Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Winter at the Vanderbilt Museum

© Vanderbilt Museum

Back in November, on a frigidly cold Sunday, I was fortunate enough to take a visit to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

The bitter winds did not encourage lingering around the lovely grounds, but we braved the walk over to the Marine Museum's Hall of Fish to while away some time before our late afternoon tour of the Mansion. I love the vintage hand-lettering and wording of the signs here--it really brings you back to the time of WIllie K, when the hall would have been open to the public on Wednesdays, with the live-in curator eager to give tours.

© Keriann Kohler
The Stoll Wing animal-habitat dioramas are currently under renovation, and sure enough, on our quick exploration of the area we heard drills and saws buzzing away behind the plastic-shielded entrance. I would have loved to see the newly restored 8-ton, 32 foot whale shark--the largest example of fish taxidermy in the world--but am equally excited to see the entire museum reinvigorated.

Hall of Fishes © Vanderbilt Museum
Our last stop was the mansion itself, where we were able to warm up looking at all the specimens in the Memorial Wing while waiting for our tour to start. Bird lovers will be enchanted by the collection of Birds of Paradise from New Guinea, and fisherman will appreciate the continued array of aquatic specimens. Don't miss the small room around the corner that displays trophies and ephemera from Willie K's yachts. I was especially impressed by the photos of the staterooms of the Alva--they were enormous! They could easily be a suite at The Plaza, rather than the stateroom of a yacht. You can watch highlights from the Alva's around the world journey in 1931 here and learn more about the journey on the Vanderbilt's Facebook and Twitter pages.

Library with tree © Vanderbilt Museum
Touring the mansion's living quarters, we were lucky to be treated to a sneak peek of the lovely Christmas decor that had been painstakingly arranged by the Dix Hills, Centerport, Honey Hills, Nathan Hale and Three Village garden clubs; Michele Boyer; Harbor Homestead & Co. Design; Claudia Dowling Interiors, and the Cornell University Cooperative Extension master gardeners.

Michele Boyer trims a tree in Rosamund Vanderbilt's bedroom. 
A drawing of Rosamund hangs on the wall.
Rosamund Vanderbilt's bedroom. © Vanderbilt Museum

Krishtia McCord and Mary Schlotter decorate
William K. Vanderbilt II's bedroom.
As the sun set over the harbor, the rooms were softly lit by the Christmas lights, and one got a real sense of what it would have been like to inhabit this home at the beginning of last century. It was a new way of seeing the mansion for me, and I highly recommend scheduling your visit for a 4pm tour, or even better—from December 26th to 28th the Vanderbilt hosts candlelit Twilight Tours of the decorated mansion from 7-9pm. It's a wonderful place to spend a cold winter's afternoon.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Inisfada, The Final Chapter

Rear Facade
© Paul J. Mateyunas
We are sad to say that today marks the loss of America's fourth largest home, Inisfada. For its century-long lifetime, Inisfada was the largest residential project, and only on Long Island, in existence by noted Philadelphia architect John Torrey Windrim. 

It is truly devastating that those responsible for the demolition of this significant piece of local and architectural history have further erased the kind of landmark that makes the North Shore unique, and plan to replace it with a high end version of tract housing.

Loss of the Great Room with many details still left in the building
© Paul J. Mateyunas

Example: carved beam ceilings still clinging to the ceiling and now exposed to the sky 
© Paul J. Mateyunas

During the course of its history, Long Island has inspired numerous artists and writers, among them William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, just to name a few. Novels and movies like The Great Gatsby and Sabrina have become American classics. Current pop culture is providing a resurgence of interest in our history, and works like Downton Abbey and Baz Luhrman's remake of The Great Gatsby are causing visitors to flock to places like Newport, RI; Long Island's Vanderbilt Museum and Old Westbury Gardens; and Biltmore in Ashville, NC by the thousands and watch shows like Selling Spelling Manor and The Queen of Versailles. Vast and imposing, the awe-inspiring Inisfada could easily have become "America's Downton Abbey", but now that its physical presence is lost, it is likely that future generations may never even hear about this snippet of our history.

