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Harbor Hill

Roslyn, Nassau County, New York

Completed in 1902, for Clarence Hungerford Mackay (1874-1938) and his wife Kitty Duer (1880-1930). Overlooking Hampstead Harbor on Long Island's Gold Coast, their 80,000 square foot mansion is the 8th Largest Historic House in the United States and the largest private residence completed by architect Stanford White (1853-1906). Some scholars have suggested that the scene of a party held here for the Prince of Wales gave rise to an earlier title considered by F. Scott Fitzgerald for his now infamously named novel, "The Great Gatsby". Certainly, that's enough for my money to suppose that Harbor Hill was also the mansion he had in mind when he described Gatsby's home as a “factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy”. In its day, it contained the most valuable privately-owned collection of Renaissance armor in North America, and one of the finest art collections of the era before Mackay fell victim to the Wall Street Crash... 
After his elder brother was killed in a steeplechase near Paris, Clarence Mackay became the sole heir to a business empire plus a fortune of some $45 million. His Irish-born father, John, was one of the four "Bonanza Kings of Nevada" who made a fortune in just five years mining Comstock Lode silver. Despite his mother's more genteel roots, his parents were nonetheless snubbed by New York society so they upped-and-offed to Paris where Clarence's half-sister, Eva, would marry - albeit unhappily - an Italian Prince. 

Clarence was a generous philanthropist, notably to the University of Nevada, but unlike his elder brother he had not been trained for business and neither did he show talent nor interest in it. He lived predominantly off his shares in the Postal Telegraph Company, one of many corporations founded by his father. Harbor Hill was his principal residence and where his children grew up, but he also divided his time between his townhouse in Manhattan and a hunting lodge on Gardiner's Island that he leased from 1915.

In 1898, Clarence married Kitty Duer, the beautiful, fun-loving scion of an old New York family who was named for her great-great grandmother, Lady Kitty Duer (1755-1826) of Grasmere. Three years previously, Kitty had been a bridesmaid at America's wedding of the century that united Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964) to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. As a wedding gift for his blue-blooded daughter-in-law, John William Mackay (1831-1902) put her name on the titles deeds to Harbor Hill, a 648-acre estate in the Wheatley Hills on Long Island Sound, named for its exceptional view over Hampstead Harbor.

Both Clarence and Kitty knew Paris well and the inspiration for their new home was drawn from the Château de Maisons-Laffitte on the outskirts of the city. Ultimately though, it was a product of the combined imaginations of Kitty and the architect who oversaw the project, Stanford White (1853-1906). The mansion was sited on one of the highest points of Long Island where on a clear day New York City was visible twenty three miles away. Work began in 1899, and the stone used for the mansion's exterior came from the recently dismantled Murray Hill Reservoir on New York's 42nd Street.

After three years, their 52-room mansion was complete at a cost of $781,483, not including the price for its furnishings and formal gardens. At 80,000 square feet, it was the largest of all the mansions ever designed by White (which is saying something) and during its construction the great architect remarked that, "with the exception of Biltmore House, I do not think there will be an estate equal to it in the country". It measured 266-feet across by 103-feet deep and required an army of 126 liveried domestic staff and ground staff to maintain the mansion and its estate of one square mile.

The Approach

Harbor Hill was entered via wrought iron gates covered with a slate mansard roof and flanked either side by ivy-covered stone gate lodges - this structure in the village of East Hills survives today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The mile-long entrance drive that led up the steep hill towards the house was bound by maple trees and cost $150,000 to build, terminating in front of the three-story baroque-style château. 

The Interior

The interiors were designed by Allard & Son of Paris and Davenport & Sons of Boston, while the formal gardens were laid out by Guy Lowell (1870-1927); but every detail within and without was influenced and carefully overseen by Kitty herself.

