Big Old Houses: Forget Gatsby

Big Old Houses: Forget Gatsby
by John Foreman


Shortly after the Civil War, Charles Pratt and Henry H. Rogers opened a kerosene refinery in Brooklyn called, rather poetically, the Astral Oil Works. In 1874, facing an all-out war with John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, Pratt and his partner decided not to fight 'em but to join 'em. Charles Pratt & Company became a part of the Standard Oil Trust, Pratt's son became Secretary of Standard, and Pratt and his partner Rogers eventually became two of the richest men in America.

In 1890, Charles Pratt bought a country place outside the then bucolic village of Glen Cove, Long Island. Liking the lay of the land, he began to acquire hundreds of additional acres with the idea of creating a family compound. He died in 1891 before the plan could blossom, but blossom it did. Eventually, six of his sons and two of his daughters built houses — some quite grand — on adjoining family estates that surrounded the home of their widowed mother. The whole complex was called Dosoris (pronounced 'duh-SOHR-us') Park. One of those sons was Herbert Lee Pratt (1871-1945) who in 1902 hired James Brite to design the Georgian manse in the image above. The house was called the Braes, a Scottish term describing sloping hills that descend to a riverbank, or in this case a beach. Ten years later, Pratt pulled the house down and had Brite replace it with the neo-Jacobean palace in the picture below.
In 1904, Standard Oil controlled 91% of American petroleum production and 85% of final sales. That same year, public opinion was galvanized by the publication of Ida Tarbell's "History of the Standard Oil Company." In 1906, responding to growing public outcry, the government instituted antitrust action against Standard under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. By 1911, the Standard Oil Trust had been split into 34 separate and independent companies, most of whose share values unexpectedly doubled. The breakup of Standard Oil thus served to essentially double the already enormous wealth of its original shareholders, among them the members of the Pratt family. I'm not the first to assume this windfall profit was what led Herbert Pratt to replace his practically new country house with its colossal successor.
Since 1947, two years after Harold Pratt's death, the Braes has housed the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture, a highly competitive, full ride, 4-year nautical design school with a reputation for 100% job placement. In many ways, Webb's retooling of the Braes is quite sensitive. After all, it is no longer a private palace, but I wish they'd done a little less on the upper floors.
William H. Webb (1816-1899) was a millionaire ship builder who in 1889 founded a combination naval design school and home for indigent shipbuilders in the Bronx. The home and school originally occupied the extraordinary building below, which until its demolition overlooked the Harlem River and the 207th bridge from a site above Fordham Road. The drawbacks to the location were a lack of waterfront access and no land for expansion.
When the Pratt place came on the market in 1947, it offered needed acreage, waterfront access and, like most Long Island estates at the time, it was going for beans.
Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby has over time become a symbol of something he totally was not. The idea of Gatsby being "high class" or "aristocratic" is ridiculous, but tell that to real estate developers or party planners and you'll get a blank stare. Herbert Pratt, unlike Jay Gatsby, was a true beau ideal of the American aristocrat. He was rich, cultured, handsome, had background, inherited wealth, education, position and a honking big house which, in and of itself, is our culture's most potent symbol of status.
In June of 1923, Time magazine celebrated Pratt's elevation to the presidency of Standard Oil of New York, corporate ancestor of Mobil Oil, by putting him on the cover.

The author Henry James, who knew Pratt from college, described him as "a most singular, most interesting type," whom he determined one day to "certainly put in a novel." And so he did. The rich, guitar playing pal from James' Cambridge days appears as Nick Dormer in "The Tragic Muse," an 1890 opus I have not had the pleasure (or perhaps the courage) to read.

For over 30 years, Pratt and his family — he had five children — lived here and in a series of large Fifth and Park Avenue apartments, one of which, at 907 Fifth, is currently in the estate of the late Huguette Clark.

