Front Street, East Meadow, Nassau County, New York
This house is best associated with...
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont
Mrs Alva Erskine (Smith) Vanderbilt Belmont, Society Hostess & Rights Activist
In her divorce settlement, Alva was given an annuity of $100,000 a year and Marble House in Newport. For the few months for which she was not married during 1895, she made her home at 24 East 72nd Street where she and Ollie tied the knot in January, 1896. In 1899, they bought a five-story mansion at 677 Fifth Avenue and summered at Belcourt in Newport but had wasted no time in commissioning a weekend home just east of Hempstead - close to Ollie's elder brother's 1,100-acre estate, Blemton Manor - on land that Ollie's father had bought up between there and Babylon in the 1860s and 70s.
Colonial Exterior, French Interior
Sitting on 240-acres, their new 30-room country home was sited south of Front Street at Merrick Avenue overlooking East Meadow Brook. It was designed by Richard Howland Hunt in the Colonial-Revival style and during the works the carpenters were put up at Schultze's Hotel. However, the richly appointed interior was finished in Alva's preferred style: Louis XIV, with plenty of pilasters, bas-reliefs and examples of finely moulded plasterwork which included Ollie's self-appointed coat-of-arms that dominated one wall of the dining room. The large and airy house was covered in artwork, notably portraits.
"This Dear Home"
Alva referred to the house as, "this dear home" commenting that the "air is so full of life" here and advising her friend Harry Lehr: "Come to Brookholt. You will white-wash the black clouds hanging over you and grow warm in the reflected light". His long-suffering wife, Bessie (later Lady Decies), noted that, "every time we arrived at Brookholt we were shown some new addition to the property, for Mrs Belmont had a positive passion for building, and, as Harry told her, 'loved nothing better than to be knee-deep in mortar'."
Ollie became interested in gardening which prompted Alva to take a course in landscape architecture in France. Together they helped lay out the gardens here which included hothouses, orchards, sunken Italian gardens, and man-made lakes. The outbuildings included a magnificent Georgian farmhouse/stable complex built in 1906 by John Russell Pope plus a coachman's apartment, a garage for four cars, superintendent's house, barns, a dairy, ice house etc. By the time Alva sold the estate, the main house contained 9-master bedrooms, 13-servants rooms, 3-drawing rooms, a ballroom and dining room.
"All I Asked was a Room where Nobody had Died..."
As a character, Alva was a formidable force of nature and except perhaps for the sight of a bank balance with anything less than six zeroes, there was nothing and no-one alive on this planet that scared her. But, the otherwise indomitable Alva had an achilles heel: anything or anyone un-natural and not of this planet truly terrified her! Having been imbued with tales of the supernatural by her "old colored Mammy" back in Alabama, she grew up with "a veritable terror of ghosts" and could not bear to sleep in a bedroom in which anyone had died - which may explain why she always built new homes!
In June, 1908, Ollie Belmont died in his bedroom at Brookholt of sepsis poisoning following an operation to have his appendix removed. Alva was heartbroken, but Ollie's premature departure had now also somewhat tarnished what had been their sleeping quarters. To remedy the situation, Alva helped draw up plans for a brand-new wing to be added with entirely new sleeping quarters. She was delighted with the result but on the same day that it was completed one of the masons fell off his ladder and was taken to her new bedroom where - most inconveniently for Alva - he promptly died half an hour later.
Alva wrote out a generous cheque to the mason's widow, but as doing so lamented with little thought for anyone else other than herself, "it really does seem as though Fate had decided I am never to sleep peacefully at night. All I asked was a room where nobody had died, and now the first thing I know someone goes and dies a violent death in it...".
The "Farmerettes" in an "Adamless Eden"
After Ollie's death, Alva threw herself wholeheartedly behind the women's suffragist movement. In 1911, she established the Brookholt School of Agriculture for Women on 200-acres. It was run by an experienced farmer's wife and Alva personally interviewed and selected the 25 "farmerettes" hoping that on graduating from this "Adamless Eden" they would become farm managers and landscape architects their own right. However, after just one year, Alva terminated the project, it being supposed that she made the school so comfortable that the farmerettes were unwilling to move on.
"The Richest Bachelor in New York"
Cochran briefly lived here as the third of the six husbands of his notorious wife, Ganna Walska. They were divorced after just two years of marriage in 1922 and she walked away with a settlement of $3 million. Cochran consequently bought Glen Eyrie Castle in Colorado Springs and the following year (1923), he sold Brookholt to the Coldstream Golf Club who intended to convert it into a country club but instead it sat empty.
One of the Most Elaborate Distillery's Discovered during Prohibition
It hit the news again during Prohibition in 1933. Despite appearing to be empty, it was raided by Federal Agents who discovered that the dining room had been repurposed into one of the most elaborate alcohol distilleries ever seen in the Metropolitan area. The controls were located in what had been Alva's "rose-colored bedroom" above. One of the agents observed that al the equipment was highly polished and so well maintained that it resembled, "the engine room of a ship" and was estimated to be worth $100,000. It is thought that the alcohol fumes were to blame when the house burned down in 1934.
Today, all traces of the estate have since disappeared to urban development.
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