© Paul J. Mateyunas

Inisfada is the most significant house to be razed on Long Island in over three decades, and we suggest that our community take this as the North Shore equivalent of a wake-up call like Manhattan's Penn Station. We hope a loss of this magnitude will finally spark a local movement for mix of new and old buildings and the kind of adaptive reuse that enables us to keep the fabric of our community unique. Let's use this horrible loss as a lesson to appreciate and preserve what we have left.

Leaded glass windows, crushed and smashed in the rubble© Paul J. Mateyunas

© Paul J. Mateyunas

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Horse Tamer" Statue's New Home

© Bryant Library Local History Collection

A preservation success story took place this past Saturday in Gerry Park in the center of Roslyn's historical district, at the unveiling of a meticulously restored "Horse Tamer" statue from the long-gone Harbor Hill, the Gold Coast mansion of Clarence Mackay.

© Bryant Library Local History Collection

Originally two such statues graced Mackay's Stanford White-designed estate. Modeled after sculptures commissioned by Louis XV that once graced the Champs-Elysees and are now on display at the Louvre, the two Mackay horses went separate ways after the house was torn down in 1947. One was moved to Roslyn High School, and the other was left in situ in what became backyard of a private residence, where the 25 foot sculpture "almost dwarfed the house", according to Franklin Hill Perrell, president of the Roslyn Landmark Society.

© Howard Kroplick
© Howard Kroplick

It was the owners of this home, Bruce and Melissa Shulman, who donated the statue to the Town of North Hempstead before selling the property in 2010. The Roslyn Landmark Society embarked on a fundraising campaign to support the restoration of the statue by North Shore Architectural Stone. The nearly 3 year restoration was completed recently, resulting in the grand unveiling of the statue at Gerry Park where it can now be enjoyed by the general public.
© Paul J. Mateyunas
© Paul J. Mateyunas

 As a footnote, the second Horse Tamer sculpture was recently removed from Roslyn High School as its condition was deteriorating rapidly. It is currently at North Shore Architectural Stone where it is being restored. For more information on that project, you can visit: http://www.friendsofthehorsetamer.com/.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Inisfada, Continued

Inisfada © North Shore Long Island Country Houses

As discussed in our last post, the future of Inisfada remains the most pressing topic in Long Island's historic mansions today. According to the mayor of North Hills, Marvin Natiss, the group that has purchased Inisfada is interested in fully developing the property, and has not mentioned incorporating the house. (1) Over the past few weeks, asbestos abatement has been going on. This can be a sign of demolition or restoration, but in this case it is most likely the former. (2) If this story ends in the demolition of the house, it will join a long list of other impressive properties that have succumbed to suburbia on the North Shore—though perhaps none quite so large or significant throughout the community as Inisfada.

 Von Stade Estate © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
Von Stade Estate © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
• Von Stade Estate, Old Westbury - also William Entenmann's Timber Point Farm
Once a thriving horse farm, built by equine enthusiast F. Skiddy Von Stade and later part of the Entenmann family, the house was left to ruins for decades before finally succumbing to the wrecking ball to make way for a housing development in February 2012.

Dark Hollow © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
Dark Hollow © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
• Dark Hollow, Cold Spring Harbor - Oliver Burr Jennings
Designed by architects Mott B. Schmidt and Mogens Tvede in 1930, the centerpiece of the home was the barrel vaulted living room and a two-story rotunda with a repeating star pattern in its large skylight, chandelier, and terrazzo floor. Occupied privately up until 2010, new owners left it to ruin before razing it in January 2012.

© Paul J. Mateyunas
© Paul J. Mateyunas
• Keewaydin, Sands Point - John Scott Browning
Long credited as an inspiration for Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (and once owned by F. Scott Fitzgerald's publisher Herbert Bayard Swopes), Keewaydin was last sold in 2004, and torn down in 2011, when the new owner claimed to be unable to keep up with the costs of maintaining the aging property.

Flora Whitney House © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
Flora Whitney House © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
Flora Whitney House © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
• Flora Whitney House
The Delano & Aldrich designed home was sold in 1963 to the New York Institute of Technology, who used it until 1999 when it and its 113 acres was sold again for approximately $10 million. It was demolished by its new owners in 2001, when it was replaced by a newly built, even larger home.