At Dorosis Park, the Braes was serviced by a centralized administrative complex called Pratt Oval that took care of grounds maintenance, building repairs and supplies for all the Pratt Estates.
The site plan of the new Braes below, while difficult to read, is notable for extravagant garden terraces that descend to the shore of the Sound, and a pair of unusual outrigger rooms located at the end of long open arcades on either side of the garden facade. The aerial view in the second image below shows the considerable new construction that now surrounds the house. At ground level, it's surprisingly unobtrusive.
David Byrne, Webb's Director of Student Services, is today's patient "Big Old House" guide.
The main hall runs perpendicular to the front door and extends for pretty much the entire width of the house. It is anchored at either end by matching "Long Island Jacobean" staircases and decorated like the model boat room at New York Yacht Club with cutaway hulls mounted on the walls.
An immense drawing room with fine views of the Sound parallels the entrance hall. I am told that when Webb moved in, the ornate plaster ceiling was in such poor condition it had to be replaced with the present wood coffering. Luckily this happened in 1947 and not today, or we'd be looking up at acoustical tiles.
The door in the image below leads from the drawing room to the library, whose paneling is also a late 1940's replacement. Just as the new Braes was going up, a big English house called Rotherwas Court was coming down. Rotherwas was a 17th century house whose owners, while renovating it in the 18th Century, had removed and stored paneling from a dozen or so rooms. In 1913, Sir Joseph Duveen, art dealer to the 1% of his day, bought the disassembled rooms, shipped them to New York, and ultimately sold the original dining room, said to date from 1611, to Herbert Pratt. James Brite then installed it at Glen Cove. Pratt's will donated the paneling to his 1895 alma mater, Amherst College and in 1949 it was again reassembled, this time in the Mead Art Museum at Amherst. You can see it there today.
The inviting view from this library door was a good reason to explore the terrace overlooking the Sound. The wall outside on the left was originally an open porch attached to a long open arcade at whose western end was one of the curious outrigger rooms noted above.
At the eastern end of the drawing room is the dining room, essentially unchanged except for the furniture. How gracious this room once was; how I wish I could have my dinner there tonight.
The room below, like the dining and drawing rooms, is used today for student dining. It was originally an open porch, balancing the one off the library. Opposite the casement windows in this view, which were inserted into formerly open arches leading onto the terrace, is another long arcade, now enclosed, that led to the eastern outrigger.
What has survived virtually unchanged at the Braes — and was I ever thrilled to discover it — is the spectacular duplex serving pantry, the door to which is just to the right of the dining room window.
The kitchen, unsurprisingly in a house this size, is in the basement. If I'm not mistaken, the same combination prep table and pot rack that sat in front of the stove a hundred years ago is still in use today.
Long, long corridors crisscross the rest of the basement. The former bowling alley is now a student pub. I don't know where the wine cellar is — or was — but I do know that in 1930, Pratt was busted by federal agents who intercepted 240 cases of bootleg champagne bound for it. The lost wine cost $25,000; the fine to the feds was another $16,000.
Let's take a quick look at the walled service court, tucked away on the east side of the house, then head back up the kitchen stairs to the pantry.
The front door of the Braes opens onto a U-shaped entry court flanked by wings on its eastern and western sides. The hall below runs down the east wing, from the pantry (the open door on the left), to the breakfast room (now staff dining), and finally to what I'm hypothesizing was the billiard room in the vintage image below. Today, billiards are gone and modern offices occupy the space.
The hall below, located on the ground floor of the western wing, gave access to, among other things, a small walled garden on the west side of the house. At the end of the corridor is what I'm pretty sure was Mr. Pratt's study. It's the president's office today, and the president's secretary probably sits in the same adjoining anteroom that Mr. Pratt's secretary occupied. The only surviving original bath in the entire house is tucked off a corner of the study. Not much to see, alas.
When Webb came in the late '40s, they gutted everything above the first floor. The grand matching stairways now lead to narrowed halls, bedroom suites chopped into dorm rooms, and dorm rooms turned into mosh pits. The flanking wings have been hollowed out completely and turned into enormous classrooms.
The original plan shows elaborate corner bedroom suites overlooking the Sound. A grand master bathroom was located right about here.
The third floor has more of the same, and the attic is ... just an attic.
Let's head downstairs for a look around the grounds.
Webb built matching gymnasium and model tank buildings on either side of the entrance facade. The image below shows the gym; the exterior of the tank is virtually identical. There is a demure late '40s/early '50s sensibility to the design of these buildings, one which shows a welcome respect for the architecture of the house. Perhaps an architectural angel stepped in to save the Braes from the sort of angular glass and cement monstrosities that disfigure so many other old buildings.
Here's the walled garden on the west side of house, as it looks today and as it did when the house was built. Webb enclosed the open arcade for library stacks, until a new library wing was constructed to the north. The interior finish in the outrigger, which is called the Tea Room, doesn't look like James Brite to me.
The original garden plantings and paths are pretty much gone, but three grand terraces descending from the north side of the house to the Sound are still extant.
A bit of Brite's original Braes actually still exists. In 1912, the low wing on the right side of the vintage image below was detached during demolition and moved downhill to the edge of Crescent Beach Road. The dean of college lives there today. Several additional buildings were on the property during the Pratt years, among them the somber garage also on Crescent Beach Road. There were fewer service buildings than one would expect on an estate this size since all maintenance work — together with the necessary machinery, storage, and service quarters — was administered from Pratt Oval.
In January of 1916, Dosoris Park was profiled in a wonderfully snooty publication called Country Life in America. "Here, within easy motoring distance of the heart of New York," wrote author Benjamin Goodrich, "has been created a community of family interest unique in plan" — "unique" presumably being a synonym for incredibly expensive. Goodrich explained the origin of the name Dosoris, which is so complicated I will not attempt to repeat it here, then went on to describe the various Pratt manors encircling that of their mother, whom he referred to as Madam Pratt. The piece is full of gorgeous views of Pratt Oval, the Pratt family beach, plus gardens and gates and a slew of scrumptuous mansions, all owned by people named Pratt.
You might assume Dosoris Park today belongs to the vanished world of (dare I say it?) Gatsby himself. Actually, most of it — including the grandest of its houses — still exists. Next door to the Braes is Welwyn, Harold I. Pratt's house, intact on its original heavily wooded estate and occupied by the Nassau County Holocaust Museum. John T. Pratt's Manor House is a hotel/conference center; Frederic B. Pratt's Poplar Hill has become the Glengariff Nursing Home; and George D. Pratt's Killenworth belongs to the Russian government which uses it as a retreat.
Webb Institute students must pass highly competitive entrance exams that eliminate about 70% of applicants. The 4-year curriculum focuses on theoretical as well as practical aspects of naval architecture. Tuition is free, but students carry a heavy course load and work in the industry during term. There are anywhere from 70 to 90 students in each class. The link is www.webb-institute.edu.
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