Iyna Bort Caruso ex­plores the mag­nif­i­cent man­sions and golden his­tory of New York’s Long Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Perfect Day -

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

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