The entrance hall was panelled in rich oak, lit by a dominant brass lamp that hung from the center of the Jacobean-style ceiling. It featured a wide staircase with an intricately carved bannister leading up to a grandfather clock on the first landing. At one end stood a vast marble fireplace excavated from a European palace, "so huge that the wood of a single tree can be burned within it," with 17th century tapestries either side. This room could be overlooked from the choir stalls salvaged from an old French church and the balcony of Mackay's study. Aside from the draped antique flags, this room featured many pieces of what was considered the finest collection of Medieval and Renaissance armor in America.

The "white drawing-room" also doubled up as a ballroom. Bright and spacious, it was decorated in the white and gold style of Louis XV: "panels of mirrors fill spaces not occupied by doors; and, of windows there are none at all, for it opens into an enclosed porch, or conservatory". Other notable rooms on the ground floor included the library, dining room and billiards room - with another immense antique marble fireplace, polar bear and tiger-skin rugs; and, a dozen or so trophy stag's heads. 

But, of all the rooms that made Harbor Hill absolutely unique, it was Kitty's bathroom on the second floor: the bath itself cost $50,000 alone and was carved from one single block of marble before being sunk into the floor. Essentially, it was an extension of her dressing room and vast boudoir that occupied most of the second floor. The bathroom was complete with soft furnishings, lamps, tables and palm fronds.

Aside from Clarence's aforementioned collection of armor, Harbor Hill also boasted one of America's greatest private art collections: it was filled with paintings and sculpture from the Renaissance era that included works by the likes of Botticelli, Raphael, Duccio, Antonello da Messina, Mantegna, Sassetta, and Giovanni Bellini etc. His Raphael had once been part of the famous collections of both Queen Christina (1626-1689) of Sweden - who aimed to make Stockholm the "Athens of the North" - and, Philippe II (1674-1723), Duke d'Orléans, who was tutored in art by the finest scholars in France.

Gardens, Grounds & Mechanical Deer

The gardens were designed by Lowell in 18th century French style and spread out principally from the west side of the château. They were made up of terraces, formal gardens divided by gravel pathways, fountains, statues and most notably two bronze 25-ton, 40-foot replicas of the Marly Horses that once stood on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but are now found in the Louvre Museum. One of Mackay's replicas stands at the Roslyn High School and the other remained in situ, restored by the Roslyn Landmark Society.

Another of the estate's statuary - a fountain surrounded by four marble horses - designed in France by Henri-Léon Gréber (1855-1941) - is today found at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. Ellin Mackay (1903-1988), who famously married Irving Berlin (1888-1989), wrote an autobiographical account of her early life - Lace Curtain (1950) - in which she eloquently described the gardens at Harbor Hill:
The early summer flowers were blooming... Pale pink deepened to red in the formal design of the flower beds. The creamy gravel paths outlined the bright squares in which the flowers were planted in intricate curves. The French garden was an elaborately patterned carpet between the house and steps that led to the lower terrace. The lower terrace was green and white. The morning shadow of the house deepened the color of the young grass. In the center of the lawn was the white fountain. No water played over the marble. At this hour the fountain was silent. On each side of the terrace the white statues stood at the edge of the wood.. Beyond the flowered and grass terraces, the hill dropped against the blue.. At the abrupt end of the terrace she could look down at the sky.
The estate contained both a dairy and a poultry farm with numerous outbuildings, including the farmworkers cottages and a blacksmith's shop. The stone water tower and dairyman's cottage survive and are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mackay's Guernsey Cattle frequently won prizes at the Long Island Fair and he also bred thoroughbred horses and polo ponies with separate stables for each; and, a kennels for his hounds. His racing colors were turquoise, blue and black and they featured prominently at his stables as well as in his own accoutrement - the cuff links and studs he wore with his dinner jacket were designed in those colors by Cartier.

Deep within the woods about the house, Kitty built a small cottage where she could retire to when she desired some peace from the daily goings-on up at the chateau - this may have had something to with the fact that her mother-in-law, Mrs Marie Louise (Hungerford) Mackay (1843-1928), lived with them at Harbor Hill almost from day one!

