Most people know about the Long Island Gold Coast that thrived in the early 1900s, a sprawl of North Shore mansions where high society enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and party guests drank from Champagne fountains. Less well-known is that there was an earlier — although less extravagant — South Shore version of that privileged life, a phenomenon some call the “First Gold Coast.”
Surprisingly, it flourished in what today is the quiet, low-key Town of Islip, an area where many of the tony homes from that era now are largely unrecognized.
So, how Gold Coast was it?
“Think of it as Downton Abbey on Long Island,” says George Munkenbeck, Islip’s town historian.
The tale of this initial Gold Coast will be explained in a home tour titled the “Hidden History of Islip” on Saturday, May 14, featuring four of these grand residences. The $40 outing includes bus transportation along with a light lunch during which tour guide Munkenbeck will dish the Downton dirt.
GRANTED ‘PATENTS’ FROM ENGLAND
The tale starts in 1683, when William Nicoll, who was born in Islip, Northamptonshire, in England, and the man who gave the town its name, received a number of “patents” from the English court. The land grants totaled more than 50,000 acres (a domain that stretched from East Islip to Bayport), making his manor the largest on Long Island. Royal patents involving large swathes of land also were granted to four other families, which, taken together, made up the entirety of Islip itself.
Although given the opportunity to form a ruling body in the early 1700s, the families declined, saying there was so little activity that a local government wasn’t really necessary.
Since the area was still largely forested and filled with game, it began to attract hunters in the mid-1800s. This was mostly the wealthy variety who could afford leisure time. Sports clubs, like the South Side Sportsmen’s Club, which included members such as William Bayard Cutting and W.K. Vanderbilt, were formed in what became a sort of “back to nature” movement.
The establishment of the railroad in the 1860s turned the area into an upper-crust summertime resort destination. Impressed with what they saw, many of the affluent visitors bought land and started the mansion-building era that ran roughly from 1869 to the beginning of the 20th century.
GO NORTH, RICH MAN
Interest began to wane after the turn of the century when the nouveau riche — some of them the sons and daughters of the South Shore glitterati — shifted their attention to the North Shore. As the second Gold Coast boomed, the first declined.
Over the years, more and more chunks of the original land grants were divided among heirs. Some of the original mansions burned or were torn down. Others morphed into something else, like the W.K. Vanderbilt estate, which is now the site of Dowling College. The grounds of the South Side sporting club, for instance, became the Connetquot River State Park Preserve.
The four homes on the tour may still draw stares, but few residents realize their significance, Munkenbeck says.
“People drive past them every day,” he says, “and they have no idea what they were.”
Below is a brief description of the four “Hidden Islip” homes:
WEREHOLME, part of the 300-acre Scully Estate, was built in 1917 by Samuel Peters, a coal industrialist who loved boating and fishing. He and his family occupied two other larger mansions on the estate, which were later torn down. The remaining French château-style home was Peters’ wedding gift to his daughter, Louisine. The largest section of the estate’s lands became the Seatuck National Wildlife Refuge. Wereholme serves as Seatuck’s offices and houses the Suffolk County Environmental Center in Islip.
WESTBROOK, a Tudor-style English country house, was built by William Bayard Cutting in 1886. The 68-room mansion sits in the 691-acre Bayard Cutting Arboretum State Park in Great River, which includes an arboretum designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who codesigned Central Park. Cutting was a merchant, outdoorsman and avid gardener who started the sugar beet industry in the United States. The estate’s arboretum was given to the public in 1936 by Cutting’s widow and daughter as “an oasis of beauty and quiet.”
MEADOW EDGE is the 1909 Colonial-revival style home of Anson Hard and his wife, Florence. It was built in West Sayville on land that was a wedding gift to Florence from her father, Frederick Gilbert “Commodore” Bourne, a financier and one-time president of the Singer sewing machine company. In 1966, the estate was sold to Suffolk County and became the West Sayville Golf Course and Long Island Maritime Museum (the former carriage house on the Hard Estate). An authentic bayman’s home on the grounds shows the lifestyle of area working people who were estate caretakers.
MEADOW CROFT, a farmhouse built in 1850 on the border between Bayport and Sayville to which a Colonial Revival residence was added 40 years later, was the summer house of John Ellis Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist and a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt. It is situated on the grounds of the Suffolk County Sans Souci Lake Nature Preserve in Sayville. Teddy Roosevelt was a regular visitor and supposedly once rode his horse there from his Sagamore Hill home in Oyster Bay.