By Ellen Barcel
Mention the Gold Coast era on Long Island, and people immediately think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and the great mansions built in the early 1900s. Some of those mansions are gone, victims of housing developments. Others, such as Laurelton Hall and Villa Francesca were both lost to fires. Some are in the public trust, turned into museums or schools like the Vanderbilt Mansions in Centerport and Oakdale. And a few, a very few, are still privately owned, like Oheka Castle, now a luxury hotel and event venue, and the Woolworth mansion. Of the more than 1000 mansions built, less than one third are still in existence.
To highlight the architectural wonders of Long Island’s North and South shore mansions during the “Gatsby” era, the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages is currently presenting “Gilding the Coasts: Art and Design of Long Island’s Great Estates.”
“The subject of Long Island’s great country house era has been chronicled in numerous other exhibitions, books, and documentary films. We thought it would be interesting to focus on the design and construction aspect of the story more than the social history of the house owners and their servants, which tends to get a larger share of the attention,” said Joshua Ruff, exhibit curator and museum director of collections & interpretation.
Some of the mansion owners are well known, while others less so. Ruff continued, “We wanted to look at both the extremely well-known figures in this story, … like Stanford White, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and William Delano, as well as those people and their houses who have not received the same level of attention, such as William de Leftwich Dodge, who designed and lived in the fascinating and unique Villa Francesca, just a couple of miles away from the museum [in Setauket].”
The exhibit includes furniture from some of the estates, beautiful antique women’s clothing, estate plans, photos, paintings, Tiffany lamps, sculpture and even the very unique weather vane from Vanderbilt’s Eagle’s Nest.
“One of the most interesting stories that I learned much more about in the development of this exhibition was that of James Hazen Hyde (1876-1959), heir to Equitable Life Insurance and owner of a spectacular house and estate in Bay Shore, a place which he inherited from his father, redesigned and named The Oaks.
Hyde was a major figure in Gilded Age society who was forced to exile in France after a scandal in 1905. In the exhibition, we have a terrific close-to-life scale portrait of him located beside a brougham carriage that he owned, as well as a painting of his estate. The paintings came to us from New York Historical Society, the carriage is ours. It was terrific to pull all of this material together,” said Ruff.
While some of the items on display belong to the museum, Ruff noted that, “We were pleased to have received very significant loans from the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, the Vanderbilt Museum, Planting Fields, the New-York Historical Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Huntington Historical Society. We also received excellent important loans from a number of private collectors, especially Daniel and Betsy White of Box Hill, Leftwich Kimbrough, the grandson of William de Leftwich Dodge, and Gold Coast historian Paul Mateyunas.”
An important feature of the exhibit is the gigantic time line which encircles the gallery. It begins in 1866 with the formation of the Southside Sportsman’s Club, which catered to the wealthy residents of the South Shore. It ends in 2015, with the sad notation that a fire badly damaged the 25,000 square foot Woolworth mansion in Glen Cove.
Noted Ruff, “Adaptive reuse has been the saving grace for many historic Long Island estates. Thankfully, people can still visit and appreciate William Cutting Bayard’s Westbrook Estate — Bayard Cutting Arboretum, Otto Kahn’s Oheka, William Coe’s Coe Hall — Planting Fields Arboretum and State Park, The Phipps Estate — Old Westbury Gardens and many more. We really hope that the exhibition encourages visitors to seek out and explore the treasures that are available to them a short drive away and to appreciate how fragile and vulnerable these estates are, and worthy of our protection.”
“It is wonderful that Box Hill still exists in an excellent state of preservation and remains in family hands after all these generations. Sadly, Laurelton Hall and Villa Francesca were both lost to fires within several years of one another,” he added.
Julie Diamond, director of communications at the museum, said a bus trip is planned in November to the Culinary Institute and the Vanderbilt Estate upstate in Hyde Park, an interesting comparison to Long Island’s Vanderbilt Estate.
Dori Portes, the museum’s receptionist for the past 17 years, said, “This is one of the three top exhibits I’ve seen,” in all that time. “It’s stunning, just beautiful!”
An illustrated exhibit program, which not only includes information on the artifacts in the exhibit but the time line as well, is available from the museum.
The exhibit is open through Sunday, Oct. 25. Don’t miss this fascinating look at historic Long Island. The LIM, a Smithsonian affiliate, is located at 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. It is open Thursday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m. For further information, call 631-751-0066 or go to www.longislandmuseum.org.