Historian details historic South Shore homes
It was a visit to a famed North Shore Gold Coast mansion, Otto Kahn's Oheka Castle, that led Christopher Collora to write a book on lesser-known South Shore historic homes.
The 33-year-old journalist and amateur historian from West Islip is author of "Long Island Historic Houses of the South Shore," recently published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its "Images of America" series.
The 128-page softcover book ($21.99) covers 115 mansions and historic homes from Massapequa to Mastic. Only about 30 are still standing, including six that are open to the public as house museums and 10 used for public purposes such as schools, offices or clubhouses for public golf courses. Thirteen remain in private hands as residences.
As with other books in the series, Collora's relies primarily on photographs supported by captions.
"I wrote it to garner people's interest and get them asking questions," Collora said. "The goal was to have people appreciate the architecture and history and preserve what's left. They'll look at the pictures, get fascinated and hopefully go to the more scholarly texts to learn more and actually go visit the houses that are still around."
Local historians have praised Collora for illuminating a topic that has not received a lot of attention. Eric Eastman, a historic consultant from Bay Shore, said, "I think it's fabulous" that the information and photographs had been compiled in one place. "This area has been long overlooked."
Building a group effort
Collora said he got the history bug as a child on family vacations to places like Williamsburg, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa.. "I was always fascinated by history in general," he said.
What got him interested in Long Island historic houses was his first visit to the former Kahn estate in Cold Spring Hills in 2008 and discussions with its marketing director, Nancy Melius, who had formed a group called Gold Coast Mansions -- Historic Long Island to promote them.
That led to a 10-part, award-winning series on North Shore mansions for "Long Island News Tonight," a TV news program then produced by students at New York Institute of Technology, where Collora had received an undergraduate degree and was taking graduate courses.
In preparing the series, he interviewed Paul Mateyunas, who later wrote an Arcadia book on North Shore estate homes and suggested Collora compile a South Shore companion volume.
So he set to work more than a year ago, working on the book while also contributing to patch.com and running his own business, Long Island Online News.
Collora decided to focus on historic homes, starting with the Massapequa home built by Major Thomas Jones in 1696 and work his way east through 20 communities to the mansion built about 1724 by Declaration of Independence signer William Floyd in Mastic and now operated by the National Park Service.
Even after enlisting help from 25 historical societies and other organizations, Collora said, "It's hard to get a count of how many houses there were because so many of them have been knocked down."
And many that survive "have been modernized or altered so they've lost their historical character," he added. "The Julian Davies estate in Great River still stands as the Timber Point Golf Course clubhouse, but it's been so changed that you'd never recognize it."
He writes about houses connected to the Revolutionary War, including the Manor of St. George, where a battle was fought on the front lawn.
Designs rarer with time
There are several large stone mansions like William K. Vanderbilt's second Idlehour built in 1900 in Oakdale -- now Dowling College -- that would fit in well with the North Shore Gold Coast homes. But many of the South Shore homes are smaller and many are exuberant Victorians. That's because "this area predated the building boom on the North Shore" where most estates were created in the early 1900s through the Roaring Twenties. Many of the houses Collura wrote about were built between the Civil War and the 1880s, starting with Vanderbilt, who built his first Idlehour in Oakdale in 1878.
But development of South Shore communities lagged the North Shore, remaining agricultural with maritime trades.
"Then slowly as New York City grew, people realized that it was an interesting place to get away [to] because the city was too hot," Collora said. One of the big attractions for Vanderbilt and the other wealthy people who would later create estates was the South Side Sportsmen's Club, which was established in 1866 in what is now Connetquot State Park Preserve so its members could hunt and fish.
Collora said one of his favorite houses, which is depicted on the book's cover, was one of the most exuberant and largest. The eclectic Victorian mansion was built in East Islip by Edwin Augustus Johnson about 1850 and then altered by James Neal Plumb, whose son inherited the property and sold it to a neighbor in the early 1900s. Part of what Collora calls "the oddest style house perhaps on all of Long Island" was moved to Bay Shore and the rest demolished.
At least one of the houses Collora wrote about is threatened by development -- La Grange Inn in West Islip, where a CVS pharmacy is proposed for the site.
Collora says he hopes his book will help prevent demolition of historic houses because they don't build them like that anymore.
"There was more freedom and creativity in the architecture and more attention to detail," he said. "Now everything is smaller scale and cookie-cutter mass-produced. The craftsmanship and skills to create these houses have been lost."