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The Gold Coast
The name Long Island evokes images of a new suburban life that many Americans first experienced during the prosperous years after the second world war. These images are partly accurate, yet the history of this 118-mile long, fish-shaped strip of land stretching east from New York City reaches back to America's beginnings. Until postwar suburban development established Long Island as a laboratory for America's future, Long Island was a place firmly rooted in America's past.
Like many other rural and small-town areas in the United States, nineteenth-century Long Island was made up of small village communities, many of which dated back to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. In 1900, 60 percent of all Americans still lived in rural areas. On Long Island, where there was little industry, the percentage was even higher. Its economy was provincial and preindustrial: a network of merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, farmers, and fishermen. Long Islanders generally lived on small plots of land, relying on nature's bountiful resources for subsistence. Rural folk pieced together a living from a variety of undertakings: vegetable and fruit farming; dairying; raising pigs, cows, and chickens; fishing the oceans, streams, and lakes; building houses and barns; and transporting lumber and crops. Though there was a cash economy, barter was still predominant. To some extent this way of life endured on Long Island into the early years of the twentieth century.
The unpublished writings of Ruth Grefe (who still lives in Roosevelt, a smallvillage on Long Island's south shore) testifies to the persistence of a traditional life style. Her family's Long Island history dates back to 1644, when Alfred Denton from Halifax, England, established the first Presbyterian Church in Hempstead. In Grefe's diary, written for her grandchildren, she described everyday life in the early 1900s in Roosevelt, a town she calls a "Land of Plenty."
Dad, a carpenter always had access to used lumber when a house was being torn down or re-molded. When a truckload of lumber was dumped in the driveway, Maddie [her younger sister] and I were always recruited to take nails out of it and stack it neatly ... We used the wood for kindling. The woodbox in the kitchen had to be filled. Every Saturday we had to spend at least four hours at the stump pile splitting and sawing enough wood to feed our pipeless furnace for the week.
Roosevelt, in the old days, had an abundance of nuts, berries and nature's bounties Wild cherries abounded and in early or mid-summer we would pick them for jelly or for Mom and Dad to make wine from. At the bottom of Strawberry Hill were wild grape which Mom made jelly from.
There were many apple trees around town and no one seemed to mind if you picked up the apples from the ground for applesauceall you had to do was ask. Mom always gave away the excess pears and apples from our trees along with vegetables from the garden and berries.
Mother and Dad got a cow a year or two after they were married. We had a cow barn in the back yard where she was kept. We had all the milk we could drink, plenty of whipped cream and pot cheese which Mom made when the milk soured. What we couldn't use we shared with neighbors.
Yet America was changing. Between 1900 and the end of World War I, Long Island's North Shore saw unprecedented development. What had been a rural outpost of farmers and fishermen was transformed into a palatial country retreat for a new class of men made wealthy by huge industrial and financial enterprises that were reshaping America's economic landscape. It began as a trickle in the 1860s after the Civil War and gathered steam throughout the 1890s.
During this era America's sixty richest men erected estates on Long Island's North Shore: J. P. Morgan, William Randolph Hearst, Russell Sage, Vincent Astor, W. R. Grace, Marshall Field, Henry Clay Frick, Jay Gould, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Pierre DuPont, William Whitney, Charles Pratt, and William K. Vanderbilt, to name a few. In 1902 the New York Herald reported that "Long Island is rapidly being divided up into estates of immense acreage ... beyond all precedence of American country life. Nowhere else certainly in America, possibly in the world, are to be found so many landed estates in any similar area."
What made Long Island so appealing to the new ruling class, those who made fortunes from steel, oil, mining, railroads, and banks, was its proximity to the world's new commercial and financial center, New York City. Although they also built bungalows in Newport and Bar Harbor, Maine, for use in the summer, their Long Island estates were ideal for the spring and fall season and many winter weekends. The new rich were particularly attracted to the rolling and wooded North Shore. Here the varied landscape insured a uniqueness to each estate. They rejected the South Shore because it was "flat as a pancake," and seemed lacking in character. The diverse North Shore terrain also was ideal for sporting activities, golf courses, polo grounds, boating, and bridle paths.