Little Ipswich © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
• Little Ipswich, Woodbury - Ruby Ross and Chalmers Wood
Another Delano house, Little Ipswich was a favorite of the architect. The classically styled country home was called "gemlike" by Architectural Digest, and sold to Count Uzielli after Ruby Ross Wood's death. In 1995 it was razed and replaced by a modern development called Peroni Estates.

Burrwood © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
Burrwood © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
Burrwood © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
Burrwood © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
• Burrwood, Cold Spring Harbor - Walter Jennings
Designed by Carrère & Hastings in 1898, with its grounds done by the Olmsted Brothers, Burrwood sat on 400 sweeping acres with an impressive 4 stories and 50 rooms. Occupied by Jennings for 50 years, Burrwood was occupied for the next 40 years by the Industrial Home for the Blind until it was sold off to a developer and razed in 1993. Not unlike Inisfada, this was a very unpopular and contested decision at the time.

Check back here in the upcoming weeks as crucial meetings and other developments in the story of Inisfada unfold.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


While we may not be in a real estate boom like the early 2000’s, the market has picked up, and there is no shortage of endangered historic properties—currently the most significant in both scale and impact to the surrounding community is Inisfada, the former St. Ignatius Retreat House. This is one of the largest and most intact homes to be lost in both Long Island, and the United States, in the last 40 years.

Inisfada © North Shore Long Island Country Houses

Inisfada, which is the Gaelic word for “Long Island”, was built between 1916-1920 by Philadelphia-based architect John Torrey Windrim for Nicolas and Genevieve Brady. At the time of its construction, the Tudor Revival-style home was considered the 4th largest private house in the United States, and it remains the only example of Windrim’s work in New York. In 1937, the then-widowed Mrs. Brady donated the North Hills estate to the Jesuit order, where it has served as a retreat house for the past 75 years. The site retains 33 out of the original 122 acres, and a number of its original finishes, although Mrs. Brady auctioned off the majority of its contents in 1937 for the benefit of the Jesuits. Though it is eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house has not been landmarked. 

Inisfada © North Shore Long Island Country Houses

In the autumn of 2012, Inisfada was listed on the market for $49 million, and on June 2nd, 2013, it ceased its activities as a retreat house. The Village of North Hills zoning designates the property as single family half-acre residential lots, which would render the approximately 70,000 square foot house a liability to most developers as its immense size takes up approximately 3 potential half-acre lots. Adaptive reuse of the building, such as condos, a corporate headquarters, or a historic luxury hotel, appears to be the best option for preserving the building. This type of development would most likely require a variance from the Village, which can be a difficult and lengthy process for investors to obtain. Nonetheless, this option should be explored as this approach would enable an investor to make a similar profit and preserve the landscape of a community that is quickly becoming a swath of tract housing. Investors traditionally take the path of least resistance, since it most often offers the best return in the least amount of time. This is why it is important that the public express to the Village of North Hills their interest in the future of Inisfada now so that all options (especially adaptive reuse) can be explored before development of the land begins. 

Inisfada © North Shore Long Island Country Houses

Examples successful adaptive reuse of estates similar to Inisfada abound throughout Long Island, the Northeast, and farther afield. Breaking up private estates into smaller apartments has proved to be fruitful in Europe for generations, and there are several examples of this in Inisfada’s own backyard:
• The Summit at High Point, Roslyn Heights – Ryan estate (across the street from Inisfada)
Condominiums in the main house surround by newly constructed condo/townhomes.
• Lattingtown Ponds, Glen Cove - Clifford Brokaw estate
This features cluster zoning (meaning density is specified for development overall, which can contain high-density apartments as well as low-density estate lots) in an attractive form that preserves the vistas of the original estate.
• Long Meadow, Glen Cove – Francis Lymon Hine estate
Originally designed by Walker & Gillette, the architects of Coe Hall (Planting Fields), the main house has been converted to condos, with cluster zoned houses surrounding it.
• Bulova Watchcase, Sag Harbor
Originally a factory, another interesting example of transforming a historic space into luxury condos, currently under construction.

