Growing up on Long Island meant growing up with the ghosts of the past. As a child, my parents loved to take us for Sunday outings. Many of those outings were to places that had once been grand estates but were now open to the public: Planting Fields Arboretum, Westbury Gardens, the Vanderbilt Estate (now Vanderbilt Planetarium).
One of these old estates is the inspiration behind my new Majek family novel, I Know You (formerly The Red Boy House).
Here, from the Author’s Note preface of the new book, a few words about I Know You and the ruins of King Zog’s mansion on Long Island which inspired much of the book’s direction.
Author’s Note from I Know You, the second book in the Majek Family trilogy, available soon from Bricks & Brambles Press
The Dalinger Estate and the surrounding area is loosely based on the infamous “Knollwood” – otherwise known by local Long Islanders as King Zog’s estate.
During the Gilded Age, Long Island was the playground of the wealthy elites. In 1906, the firm of Hiss & Weekes built a 60-room mansion on 260 acres for Wall Street tycoon and steel magnate Charles Hudson. The mansion changed hands several times, eventually purchased in the 1950s by its last owner, King Zog of Albania. Zog hoped to use the Long Island property as a bolthole during the Albanian revolution and a tax shelter; he wanted to establish a small kingdom on the estate. Alas, though, he still owed taxes (Nassau County will tax you, alive or dead, American or Albanian, it seems) and Zog never moved in. The estate fell into disrepair and the town of Syosset eventually tore down the ruins in the 1960s.
A few ruins remain inside what is now Muttontown Nature Preserve. I first visited Muttontown Nature Preserve on a kindergarten field trip. I remember tramping through the woods along with the other kindergarteners, fascinated by the autumn leaves swirling about. Fifteen years later, now a college student and an active equestrian, my friends from a local horse barn borrowed trailers and loaded our horses into them for a short drive to the nature preserve for a November trail ride.
As we rounded one of the leafy trails, we spied what appeared to be stone steps rising to nowhere. I’ll never forget the sight of Kristine, riding her big bay Quarter Horse, Beaver, ascending the steps on horseback to peek beyond the ruined staircase. A crumbling cherub in the wall, massive columns twined with vines, and an eerie silence bespoke that something awe-inspiring had once stood where leaves now settled.
I grew up with tales of Long Island’s Gilded Age and especially the Gold Coast mansions. My great-uncle had been a plumber to many of the wealthy elites before they sold out or succumbed to the expensive income taxes. My favorite story was of the estate butler calling him into remove the gold-plated faucets before the family traveled to Florida for the winter. My uncle roared with laughter as he recounted a butler, white gloves and all, standing with a green velvet box to receive the gold dolphin-shaped faucets from my uncle work-toughened hands. The faucets were locked into the estate’s safe.
I have always loved the old mansions, the romance, the mystery surrounding them. With each passing year, they fade into memory, only a few – such as Westbury House and Coe Hall at Planting Fields Arboretum – remaining as sentinels and guardians of a time long past.
Dalinger Hall and the Dalinger Estate is a product of my fertile imagination, but it was seeded by that memory of a trail ride through Muttontown preserve long ago and the sight of secret ruins beyond the forest glade. It was watered by the people I met during my stint working at an upscale nursery and garden center where the current crop of wealthy elites shopped, those who still owned a small handful of the grand estates.
Dalinger Hall is an imaginative take on King Zog’s mansion, but Andrew and Josh are like many Long Island youngsters – bored boys seeking adventure. The fact that they do so among the ruins of a Gilded Age mansion, and get into deep trouble, is very, very Long Island.