"They wanted to live like the nobility of Europe with huge estates secluded behind gates," says writer Suzanna Lessard, great-granddaughter of North Shore architect Stanford White. Lessard also observed that ironically, the estates of the robber barons set the precedent for Long Island's suburban sprawl. Instead of generating clustered villages, Long Island grew rambling, isolated estates surrounded by vast tracts of private property.
Although the new capitalists built imitations of old-world baronial manors and hunted and fished in emulation of European aristocracy, their Long Island homes revealed a uniquely American twist: they used the newest industrial techniques and technologies in the construction of their fiefdoms. As the Prince of Wales observed while visiting the North Shore in 1924, "The paintings, tapestries, Old China and armor would have been common enough in a British country house; what was surprising was to find on the same property a squash court, a gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and a Turkish bath."
Building these new recreational edifices was a complex process requiring both Old European artisan master crafts and state-of-the-art technology, available only to the captains of industry. The sheer magnitude of construction required dozens of professionals and master craftsmen, some in totally new fields: surveyors, architects, landscapers, interior decorators, masons, a variety of sewage, structural, and electrical engineers, well drillers, and elevator installers. Together these teams built long driveways that shielded the estates from public view, walls and gates (deemed necessary for security), the master house, gatehouse, stable, garage, pumping stations, water towers, power plants, greenhouses, casinos, indoor sports facilities, pool, bowling alley, racquet courts, boathouses, docks, guest houses, servant cottages, kennels, riding rings, golf courses, servant quarters, and repair facilities.
A large labor force was needed to keep the estates humming. A superintendent coordinated the efforts of specialized workers, including butlers, chauffeurs, gardeners, horse trainers, dog trainers, and cooks, as well as a host of laborers who worked as house servants, wood haulers, planters, and fireplace tenders. Each job had its place in a strict hierarchy organized along ethnic lines. Owners preferred their superintendents and butlers to be English; their gardeners, Scottish; their servants, Irish; and their common laborers, Polish or Italian. It was unusual for African Americans to be hired for estate work. The more specialized workers lived in servant quarters on the estate, were prohibited from owning automobiles, and were expected to be on call. Curfews were common. The laborers lived in nearby towns, and trucks from the estates picked them up each morning.
By 1920 most of Long Island's North Shore was divided into nearly 600 large and small estates, home to the largest concentration of wealth and power in the United States. The elites were determined that no industrial development would mar their beaches, forests, hunting preserves, yachting, and country clubs. Class conflict might be an unavoidable by-product of the industries these men owned, but life on the North Shore would bear no evidence of the industrial turmoil that financed it. The North Shore let the industrial elites live out the fantasy of a leisured, preindustrial existencealbeit with all the modern conveniences money could buy.
Indeed, the architecture of the estates was calculated to mask all signs of physical labor: with servant entrances and narrow servant passages, masters would never bump into their servants on the staircase. In addition, small back service roads were designed for deliveries, work vehicles, and gardening equipment. On the Gold Coast, rooms were cleaned and gardens tended as if by magic.
The North Shore certainly earned its reputation as America's Gold Coast. More than any other stretch of the nation, the Gold Coast glittered with private mansions, private country clubs, polo fields, and marinas. Estate owners outdid each other in displays of opulence. The F. W. Woolworth Mansion in Glen Cove had sixty-two rooms and included solid gold bathroom fixtures and a dining room ceiling gilded with 1,500 square feet of fourteen-carat gold. William Whitney's Old Westbury estate had an 800-foot-long racing stable, a mile-long track containing eighty-three box stalls, and a second story with a dining room, modern kitchen, gymnasium, dormitory, and library. The Marshall Field estate in Lloyd's Neck provided its guests with tennis, badminton, and squash courts, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, sailboats, motorboats, skeet ranges, and, lest their thirst for sport go unquenched, a thousand-acre hunting preserve. Investment banker Otto Khan wanted an open view on a hillside in Cold Spring Harbor, but he discovered that the hills around him were taken. He decided to build a small mountain of his own. Hauling the dirt and stone for the mountain required a railroad, so he built his own railroad line.
