Iyna Bort Caruso explores the magnificent mansions and golden history of New York’s Long Island
IFEEL them more than I hear them: the earth-pounding vibrations of eight ponies thundering across a field at 60km/h. It’s polo season on Long Island. They say it takes hot blood and a cool head to play this sport. But sitting here at Bethpage State Park, inhaling a pungent blend of dirt and horse, I realise it takes even more. Polo demands the concentration of a golf pro, the fast hands of an American footballer and the steel nerves of a formula one racer.
Polo matches, held here in temperate months, are free to the public. I love coming here, not just for the sport of it but for its link to the Gold Coast era, an opulent period between the wars when Long Island was the US polo capital.
One of the most celebrated horsemen was Tommy Hitchcock, considered the Babe Ruth of polo. He’s widely believed to be the model for Tom Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Today’s family-friendly crowd is more Macy’s than Tiffany, but the allure of the Gatsby age remains.
The Gold Coast is a 32km strip along the northern shore of Nassau County where it meets Long Island Sound. Proximity to New York’s Manhattan, less than an hour’s drive away, made it attractive as a summer retreat for the likes of the Vanderbilts, Woolworths and Guggenheims.
Fitzgerald was awed by the sheer concentration of wealth when he began his masterpiece. The legacy of the era is in its impressive collection of estates that remain. Some are in private hands; others have been commandeered. The Chrysler Mansion, for instance, is now part of the US Merchant Marine Academy in Sands Point. More than a halfdozen others are open to the public, allowing visitors like me to wander gilded hallways and stroll spectacular gardens for a taste of life once reserved for the privileged few.
The exclusive enclave of Sands Point is said to be West Egg in TheGreatGatsby. It’s one of the wealthiest villages in all of New York. Among the mansions, two stunners are part of the county-run Sands Point Preserve. One home is Hempstead House, modelled after Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, and only opened for special events. The other is Falaise, which is available for guided tours from May to the end of October. Falaise was built in 1924 but it resembles a 13th-century Normandy manor with a protected cobblestoned courtyard and dramatic stone columns.
I connect with the home, despite its lavishness. Other Gold Coast residences feel more like museums, but Falaise has been left exactly as it was when its owners Harry and Peggy Guggenheim lived here, right down to their personal photographs. Charles Lindbergh’s is among them. The Guggenheims were champions of aviation and Lindbergh was a regular visitor. The ace aviator holed up in the house in 1927 to document his triumphant trans-Atlantic flight that became the bestseller We. Lindbergh’s Ford station wagon still sits in the courtyard.
It is a short drive from Sands Point to the historic village of Roslyn, a postcard-pretty town with architecture that dates back to colonial times. A Georgian Revival mansion now houses the Nassau County Museum of Art. It is not easy to operate an art museum in the shadow of Manhattan, but this jewel makes up in intimacy what it lacks in scale. The museum is home to the big guns of 19th and 20th-century art and sits on a 58ha outdoor sculpture garden, one of the largest plein-air art collections on the East Coast.
Industrialist Henry Clay Frick, co-founder of US Steel, purchased the mansion in 1919 as a wedding gift for his son, Childs. After Childs’s death in the 60s, Nassau County bought the estate and gave it to the community.
The North Shore remains a well-heeled area. For proof, cruise down the main artery of Northern Boulevard, the same route George Washington took when he toured Long Island, to the Americana Shopping Centre. The sun bounces off the bonnet ornaments of the Bentleys, Jaguars and Mercedes that fill the car park. The Americana is the region’s haute couture capital, an east coast answer to Rodeo Drive. Still, 21st-century prosperity is no match for the tycoon lifestyles that reigned in places such as Old Westbury Gardens before the burden of staggering taxes made it virtually impossible to carry on.
The first time I visited Old Westbury Gardens, it seemed oddly familiar. It turns out that it has been used in a bunch of movies, including North by Northwest , Arthur and, more recently, Hitch . The drive alone under a 1.6km-long canopy of beech and linden trees gives me that blue-blooded feeling. The home is the Stuart-style mansion of John S. Phipps, an heir to the Carnegie Steel fortune. During World War II, the family invited 30 English children to live here.
Surrounding this showplace are 65 meticulously maintained hectares that draw throngs of green-thumb enthusiasts for its exotic species and historic blooms.
Meandering curves on back roads force me to slow down, as do the cautionary horse crossing signs, but it’s not a chore. It gives me more time to admire the scenery. Radiating from little town centres, homes become manors, plots become estates and vinyl fences become wrought-iron gates. There are lots of little side streets but many are private.
Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, the Victorian home of Theodore Roosevelt, isn’t technically a Gold Coast estate but it is a don’t-miss stop on the route. Roosevelt settled on this land to escape urbanisation. He spent most of his life here except for absences dictated by his public career, first as governor of New York and then as the 26th president of the US.
The home is filled with trophies of Roosevelt’s hunting expeditions. Mounted heads stare back at me from virtually every room. Bearskin rugs are everywhere. Paradoxically, Roosevelt was a great conservationist and preservationist. His famous refusal to kill a captured black cub inspired the teddy bear, which, of course, is available in the gift shop.
He took over the White House after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and was the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, an honour bestowed for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Negotiations began within these very walls.
Just a few kilometres south is Chelsea, one of the area’s lesser-known mansions. The 40-room whitewashed residence is a mix of French, English and Chinese influences with period art deco touches. It shouldn’t work as an architectural design but somehow does.
The home was conceived on the honeymoon of Alexandra and Benjamin Moore; the latter’s claim to fame was being the greatgreat-grandson of Clement Clark who wrote what’s familiarly known as Twas the Night Before Christmas. Much of what is known about the home comes from Alexandra’s diary. You can feel the energy coming off her journal as she’s travelling around the world on her honeymoon,’’ says Chelsea director Michael Butkewicz.
Alexandra wanted to instil her 1924 home with a sense of past. The pine panelling of the dining room was taken from the home of the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Carved teak doors were salvaged from the Summer Palace in Beijing. The Chinese stripped gold off the doors for fast cash and threw them away. I can still see the scorch marks.
My favourite room in the house is the reception hall for its gorgeous, 26m-long hand-painted panels based on a mythical Mediterranean village. The artist who created these oils over white gold was Jose Maria Sert, muralist for king Alfonso XIII of Spain.
Fitzgerald once said: The world . . . does not live on beaches and in country clubs.’’ The Gold Coast was the exception to the rule. Before the stock market crash of 1929, more than 500 palaces dotted the shoreline. Over time, many fell victim to the wrecking ball. Sadly, the one that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel was among them. Alaska Airlines Magazine
Star turn: The mansion at Old Westbury Gardens on the North Shore of Long Island has featured in several Hollywood films
Smart set : Mia Farrow and Robert Redford in TheGreatGatsby