Another of the estate's novelties was the mechanical deer that on the push of a button ran on a track of rails just within the woods, acting as a moving target for Mackay to practice his shooting. On one occasion, the naturally mischievous Kitty had spent several tedious hours in a meeting with her lawyer. When the meeting adjourned, she asked the achingly serious man to take a seat on the deer, and - whoosh - with one push of the button, the attorney was sent hurtling off through the woods, clinging to his hat and briefcase!

Party for the Prince & F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Mackays liked to entertain and they did so frequently and in grand style. Among the more prominent parties held was one for the aviator Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902-1974). But, most notably it was the party they hosted in 1924 for Edward, Prince of Wales, on his first visit to New York which is best remembered:

They hosted 1,200 guests that night. The maples along the drive were lit up with small blue lights and the roof of the house was covered in red, white and blue lightbulbs depicting the U.S. flag - so bright it could be seen from Roslyn Harbor. Some scholars have suggested that this scene led to F. Scott Fitzgerald considering the title Under the Red, White, and Blue for his new book, before settling on the title, The Great Gatsby

Winds of Change

In 1910, Kitty abandoned Clarence and their three children, running off to Paris with a younger man: the family physician, Dr Joseph Augustus Blake II (1891-1966). After their  divorce was finalized in 1913, ownership of the estate was transferred from Kitty's name to that of her eldest son, John William Mackay III (1905-1990).

Kitty's departure was not only a blow to her family, but to the local community too. She administered the public schools at Roslyn and was active in charities that supported local hospitals. Both she and Clarence were well-regarded in the community. They'd created jobs and looked after the children of their staff through providing education, paying doctors bills and treating them to annual parties. In 1918, Clarence leant Harbor Hill to the American Red Cross for use as a convalescence home for soldiers returning from Europe.

To console himself after Kitty's departure, for $300,000 Mackay built a Tudor-style clubhouse on the estate in 1911. It featured a gymnasium, indoor swimming pool, squash court and one of only two private Real Tennis courts in the country - the other belonging to Jay Gould II (1888-1935), whose aunt was the last private owner of Lyndhurst. There were also two lawn tennis courts at Harbor Hill and Mackay was coached by the famous champion, Cecil 'Punch' Fairs, to whom he gave a cottage on the estate.

From 1916, Clarence had started to see Anna Case (1888-1984), a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, but as a devout Catholic he waited until the death of his first wife before marrying her. Kitty's romance hadn't worked out, and returning to the States she tried to rekindle her relationship with her ex-husband but died the same year (1930). 

Decline

The Crash of 1929 hit Mackay a year later when his funds failed to cover the purchase of a yacht. By 1932, he was forced to close Harbor Hill and lay off the overwhelming majority of the estate's 126 staff before moving to a small farmhouse on the grounds.

The next few years saw him sell off his collections of armor, paintings and tapestries, according to The New York Times "at a heavy loss". Many of these antiques were acquired by Samuel Henry Kress (1863-1955) and Andrew William Mellon (1855-1937), before ending up in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in London.

Mackay died in 1938 and what was left of his various collections were sold off by his family. His widow, Anna, lived at their Manhattan townhouse, 3 East 75th Street, before the bank foreclosed on it in 1940 and she was forced to find a new home. That same year, 50-acres of Harbor Hill was leased to the U.S. Army and became the Roslyn Air Force Station, while the fences were torn down for use as scrap metal to aid the war effort.

Fall

The mansion was left to the mercy of vandals. Before the decision was taken to demolish it with dynamite in 1947, 100-tons of cast iron was removed from within to sell. In 1955, the 648-acre estate was sold by Mackay's eldest son, John William Mackay III (1905-1990), to a builder from Manhattan who carved up the property into 400 new homes.

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