On the estates, entertainment on a grand scale emerged as a way of life. Owners threw lavish parties for engagements, weddings, and debuts. Hosts hired famous performers and musicians and gave away expensive jewelry. At a debutante party for his daughter, Otto Kahn paid Enrico Caruso $10,000 to sing two songs. Other celebrations were less family-oriented. Elaborate estate parties were held in honor of the Prince of Wales's visit and the triumphant return of Charles Lindbergh. The magnates threw parties of a kind that few Americans had ever seen, outdoing each other with, among other things, swimming pools bearing thousands of orchids, diamond tiaras for lady guests, cigarettes wrapped and designed to be smoked in hundred-dollar bills.
Despite estate owners' wealth, their access to the North Shore of Long Island was difficult. In 1890 getting to the island from lower Manhattan meant taking a ferry to Brooklyn, where the nearest railroad station with access to Long Island was located. It was customary for Gold Coast millionaires to hire their own coaches, in which they could endure the rickety tracks in greater comfort and enjoy each other's company in private. In 1910 a tunnel was dug under the East River that allowed the railroad to proceed directly into Manhattan, making access easier. The tunnel was designed to serve the needs of the elite, yet the development of a direct route between Manhattan and Long Island laid the infrastructure for later suburban development. Historians see the completion of the tunnel as the moment when Long Island ceased being rural and started to become suburban.
As one scholar noted, "Along with the railroad, the automobile played the greatest part in changing the face and pace of Long Island." At the turn of the century the automobile was the new toy for the wealthy. Before the Model T, cars were extremely expensive, one car costing several years of an average worker's salary. In 1900 there were approximately 8,000 "horseless carriages" in the United States. But cars were common enough on Long Island's North Shore that Gold Coast residents remade the landscape to accommodate them.
On the Gold Coast cars were de rigeur; the elite loved racing them, especially the younger scions. William K. Vanderbilt II, an avid motorist and racing aficionado, was instrumental in the construction of the first parkway in the United States, the Vanderbilt Motor Highway Parkway, which extended from the Queens border to Suffolk County, cutting through more than half of Long Island and its Gold Coast. It was planned as a racing road, although toll-paying motorists were allowed to travel on it. The automobile, along with its attendant infrastructure, was an important new element in the playground of the rich, one that would create opportunities for the less wealthy. As Thomas Edison observed in 1904, "In time, the automobile will become the poor man's wagon ... he'll use it to haul his wood, convey his farm freight, get to and from the post ofrice, and take the family to church."
Even as they began to build roads that eventually would open Long Island to the larger public, the robber barons in the meantime carefully constructed a political strategy to protect their enclave on the North Shore. Before 1898 Nassau County was still part of Brooklyn, where politics was dominated by the Democratic party. When the historic charter of 1898 amalgamated the five boroughs of New York and created the modern metropolis, however, Nassau County was deliberately carved out as a separate entity from the city. Influential Gold Coasters used their power to make Nassau County into a Republican stronghold free from city-based Democratic politics. So durable was this Republican machine that it dominates Long Island politics to this day.
The elites now had unrestricted access to state government and the new Republican clout was soon felt in Albany. Gold Coast estate owners set about bending the laws to suit themselves. The legal incorporation of a village usually enabled communities to become self-governing bodies able to levy taxes and fund local improvements. This capacity to construct roads, develop water supplies, build parks, and apply zoning regulations often encouraged people to move to incorporated villages.
Gold Coast property holders, hostile both to taxation and the increase of the population in their dominions, recognized that the mechanism of incorporation could be quite usefulif only the rules were different. State law called for a village to have at least 250 residents to become incorporated. Obligingly, Republican politicians working for the estate owners devised a new law passed in Albany that changed the minimum residency to fifty. With large extended families and staffs of loyal servants, this number could now be achieved by a single estate.
