I could be as rich as fabled King Midas or the latest Internet billionaire, but I would still be powerless against the transformative force of infrastructure.
I had the good fortune recently to spend two days at Greentree, the imposing estate of the Whitney family on Long Island that now serves as a meeting place for select nonprofits. The baronial estate was part of the now largely departed Gold Coast, the fabled North Shore where industry titans and wealthy elites lived large in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
What rubbed out the Gold Coast was infrastructure. Over the objections of many of these elites, master builder Robert Moses in the 1930s and afterward ploughed freeways, bringing with them Levittowns and post-war suburbia writ large. Against this tide, even the wealthiest could not retain a country lifestyle indefinitely.
But oh, what a lifestyle. Greentree, built by Payne Whitney in the early 1900s, still consists of most of its original roughly 500 acres of rolling grassy hills. On this pastoral landscape are studded several prominent houses and outbuildings. They included the main house and a large stable that was part of the family’s passion for horse-raising that produced two Kentucky Derby winners.
Occupying the big house for most of the 20th century was John Hay “Jock” Whitney and his family. To me, a former newspaperman, it was particularly special staying there because Jock was the last owner of the fabled New York Herald Tribune. That sadly now departed New York City newspaper -- hitney closed it in the late 1960s -- produced such journalists as Tom Wolfe, and its legacy includes present day New York Magazine, which was originally the Sunday supplement to the Tribune.
At the center of the estate is the main house, which I liked because it didn’t try to look like a French chateau or a British castle, a la Downton Abbey. Instead, it hid its enormous size by being half buried in a hillside and through clever architecture. From most angles it looked like a rather large American house, with a simple roof and some columns. On the inside you discover wing after wing, a house large enough to get lost in, with an enormous indoor pool, an indoor squash court and an indoor tennis court.
Although they of course had multiple houses, Jock and his wife Betsey lived much of their lives at Greentree until his death in 1982 and hers in 1998. Family members continue to use the estate, I was told. The main residence is still set up for them and it looks like someone just went out for a walk. It’s complete with family portraits, books, knick-knacks and art collections.
Aided by this rich backdrop, I felt I could see how the really wealthy lived 50 or 100 years ago. Whitney, when he was publisher of the Tribune, could be at Herald Square in Manhattan on 34th street (the square named for his newspaper), and 45 minutes later be at home on his horse farm, sipping a nice Bordeaux while he gazed out the window. He could take the Long Island Railroad to Manhasset or probably a chauffeured limousine to his door step.
I got to stay there because Betsey Whitney in the 1980s turned control of the estate over to a non-profit trust to promote peace and international cooperation. The stables have been converted into an elegant facility largely for the United Nations. The urban planning group the Regional Plan Association, where I’m a Senior Fellow, got to hold a two-day retreat in the main house.
So Greentree survives, but only as a charming anachronism. It’s surrounded by gas stations and shopping malls brought by Robert Moses’ freeways. Robert Caro in his masterful book about Moses, The Power Broker, tells how the elites attempted to hold off the freeways, ultimately unsuccessfully. The Whitneys got to live out their lives at the estate, but could not stop change around it. (A fun way to learn about the Gold Coast of yore is to read Nelson DeMille’s page turner of the same name.)
All this prompted me to think that big infrastructure projects, in particular transportation ones, shape our physical environments and even the very wealthiest can’t stop those changes, once asphalt or steel is poured. I’m not the first to make such observations. The late Marshal Berman says similar things in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.
Because of its nonprofit status and endowment, Greentree is here to stay for quite a while, but there will be no new Greentrees. I dare say no person, no matter how rich, could recreate the lifestyle enjoyed by this early 20th century elite on Long Island. One would have to buy up tens of thousands of houses to assemble a horse farm, and somehow make it work amid suburban arterials and freeways.
And change doesn’t stop, nor does resistance to it. There are those, including The Regional Plan Association, who urge the island to accept another track on Long Island Railroad and apartments around station stops to create more vital urban centers. Improved train service and mini city centers will revitalize Long Island and give its children a place to live and work, while most of the land stays suburban. But many longtime residents see only more traffic and people. They don’t buy the notion that the island is already decaying around its once sparkling freeways.
What’s going to happen? Who knows? Just because the elites could not stop the freeways does not mean the suburbanites won’t be able to hold off selected urbanization, even though to do so would be against their best interests. The ending to this story is not written yet.
Interested in reading any of the books mentioned?
The Power Broker (Affiliate)
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (Affiliate)
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