and scarlet oak) adds shade and vertical punch to the hotel’s Magic Garden, which hosts yoga classes and movie nights.

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We met up with Robert to talk design, his sea of miscanthus grass at the hotel entrance, and lanterns on a rainy afternoon. (“Don’t worry, there will be clearings,” the unflappable Emilia Menocal, largely responsible for making this story happen, assured us about the weather. And she was right.) Stylish and infectiously candid, Robert (in the topmost photo) helms Robert McKinley Creative Services, and has designed brick-and-mortar experiences for designers like Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Dannijo, and for nightspots like PM and Goldbar. He also designed the Surf Lodge, one of Montauk’s early design- and revelry-driven pioneers, located just across the lake from Ruschmeyer’s.

Even before Ruschmeyer’s was Ruschmeyer’s, the property housed a motel and restaurant. Over just six weeks in 2011, Robert transformed the existing structures, redoing the rooms (hammocks, Moroccan rugs, woven lanyard keys), and infusing the lodge with a “playful,” “cheeky” aesthetic that resonates with the young adventurer inside almost everyone.

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RB swings for the fences. There used to be a teepee on the lawn but, designer Robert McKinley tells us, “The town made us take it down— ‘illegal structure.’ “

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Magic hour inside the Magic Garden. The lanterns glow above boxes of miscanthus, which help to partition diners from bargoers.

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“Putting those lanterns up every year is a pain in the neck,” Robert half-jokes. “It all happens on a cherry picker. Each one of those wires [connects] to a lamp.”

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The onsite rosemary is used by this season’s new exec chef, Brian Loiacono, cooking in collaboration with the team behind The Smile in Manhattan.

It’s no wonder this hotel made us feel nostalgic, even for experiences we never had. The property evoked RB’s summer camp days in the Smokey Mountains; C, on the other hand, never went to sleepaway camp as a kid, and Robert didn’t either. But, he says, “I grew up in Westchester County and it looked a lot like this. And we came out here to Montauk a bunch, so we were always around lakes and water and trees.”

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Nineteen cabins give guests the chance to relive their summer camp days, with a midcentury-modern twist.

So you grew up around plants? we asked. “My grandmother always had gardens,” Robert said. “There were tomatoes, basil, zucchini, parsley, string beans, pumpkins. And she had a garden of peonies, and a rose garden. And she kept African violets.”

The property makes ample use of miscanthus grass, which helps to wall off the outdoor dining area from the amphitheater and the outdoor, Jamaican-themed Sand Bar, where petunias and geraniums dangle above pricey and inventive drinks. Boxes of rosemary are harvested by the new exec chef, Brian Loiacono, whose ocean-to-table fare includes tuna poke, softshell crab poboys, and simply prepared local fluke.

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“The dining room, with the high vaulted ceilings and trusswork, just reminded me of a 1950s summer camp,” says Robert.

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This mural, a nod to the Jacques Cousteau inspiration, is the work of artist Marco LaVilla.

And it wouldn’t be “summer camp with cocktails” without the drink menu, which includes a margarita kicked up with jalapeño, a rhubarb/basil/celery/gin concoction inspired by the landscape, and a pisco-based refresher. Guests imbibe at events like reggae Sundays and movie Mondays, which in the past have featured Jaws, Dirty Dancing (natch), and Meatballs. 

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At the Sand Bar, petunias and geraniums hang from locally sourced wood posts, previously used to string up fishing nets on the bay.

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This is the first time Robert has worked with air plants in his designs. Species includes the jumbo, marvelous Tillandsia xerographica.

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A Boston fern stands guard between the two bars.

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Somebody put bromeliad in a corner.

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On the weekends, the Electric Eel bar is more raucous than a coral reef in mating season.

Guests wandering into the gift shop will likely forget about their forgotten toothbrushes. Manhattan-based boutique Love, Adorned, has launched a debut run at Ruschmeyer’s, selling Japanese bandanas, nautical-inspired soaps, sage bundles, French chewing gum, art books, jewelry, and beauty brands like Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics.

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Robert’s favorite tree on the property is the black cherry that arches around the entranceway. Its flowers are summer bloomers, arriving later than expected this year. The shape of this Prunus serotina informed the raised walkway that crosses a sea of more miscanthus, which also grows among a “big old privet that went out of control,” he said. “The landscaper wanted to take it down and I kept it. I just thought it was kind of gnarly and spooky.”

We’d say the same about that Prunus!

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A black cherry tree greets guests at check-in.

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Out of the entire property, what’s his happy place? “I have a bunch,” Robert said. “It depends on the time of day: In the morning I love [the outdoor dining] area for coffee and breakfast, and out in the Magic Garden. You get a chance to talk with some of the guests and see where people are from. Sundays we do a little reggae party out in the Sand Bar that’s always a lot of fun. Evenings I’m mostly hanging out in the dining room, especially midweek. When it’s not so busy, I usual sit and enjoy a meal. Weekends I’m usually busy running around, making sure everything and everyone is taken care of.”

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  • Lee Roversi

    love montauk. haven’t been in years. this place is enough to pull me back!

    • Can’t you just smell those rugosa roses? We’re aching to go back.