One of the most influential Republicans to help establish the new legislation was R. Eldridge, who occupied a huge estate in Saddle Rock, the first property to become an incorporated estate village in 1911. New residents had been moving to the area, and Eldridge worried that he soon would have to pay a large share of the public improvements that the unincorporated town was planning to build. It would be much less costly for him, he reasoned, to incorporate his estate, "to set up his own government and provide for his own needs," while ignoring the needs of nearby townspeople. On his estate he had fifty people, including servants, the exact number necessary for incorporation under the law he helped to enact. It is not surprising that Eldridge was "elected" the first mayor of Saddle Rock village, or that his wife was the second person to hold that office. Laws enacted by estate villages prohibited parking on all village roads and forbade swimming in local lakes in order to "end once and for all the disturbing Sunday and holiday excursion crowds."
The robber barons' determination to protect their opulent way of life was not without consequences for less well-to-do Long Islanders. The new titans of industry had a well-earned reputation for ruthless dealings with smaller competitors, buying out those who would sell and pricing others out of the market. Just as they devoured local small businesses to build their vast national corporations, so too they gulped up small farm properties and undeveloped land to build their giant estates. They bought as much North Shore land as possible, private and public, to create a totally enclosed world of their own with no noisesome public to bother them. In order to build the Payne Whitney estate, five family farms dating back to the late seventeenth century were purchased, dispersing farmers and their progeny. The utility magnate John Aldred and W. D. Guthrie purchased sixty homes from small-home owners in the Lattington sea town and demolished all sixty to improve their ocean views. Others bought and tore down large resort hotels. Popular picnicking areas went the same way.
Farm and fishing communities were deeply affected by the estate owners' land-buying frenzy. Private estates created a contiguous barrier along the North Shore and severely limited fishermen's access to the Long Island Sound. Once publicly accessible forests and fields now became the posted province of the rich. Farmers who long had relied on the bounty of lands were now summarily dispossessed.
While some traditional Long Islanders welcomed the millionaires and eagerly sold off their property, others deeply resented the intrusion. Reactions ranged from bewilderment to anger to protest. In 1895 the farmers of Oceanside signed a petition stating, "We the undersigned farmers ... do hereby notify and forbid the so-called Rockaway Hunting Club from crossing our land with horses and dogs ... We are determined to put a stop to this nuisance which has been going on for the past 8 years." Others felt their economic viability threatened and took action to protect their livelihoods. In Oyster Bay in 1910 the baymen, feeling the effects of estate encroachment, reasserted their right to access the clamming beaches by circling the beaches with a wagon that cut through all the new estate docks that blocked the baymen's way.
In 1900 in Cold Spring Harbor, the only public road with open access to the shore was closed by the new landowners, making it inaccessible to local people who claimed bathing, clamming, and fishing rights. Several townspeople protested, arguing that the dispute should be settled by reference to official maps of the area. But the maps had disappeared mysteriously, and without them it was impossible to prove the existence of the public road. The villagers appealed to the local officials, but as one surviving member of the group stated, "The politicians always backed the estate people."
Antagonisms between local workers and the elite came to a head in 1902, when William K. Vanderbilt II secretly (under the alias Mr. Smith) purchased 600 acres surrounding Lake Success, the largest freshwater lake in Nassau County, to build his own estate, Deepdale. He then tried to purchase the entire lake and the last remaining public access road from the town of North Hempstead. Boaters and fishermen, together with men who earned their living harvesting ice in the winter, made up the opposition. In this case the locals convinced municipal authorities not to sell and defeated the estate owner.
Unruffled, Vanderbilt quickly became involved in a new disputethis time over his proposal to take over Long Island's unpaved roads and spread 90,000 gallons of oil on them for the Vanderbilt Cup, a 300-mile race through Nassau County. The oil was needed to bank down the dirt, making it easier for racers to speed. He argued that the race would focus international attention on Long Island by attracting tens of thousands of visitors and the press. Politicians, auto clubs, and local businessmen were enthusiastic. In 1904 the American Automobile Association announced the race and its prize: a 481-ounce silver cup donated by Vanderbilt. Nassau County supervisors voted to approve the race.
