By Jana Seitz
Pullquote: “Land (even when under water) is the gift that keeps on giving.”
If you put your fingers on a map of New York and gently squish Westchester County towards Long Island, Rye would connect right around Bayville. With a little luck, Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary could slide right through Oyster Bay and into Cold Spring Harbor, landing beside Theodore Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore. In the event we may one day be connected by bridge or tunnel spanning this six-mile Sound crossing, I thought it prudent to explore our sister city.
I like places when emptied of their high season hubbub, after the boys of summer are gone. To be honest, the idea was born as an errand to redeem a Groupon purchase. I figured there must be something more out there on the North Shore than Omaha Steaks, so I threw my map in the car, put yellow stickies on Sand Hole and Louie’s Oyster Bar (places I’d visited by boat from Rye), and headed out with nothing more than a notion and a new copy of “The Gold Coast” by Nelson DeMille. What I found was the alpha and omega of a century of land use, from farmland to complete glamour for an elite few to “little pink houses for you and me.”
I “discovered” the many colonial hamlets comprising the fabled Gold Coast of the Jazz Age, a 70-mile slice of earthly paradise from Sands Point to Northport, so chockfull of history and lore that you’d need months to sort it all out. I focused on the town of Oyster Bay, bordered to the west by Hempstead Harbor (rumored to hold the buried treasure of Captain Kidd), to the east by Oyster Bay, to the north by the Sound, and to the south by postwar housing subdivisions built on the potato fields of the Hempstead Plains. Each village in the town has its own mood, accent and parking sticker. Roslyn Harbor, Seacliff (my favorite), Glen Cove, Locust Valley, Bayville, Lattingtown, Center Island, Upper Brookville, Muttowntown. An old class war seems to still simmer just below the surface, rearing its ugly head most notably in the forms of road rage and territorial disputes (e.g. parking spaces).
Captains of industry and finance flocked to the Gold Coast from New York City at the turn of the 20th century to build their extravagant summer nests in a multitude of styles. French chateaux, Italian Renaissance, Georgian revival, Beaux-Arts, timbered Tudor and Mediterranean stucco dotted the countryside, each outdoing the next in grandeur and style. Vanderbilt, Roosevelt, Guggenheim, Phipps, Kahn, Pratt, Woolworth, Frick, Astor, Whitney, and Dodge (to drop a few names) were the founding fathers. They bought and brought over whole rooms and ruins from Europe as everything had a price tag after World War I.
The rich lived large before it all started to tumble with the Crash of 1929, ushering in the Great Depression. World War II was the coup de grace as servants left to serve their country rather than their masters. At war’s end, it was time to move the remnants of the very rich out to build housing for returning GI’s and their new families. Mansions were razed, land was cleared, and infrastructure for high density put in place. Levittown and many like it sprung up overnight like a patch of mushrooms, affordable homes mass-produced at thousands per day to provide “homes fit for heroes.”
The super-rich were on the run. If gout didn’t get them, post-war inflation, new taxes on income and property, and high maintenance did. Many reached a tax bracket of 90% by the 1950s. No longer could one afford the Gold Coast life. The largest concentration of wealth and power in America dismantled its playground. Some tore their manses down rather than pay taxes.
Some gave land away in order to save it, and you can walk through much of it today. Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge, Caumsett State Historic Park, Sands Point Preserve, Cold Spring Harbor State Park, Mutton Town Preserve, North Shore Wildlife Sanctuary, Welwyn Preserve, Planting Fields Arboretum, Old Westbury Gardens, and Bailey Arboretum were all made public through the very private business of dismantling estates. The village of Oyster Bay used this tactic in 1968, giving the federal government 3,100 acres of bay bottom to thwart a proposed bridge to Rye: Oyster Bay Wildlife Refuge. Land (even when under water) is the gift that keeps on giving.