Other affluent communities that have prospered through condo conversions include the Hamptons, the Berkshires, Newport RI, and Palm Beach, where converted large estates exist in harmony with high-end residential communities.

© Thoresen & Linard
Whitefield, Southhampton – James L. Breese estate
Winner of a New York State Historic Preservation award in 1986, the main house was converted into residences, with its public rooms restored for use by all residents, and 24 surrounding townhomes.
• The Waves, Newport RI – John Russell Pope estate
• Seafair or Terre Mare, Newport RI – James Mackenzie estate
• Bienestar, Palm Beach FL – Frederick Wheeler estate
Originally designed by Marion Sims Wyeth and later converted into 6 condos by Robert Eigelberger, which received much acclaim, including the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation’s Ballinger Award for sensitive historical renovation.

On a similar size and scale as Inisfada is Oheka, the former Otto Kahn estate. At one time thought by many to be a white elephant, Oheka has become one of the most successful examples of adaptive reuse on Long Island as a historic luxury hotel and special events venue. 

© Oheka

Originally homes like Inisfada and Oheka were designed to host large parties of guests, their conversion into historic hotels and special venues seems fitting:
• The Chanler at Cliff Walk, Newport RI – former Chanler and Astor estate
• Blantyre, Lenox MA – former Robert Paterson estate
• Wheatleigh, Lenox MA – former Henry H. Cook estate

Yet another successful example of adaptive reuse on Long Island is:
Rynwood © Long Island's Gold Coast
Rynwood, Old Brookville – Sir Samuel A. Salvage
Now the world headquarters of Banfi Vintners, this 60-room mansion was painstakingly restored by Banfi in 1979 in the manner “of a magnificent home, not a crassly commercial office,” according to the interior designer of the project, Mark Hampton. 

Inisfada © Long Island's Gold Coast

Although it may be too late, one idea for a similarly sensitive conversion for Inisfada comes from a Queens-based health-care company, Community Wellness Centers of America LLC, which is interested in purchasing the property and continuing its use as a retreat house. This plan has the support of local residents and organizations, including the Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations, who are attempting to apply for landmark designation for the building. At the closing mass, there were 500 cars parked outside of Inisfada, and one can assume that there were nearly twice as many people inside. That stands as a strong testament to the significance of this building’s role in the community. If you are concerned about the future of Inisfada, we encourage you to seek out more information from groups like the Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations and others who are working to spread the word about its tenuous circumstances through petitions (visit www.inisfada.org to sign these!), the media and other outlets. And please voice your opinion to your local officials—if the local government and potential developers do not know that their constituents care, they will be much less likely to take action towards preserving this historic complex.

Check back for updates as we continue to follow the developments in the sale of Inisfada.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Gold Coast Influences in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

While at the Long Island premiere of The Great Gatsby on Wednesday I had the chance to see Baz Luhrmann’s remake of the classic novel.
Before the film started, Luhrmann discussed his influences and the research he did on the North Shore, visiting surviving estate houses and walking the shores of East and West Egg (Sands Point and Great Neck).

The overall film had a lot of recognizable North Shore details. Well-researched, Luhrmann, like Fitzgerald, took influence from a number of North Shore houses both surviving and long razed.  

Most recognizable were the similarities of Gatsby’s house to Beacon Towers, which included overall style, rooflines, portions of the gatehouse, and even minute details like the dragon head finials on the Beacon Towers’ gates.

The Great Gatsby © Warner Bros.

Beacon Towers © North Shore Long Island Country Houses
Eagle's Nest © North Shore Long Island Country Houses

The swimming pool in the movie is a cross between that at Willie K. Vanderbilt’s Eagle's Nest and DeLamar’s Pembroke. 

Inside Gatsby’s lavish home, the floating staircase of La Selva was incorporated into the larger than life Gatsby set.

La Selva © Paul J. Mateyunas
La Selva © Paul J. Mateyunas
The Great Gatsby © Warner Bros.
Luhrmann's attention for detail further impressed me with the view from the Plaza suite window, which included the tower of 1 West 57th Street (Cornelius Vanderbilt’s townhouse) that has long been replaced by Bergdorf Goodman.