Beautiful but damned: the house that inspired Gatsby

A mansion on Long Island that was frequented by F Scott Fitzgerald in the Roaring Twenties is to be redeveloped

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The Independent US

Come what may, rich Americans will always, as F Scott Fitzgerald declared, be "different from you and I". In the novelist's roaring heyday, that meant they could throw grand parties fuelled by mint juleps and other Prohibition-era cocktails. Today, they can meanwhile devote their lives to realising obscene profits from real estate.

That is the conclusion one might draw from the news that Land's End, a 25-room mansion on New York's Long Island believed to have inspired Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, is to be razed by its moneyed owner and converted into five shiny new McMansions, worth $10m each.

The property was designed in the Colonial Revival style by Stanford White. It was built in 1902, amid 13 clifftop acres of mature woodland and manicured lawns, but will face the wrecking ball this month.

It's a sad end for a building which scholars believe provided a template for East Egg, home of the fictional Gatsby's neighbour Daisy Buchanan, and which hosted some of history's great cocktail parties.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Winston Churchill, Ethel Barrymore and the Marx brothers are purported to have stood on the veranda, enjoying the sweeping view over Long Island Sound. William Randolph Hearst, who kept a home nearby, is said to have greatly admired the main house's hand-painted wallpaper, Palladian windows, and marble floors.

Fitzgerald, a friend of one owner, the journalist and socialite Herbert Bayard Swope, is believed to have attended several lively social events there. Now the property seems as doomed as his novel's party-loving protagonists.

"I think it's probable that [Fitzgerald] used the physical aspects of Land's End as a model," said Professor Ruth Prigozy of Hofstra University, a specialist on the author, in an interview with the New York Post yesterday. "It was the view... That's what set it apart."

Land's End was one of many great estates built at the turn of the 20th century by wealthy New Yorkers seeking to escape the bustle of the Big Apple for the sea breezes of a picturesque region which became known as the Gold Coast.

Today, like many other mansions of the era, it sits in a state of genteel decay. Reporters peeking up its sweeping driveway at the weekend reported that the front door was flapping off its hinges, windows were missing, and wooden floors had been ripped up for salvage. Even the view isn't what it used to be, thanks to a century of urban sprawl.

The current owner of Land's End is a property developer called Dave Brodsky, whose father, Bert, bought it for $17m in 2004 from the widow of an owner of the New York Mets baseball side. He said he had hoped to restore the building and sell it as a family home, but it turned out to be beyond repair. Property taxes, insurance, and routine maintenance are costing him up to $4,500 a day, he complained. In the era of minimum wages, he cannot afford to maintain the servants that the household would require to run properly.

"In its heyday, it had 20 in help," Mr Brodsky told Newsday. "It was a true Gold Coast estate."

In 2009, to try to stop Land's End from being broken up, he put the estate on the market, for $30m. There were no takers.

The fate of the property mirrors that of many other historic homes in the Gold Coast region. In the Roaring Twenties, it boasted hundreds of large properties. Over the years, it crept ever closer to the urban sprawl of New York (it is surprisingly close to the Bronx), and began to fall out of fashion. At least 500 of the 1,400 major "north shore" properties were demolished during the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds more went later as the great and the good moved to more secluded areas of Long Island, such as the Hamptons.

Today, while a smattering of historic Gold Coast houses are still standing, relatively few are in private ownership: many have been converted into religious retreats, conference centres, and schools. A former estate owned by the Chrysler family, for example, is now a military academy.

"The cost to renovate these things is just so overwhelming that people aren't interested in it," said Clifford Fetner, the manager in charge of overseeing the development of Land's End, which will become five "custom" homes with garages big enough for SUVs. "The value of the property is the land."

Unlike the UK, America does not have a system whereby historic buildings can be "listed" to prevent them being altered or destroyed. Instead, to the dismay of preservationists, America's architectural heritage is largely governed by market forces.

For Gold Coast historians, "the priority is now drawing attention to these mansions, saving what we can," the local writer Monica Randall told Newsday.

The destruction of important buildings "is becoming more and more of an epidemic," added Alexandra Wolfe, director of preservation services at the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities.

Fitzgerald would doubtless be appalled. But the loss of Land's End isn't the only thing that may have him turning in his grave this week. The film company Warner Brothers, which is making a movie version of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio, announced yesterday that the picture would be filmed not on Long Island, or even in the United States, but at a studio in Sydney.

Literary homes

Great Expectations

The 17th-century building that inspired Charles Dickens for Miss Havisham's home in Great Expectations has seen its own fortunes fluctuate. Restoration House in Rochester, Kent, was once owned by Rod Hull, the comedian of Emu fame, who bought the dilapidated building in 1987 and started its restoration. It is now open to visitors.

Gormenghast

Arundel Castle inspired the author Mervyn Peake for his Gothic classic Gormenghast, published in 1950. The castle, built at the end of the 11th century, has been restored and is the home of the current Duke of Norfolk.

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