Some sold out for a song to nonprofit organizations for tax write-offs. Private schools, religious institutions, and health care facilities still operate in some of the old homes. This was preferable to high-density development…at least the land would be unscathed and the population controlled. Nassau County Museum of Art, Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf, the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Webb Institute of Naval Architecture, and the Gurdwara Sahib Sikh Forum are all housed in high style. You can drive by and see most of them. It’s weird. And a little sad I say at the risk of sounding elitist.
Some manses are still standing in their former glory, yours for the touring or sleeping in and well worth a visit. Sagamore Hill (Theodore Roosevelt) and Eagles Nest (Willie K. Vanderbilt) are wonderfully preserved museums. Oheka Castle (Otto Kahn) and Glen Cove Mansion (Ruth Pratt, widowed young and rumored to be the lover of Robert Moses. Jamie the maintenance man showed me the hidden door through which Moses would sneak up to Ruth’s bedroom). Hempstead House, Castle Gould, and Falaise (the inspiration for Gatsby’s house) comprise the former Guggenheim estate, now open to the public as Sands Point Preserve, the famed “East Egg” of “The Great Gatsby”.
Only about 200 of the 500 mansions remain. Time marches on.
- Tour Sagamore Hill then have lunch in Cold Spring Harbor.
- Visit Eagles Nest: see the Marine Museum, the Habitat, Stoll Wings, and Memorial Wing without taking the tour of the mansion if short on time.
- Spend the night at Oheka Castle. Read “The Gold Coast” while sipping tea or a toddy in the library.
- Walk to The Sand Hole – Called Clam Diggers Cove on the Caumsett State Preserve on Lloyd Neck. A two-mile walk down Fisherman’s Drive from the stables parking lot.
- Eat oysters at Louie’s on Manhasset Bay.
- Find Rye across the way.
“It’s as if the aristocracy from all over western Europe for the last four hundred years had been granted a hundred acres each to create an earthly nirvana in the new world. By 1929, most of Long Island’s Gold Coast was divided into about a thousand great and small estates, fiefdoms, the largest concentration of wealth and power in the America, probably in the world.”
“The architects and their American clients of this period were not looking into the future, or even trying to create the present: they were looking back over their shoulders into a European past that had flowered and died even before the first block of granite arrived on this site. What these people were trying to create or re-create here in this new world is beyond me. I can’t put myself in their minds or their hearts, but I can sympathize with their struggle for an identity, with their puzzlement, which has troubled Americans from the very beginning-Who are we, where do we fit, where are we going? It occurred to me that these estates are not only architectural shams, but they are shams in a more profound way. Unlike their European models, these estates never produced a profitable stalk of wheat, a bucket of milk, or a bottle of wine. There was some hobby farming, to be sure, but the crops certainly didn’t support the house and the servants and the Rolls-Royces. This whole silly Gold Coast was a sham, An American anomaly, in a country that was an anomaly to the rest of the world.”
“This world was half ruin and half museum, and we were all surrounded by the evidence of former glory, which is not a psychologically healthy thing, or good for our collective egos. What lies out there in the American heartland? Like many of my peers, I’ve been all around the world, but I’ve never been to America.”
“In some ways this place reminds me of the post-civil war south, except that the decline of the Gold Coast is not the result of military operations, but of a single economic catastrophe followed by a more subtle class war.”
“It is a land that at first glance seems frozen in time, as though the clocks had stopped at the sound of the closing bell on October 29, 1929.”
“Most of this suburban county’s massive population are contained in the southern two thirds, and very close by are New York’s teeming millions. These facts – the numbers, the history, the present realities of population, taxes, and land development – color our world and explain, I hope, our collective psyches and our obsession with wanting to freeze a moment in time, any moment in time, except tomorrow.”
Classic ironwork at Eagles Nest, the former Vanderbilt mansion
(with cocktail in foreground) A toast to Otto Kahn in his library at Oheka Castle
Secret entrance to Ruth Pratt’s boudoir