Like most Long Islanders, I had no idea that there were mansions and grand estates in our own backyard. My first experience came on a trip to Old Westbury Gardens with a friend who wanted to take some pictures. I was completely unaware of what I was about to experience. I had never even heard of Old Westbury Gardens. I couldn't believe that a mansion like that was on Long Island. While strolling the gardens, I wasn't sure I was still on Long Island. I never knew gardens could look like that. There were lakes and ponds on the property...and walled gardens. I never knew what a walled garden was.
Around the same time, I stumbled across a series on A&E called America's Castles and I was hooked on the Gilded Age estates. I discovered that there were more places like Old Westbury on the Island. At one time about a thousand. I began researching and reading anything I could find about them. I gathered up my camera and info and tried to find these country houses. Sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself and most times getting lost on the winding North Shore roads. Some of these places are open to the public, some still in private hands (got kicked off a few while trying to take pics), some have found different uses, but most are gone. Some are just remains of their former glory. That double row of trees in the center median of Southern State Parkway by Exit 37 was the main entrance drive to the August Belmont residence which is now Belmont Lake State Park. There are also remains on the Muttontown Preserve of an estate called Knollwood. Just some crumbling garden pavillions and staircase to the garden remain. My favorite remains are the Medieval turrets that are still standing guard from Alva Vanderbilt's fairy-tale like castle in Sands Point called Beacon Towers.
OK...this is my brief history of Long Island country houses. Most were built between the late 1800's and 1940's along the North Shore. Thus the term the Gold Coast. There were many others scattered across the island. They were built as country retreats mostly for summer use by the likes of Vanderbilts, Morgans, Phipps's, Pratts. Most estates consisted of the main house, formal and informal gardens, gatehouses, greenhouses, boathouses, polo fields, indoor and oudoor pools, tennis courts and any other luxury that money and imagination could build. The architecture is amazing and so are the interiors which usually consist of antique furnishings from Europe including some fireplaces and complete rooms taken directly from European palaces. They also were stocked with collections of great art. This period was known as The Gilded Age. It was an age of such opulence and bombastic castle building that will never happen again. It's fascinating to get a glimpse into how the ultra-wealthy lived. Palatial estates with acres of gardens and land for polo, hunts, private docks for yachts and grand parties were part of everyday life. Long Island's Gold Coast of the Roaring 20's was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
PBS recently had a great show about Long Island's Gold Coast that was very interesting. The DVD Gold Coast Mansions is now available.
There are several really great books on the subject. These are a few of my favorites: The Mansions Of Long Island's Gold Coast by Monica Randall, North Shore Long Island by Paul J. Mateyunas, and Long Island Country Houses and Their Architects by Robert B. Mackay, Anthony Baker and Carol A. Traynor. These books and the America's Castles DVD's can be found on Amazon. The Amazon carousel below will bring you directly to these great items.
So join me on my unofficial tour of Long Island mansions and then get out and see them for yourselves. You won't be disappointed. When visiting these places be sure to look up, down and all around. Looking up you could see incredible murals or highly detailed plaster work. Look down to see intricately inlaid flooring. Look around to see fine works of art or maybe a hidden doorway, or safe. Click on the underlined words on the following pages to view more photos.
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Please check out this very interesting book about Gilded Age houses in the Hamptons
PIC OF THE WEEK
Gate house at Beacon Towers/ Alva Vanderbilt estate. Sands Point, NY.
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