“Knollwood”, one of architects ‘Hiss & Weekes’ most beautiful country-house commissions, was owned by a number of interesting personalities. It was built between 1906 and 1910 for Charles I. Hudson, a New York City stockbroker of the Gilded Age, at Muttontown on Long Island’s North Shore. The 60-room mansion had elements of Greek Revival, Italian Renaissance and Spanish styling with towering Ionic front columns with terraced garden and a dairy farm to satisfy his passion for raising Jersey cattle.
The house was palatially scaled and elegantly faced with smooth-dressed Indiana limestone, with design details borrowed from a variety of sources, including palaces and country estates by Palladio and Vignola built for Italian princes, and royal residences erected in France during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Inside, the house contained 30 rooms with paneling imported from England and marble fireplaces brought from Italy, as well as coffered Renaissance-style ceilings, much in evidence in the first-floor reception rooms.
Viewed from the north, the most striking feature of “Knollwood” was its colossal entrance portico, balustraded across the top like the main block of the house and supported by four giant Ionic columns. In most other aspects, the north and south elevations were similar. At the ends of the two-and-a-half story main block of the house were single-story wings containing Palladian-style motifs such as arched French doors flanked by lower rectangular openings. Each of the wings, in turn, opened onto a deep loggia.
Viewed from the south, the houses appeared to rest on a high basement, extending forward beneath the wide terrace at the back which overlooked the formal gardens. The terrace was reached from the gardens by grand staircases.
The formal gardens to the south of the house incorporated historical European precedents as well, especially in the grand scale and pronounced axiality. The landscape architect was Ferrucio Vitale. Like the great country houses of the British Isles and the villas of Northern Italy, the 150-acre estate devoted a large part of its land to commercial farming and pasturing. A stuccoed combination stable and garage building included space for 12 cars and apartments for chauffeurs, grooms, and gardeners. A poultry building and a hog house were also located on the estate, as well as an additional stable that housed farm horses, wagons, and implements. Accommodations included a boarding house for farm laborers, a cottage for the farm superintendent, and an additional cottage for agricultural workers. The presence in this farming complex of a large dairy barn for 140 head of cattle was not surprising in view of the fact that Charles Hudson took a lifelong interest in the breeding of fine Jersey cattle. A white-shingled guest cottage on the estate, designed in the Colonial Revival style, came with its own garage and stables.
Charles I. Hudson was successful and well-respected. He was elected to two terms as governor of the New York Stock Exchange. His tenure as head of C.I. Hudson & Company was not without its difficulties; the company was once sued by the brother of John D. Rockefeller and Hudson himself had his exchange seat suspended for a month following the assault of an exchange telephone operator.
Following Hudson’s death in 1921, Knollwood was sold to Gustavia Senff, widow of Charles H. Senff, director of the American Sugar Refining Company (later Domino Sugar). Mrs. Senff continued the philanthropy of her late husband, donating land in Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills for Mount Tom State Park and erecting Senff Gate at the University of Virginia (she was a native Virginian).
Charles Senff McVeigh, an attorney and co-founder of the New York law firm of Morris and McVeigh, inherited Knollwood as trustee following the death of his aunt in 1927. Besides his law practice and philanthropic causes, McVeigh was an avid sportsman. He helped to establish the American Wildlife Institute which, in part, aired radio programs about land and wildlife conservation. McVeigh sold Knollwood to King Gustav S. Zog of Albania in 1951 for approximately $102.800.
Zog bought the estate to establish a kingdom-in-exile for himself, his family and 120 members of his royal entourage staffed by Albanian subjects. But the fact is that Zog never set foot on the estate and caused disdain among his Long Island neighbors by refusing to pay property taxes. Legend has it that the king bought the estate for a “bucket of diamonds and rubies” and Zog’s riches were hidden in the mansion. Vandals ravaged walls in the mansion searching for gems hidden by King Zog. The mansion fell into total ruin.
The estate’s final owner, Lansdell Christie, had a hand in many enterprises before World War II. Christie attended West Point and began his own marine transportation business. As a transportation office in North Africa during the war, he learned about extensive iron ore deposits in Liberia. Following the war, he made a fortune mining iron ore by securing concessions to mine ore in the region, seeing to it that Liberia benefited from the development as well. Progressive in terms of racial views, he befriended Liberia’s president William Tubman and helped to found the Afro-American Institute. Christie was also involved in Democratic politics. He was the largest single Democratic donor for the 1956 Stevenson campaign and a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.
By the time Lansdell Christie purchased Knollwood in 1955 from Zog’s parliament, the estate had suffered from years of neglect and vandalism. The terraced gardens were overgrown; the farm buildings were in disrepair. The local county works department of Oyster Bay pulled down the ruins of the home in 1959 for safety reasons. A garden pavillon remained for many years, progressively vandalized, until it was razed to its foundation, also for safety reasons. The most visible remains at the present time are the remnants of a double staircase to the old formal gardens, where traces of landscaping remain; some walkways disappearing under fallen litter and leaves, some columns, and the gate structure at the old entrance to the grounds. Seeing these remnants of this once magnificent mansions will certainly pique a hiker’s interest in the people who once lived there.
King Gustav S. Zog of the Albanians gets way too much credit and press for having owned the Knollwood Estate, the ruins of which are now part of the Muttontown Preserve in East Norwich with the gated entrance located on Jericho-Oyster Bay Road on Route 106.
All photos are from L.I. Country Houses and Their Architects, 1860-1940.
Newsday Home Town
The Freeholder, quarterly newsletter of the Oyster Bay Historical Society, Winter 2009
Long Island Country Houses and their Architects, 1860-1940