Many Long Islanders saw the vote as a victory for arrogant, irresponsible plutocrats. They formed the Peoples' Protective Association, quickly gathering 300 signatures to prevent the race from occurring on public roads. Farmers protested that oil and grease would pollute their produce and harm their horses. The New York World noted that "War, grim war of the bucolic variety, looms up in Nassau because of the proposal to hold the first annual automobile race for the Vanderbilt cup over the only roads the farmers of that section can use in taking their produce to market.... The Masters of the Revels have issued orders to the peasantry." In the end the race was held with more than 100,000 spectators on hand. Vanderbilt and the Gold Coast reaped much favorable publicity.
And publicity was what it was all about. New mass-circulating newspapers such as Hearst's New York Journal and Pulitzer's New York World with their illustrations, half-tone photographs, and huge Sunday editions were changing how Americans, particularly middle-class Americans, thought about their world. Like the new mass magazines McClure's, Munsey's Magazine, Harper's, Everbody's Collier's, Scribner's, and The American Magazine, the glossy tabloids cultivated a personal, intimate style that played to the emotions of outrage, envy, and sentimentality. They built their circulations around sensationalistic news and feature stories that ranged from exposés of urban political corruption and corporate greed to revelations concerning the miserable living conditions of the poor.
Before movie stars emerged as the prime objects of public scrutiny, the new rich were the talk of the town, the subject of everyday conversation, icons vested with power, beauty, and status to be envied or despised. Historian Daniel Sorbin explained that
Knowledge of what the wealthy were doing could be obtained by any person who could afford a daily newspaper and knew how to read. A current newspaper reporter remarked after considering the highly publicized affairs of the estate people that "although the feudal-like places may have been erected to keep the public out, little happened in them that was private."
Once hidden behind an arrogant veil of gated privacy, the life styles of the rich were now grist for a new media-driven popular culture.
The new print media supplied its growing middle-class readership with intimate details of the private and public lives of the new aristocracy: how they dressed, what their houses looked like, how they partied, how they spent their money on European art and tapestry, and gossip of every type. Vanderbilt's auto race, flamboyant parties, and social events such as the visit of the Prince of Wales were covered thoroughly in local papers and in New York City newspapers and weekly magazines. Conspicuous consumption made for colorful stories, the more excessive the better. At one such party the Waldorf-Astoria was transformed into a replica of Versailles and August Belmont wore a suit of inlaid gold armor valued at $10,000, drawing huge press. According to historian Matthew Josephson, "The press followed the festivals of the `plutocrats' with a persistent fascination."
Upper-class scandal was even more thrilling than the spectacle of consumption. Long before O. J. Simpson, the Thaw trial was the trial of the century. The 1906 killing of Stanford White by millionaire Harry Thaw, husband of White's former mistress, the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, produced a blizzard of published detail. New York's fourteen papers outdid each other in exposing "the satin-lined sins of the rich."
The modern media offered middle-class readers the opportunity to denounce the wealthy for their "extravagant" or "sinful" ways of life. At the same time, the new media made the lives of the wealthy leisured class part of the dream world of the American middle class. People who could not afford to live on the Gold Coast nevertheless had access to it in fantasy and popular imagination. Country havens from the city, fashionable clothes, cars and modern conveniences, and new forms of recreation, though still unattainable, had entered the middle-class perception of desire and status.
Though the idea of mass suburban living had not yet taken hold, the fantasy world that Gold Coasters created and popular media described in such detail would have a profound impact on the American landscape. While the building of suburbia in the postwar era was indeed the triumphal outcome of modern methods of production and a response to a serious housing crisis, its imaginative origins go back much further; suburbia also was the attempt to realize visions and fantasies that had been percolating for decades.
The lure of the glimmering Gold Coast persisted in vernacular language long after the enclaves the robber barons built declined. In the words of Clara Gillens, who moved to Long Island from a Harlem project in the 1970s, "When you move out to Long Island, everyone thinks you're living in the Gold Coast. After all you live in suburbia and you own a house."
Meet the Author
Rosalyn Baxandall is Professor and Chair of American Studies at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. Elizabeth Ewen is Distinguished Teaching Professor of American Studies at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
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