Bygone Mansions

North Shore Long Island

 

Starting about 1890, Long Island's North Shore was transformed from farm land to polo fields, manicured lawns and country estates. With its beauty and proximity to New York, the area became a logical choice for many of the nation's wealthy who desired country living. As Old Westbury resident, E.D. Morgan (c. 1920) remarked, the North Shore has become "one of the delightful and unusual suburbs in any part of the United States." The deep protected harbors of the Sound and the vast rolling hills made Long Island the perfect playground for the rich. Dubbed the Gold Coast for its unmatched concentration of wealthy families, grand homes, and clubs the North Shore became legendary.

Due to increasing taxes, maintenance, and staff problems, the era of grand estate buildings came to an end about 1930. Subsequently many of the estates were subdivided and the houses razed to make way for tract housing. The estates remaining today represent a bygone era of our past and should be treasured for future generations.

Paul J. Mateyunas, North Shore Historian & Author of "North Shore Long Island: Country Houses 1890-1950"

Please visit back frequently to learn more about the Bygone Mansions of Long Island

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Ferguson’s Castle

Photographs courtesy of the Huntington Historical Society Collections

PARADISE LOST

The North Shore's Once Upon a Time Renaissance-Style Castle
by Paul J. Mateyunas
Article Courtesy of Elements Magazine/Featured in the Fall 2005 Issue

"It was a great big white elephant of a place, the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy '20s ..." - Sunset Boulevard

"Ferguson's Castle" (as it became known) was once home to an eccentric occupant, and like something out of Sunset Boulevard, it was a sight for the eyes, conjuring up all kinds of stories of imagination. The dream home of Julianna Armour Ferguson (heiress to the Chicago‐based Armour meat packing company), the estate was modeled after the religious monasteries of Italy and Spain that Ferguson and her late husband, Dr. Farquhar Ferguson, had visited together. The estate, which stood apart from the many Georgians, French chateaus and stately clapboards in the surrounding area, was a true architectural novelty on Long Island. Set into a steep hill overlooking Huntington Harbor, the forty‐room, Italian Renaissance‐style castle, with its lofty four‐story bell tower, was originally christened the “Monastery" when its three‐year construction was completed in 1911.

With the goal of creating an authentic feel to the house, Mrs. Ferguson, along with Boston architect Allen W. Jackson and a team of purchasing agents, scoured Europe looking for architectural treasures and valuable works of art to incorporate into the Monastery's interior decor. Numerous large shipments and many detailed blueprints later, Mrs. Ferguson's vision‐to have a serene monastery‐like "castle" of her ownbecame a reality. The interior of Ferguson's Castle fulfilled all the mystery and promise alluded to by its exterior architecture. When it came to design, no expense was spared; everything from ancient Egyptian plaques to a reclining angel attributed to Michelangelo was incorporated into the fabric of the structure. The list of priceless objects in the house read like the catalog inventory at the Met. In the end, it was estimated that Mrs. Ferguson spent over $2 million to construct the home.

Stained glass windows and Byzantine‐style frescos taking several years to paint graced the Refectory (dining room). The impressive Grand Hall (living room) looked like an elaborate movie set for Romeo and Juliet. In fact, it was so authentic that a 1916 film of the classic play was filmed there. The dramatic double‐story cloistered courtyard, enclosed by a massive glass ceiling, took visitors on a fascinating journey back in time. A plethora of artifacts filled the space: ferocious 13th century portal lions guarded the room's entrance, and rare, ancient Persian, hand‐painted tiles lined the fountain at the base of the stairs leading to the second floor balcony hall. Exotic marble and onyx columns supported the balcony from which the family bedrooms, outdoor cloister garden and main staircase surveyed the Grand Hall below. The Castle's monastery‐based religious themes were carried over into the bedrooms, which resembled monk's cells but had slightly more decoration. Simple linen bedcovers, each embroidered with a large brown cross, adorned the beds. The furniture was sufficient but kept to a minimum. Perhaps the building's most arresting feature was the floors paved with children's tombstones, dating back three centuries, which were also incorporated into many of the rooms. According to sources, when showing guests to their room, Mrs. Ferguson would tell them whom they would be staying with (Abby or John, for example). Visitors would soon discover their "roommates" were, in fact, the children whose names were on the tombstones in their bedroom!

Ghoulish as her devotion to children's tombstones might sound; the very unconventional (and very rich) Mrs. Ferguson was also very kind. Not interested in society and grand parties, she made sure her world revolved around her children. With a family of seven, the house was always filled with the excitement of the Ferguson children, dozens of their friends and numerous pets. Sharing her wealth and castle with the neighborhood kids, she always left the doors of the gatehouse‐garage open; like a toy store, it was filled with bikes, motorcycles and cars that were on call 24 hours a day to all who wished to use them.

Ferguson’s Castle Demolision

Photographs courtesy of the Huntington Historical Society Collections

Julianna Ferguson's reign ended in 1927 when she lost her battle to cancer. The house played host to several notable residents over the next decade, but always ended up back in the hands of the Fergusons. Put up for auction in 1936, the valuable contents that Julianna amassed at the Monastery were sold for pennies on the dollar. Shortly after the auction, the house still found no buyers; that's when Brooklyn attorney Charles D. Cords acquired the property. The Cords quietly resided in the Monastery for the next thirty years, but Mr. Cords, who loved the Castle, was unable to maintain the estate in the style to which it was accustomed. The family occupied only a minor part of the house and used a small kerosene stove for cooking. Though he tried to keep up the estate, Mr. Cords could not afford to pay the taxes, which by 1964 amounted to more than 100,000.

Taking action, the county seized the fourteen‐acre waterfront estate. Sale of the property proved to be as difficult as it had been for the Fergusons. Local resident groups rallied to save the house, but without the support of the town or the county, their efforts were fruitless. The county's seizing of the estate and inability to sell it off were the beginning of the end for Ferguson's Castle. Ultimately, the Castle fell into ruin, covered in deep vines. The empty house was soon vandalized, and valuable artwork and ancient statues and artifacts were smashed, covered in graffiti or pried from the walls and gardens of the home. In a pitiable state, the once grand showplace was sold to developers in 1970.

The battle to save Ferguson's Castle was lost to the wrecking ball, but with concrete walls over four feet thick and footings four‐by‐fourteen feet, the house did not fall easily. In fact, some of the footings and foundation still remain, clinging to the hill. The monumental task nearly bankrupted the project. Luckily, just before the house was razed, a number of the artifacts incorporated into the building were removed and sold to private collectors and museums. Today, the gatehouse (now a private home) and some of the garden wall are all that remain of Ferguson's Castle. These remnants, however, continue to evoke curiosity and questions about this uniquely memorable estate.