The Short Answer: William Ivey Long

Costume designer William Ivey Long has won Tony Awards, American theater's top prize, for his work on four musicals: Nine, Crazy for You, The Producers, and Hairspray and has been nominated for six others. He lives part of the year in Manhattan and also has homes in Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Interview by Salvatore Deluca

William Ivey Long

Credit: Stephen Chernin

Your friend, the film writer Paul Rudnick, recently referred to your restoration work in your hometown of Seaboard, N.C., as "rural renewal." What's your connection to Seaboard? 

In 1640, the first Long came to Jamestown, Va., and then the family moved to Seaboard in 1676. My cousin still has a big part of the original family farm there, and I own a tail end of it.

Is there a large restoration plan in the works?

Yes. I founded the Eastern Seaboard Trust to support economic development and historic preservation in the town. My farm is about 535 acres, and there are still about 20 buildings of all different periods, shapes, and sizes that I need to restore. We're going to take the farm back to 1840 and devote each field to a different natural fiber. I plan to donate the property to the textile and architecture programs at North Carolina State University. I just hope I have enough shows that are Broadway hits so I can pay for it all.

How did you become interested in preserving historic structures?

I like the idea of recreating a lifestyle in a specific place. The house that I cut my teeth on was at a family farm in Pennsylvania, north of Williamsport, which my brother and I own jointly. That's where my mother's people?recent arrivals who came in 1840?settled. Many of the houses, unfortunately, had fallen in, but we were able to save this one that dates to about 1880. It has no plumbing or running water. There's a spring that you go down to with your jugs to get water, and it has an outhouse. It's built of solid wood and heated by wood stoves, and there's no insulation.

What did you do next?

Eventually, I found the commute too long from New York. A friend had a house up in Chester, Mass., and I learned that the farm next door was for sale. It was so derelict that no real estate agent would handle it. Of course, I fell totally in love with it. That's my main house now, built in 1752. It's a little New England Cape, two complete stories, with an 1870 addition. It also has a barn and outbuildings, all of which I've restored. Ultimately, I've bought other buildings in Chester, like the 1850 Chester Inn, which we're slowly turning into a bed-and-breakfast, and the 1908 elementary school, which I use as my archive and workroom.

What's the story behind your brownstone in the Chelsea district?

I had two shows running in the '90s?Crazy for You and Guys and Dolls?both opened in '92, ran for several years, and gave a nice little look of success. That was before the city's big real estate explosion, so the house was within my reach. It was built in 1864, one of three in a row, all alike. In the 1970s, the owner  ripped out most of the moldings and doors?only three doors were left. I've been trying to imagine what the house looked like and bring it back.

Do you do most of the work yourself?

I do some of it. I have to really discover how a house is made. Until I know that, I'm nervous. And then I get people who help to put it back together. There are some houses that I leave my mistakes in, because that reminds me that I didn't do enough homework. And then with others, I just can't stand the mistakes, so we redo them.

How has your upbringing contributed to your desire to maintain the past?

My father had been the ninth generation of the family living on the same spot?I'm the 10th to have lived there. We traveled back and forth all over the South. Whenever we would see an abandoned house in a field, we were those people who would stop the car, get out, and study it.

What are the similarities between working on houses and costumes?

There's a complete parallel. After I graduated from Yale School of Drama, I apprenticed myself to the world's greatest living couturier at the time, Charles James. His clothes really occupied space in an architectural way. Much of my work is also considered conscious of its structure, even if the word architectural isn't used. You inhabit clothing as you do a dwelling.

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