A LOOK BACK

Brookholt Mansion, Part Two

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In the last installment, this column highlighted Brookholt Mansion on Front Street and its famous inhabitants, Oliver Hazard Perry (O.H.P.) Belmont and Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt (a.k.a. Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont). The "Colonial Revival" estate was designed by Richard Howland Hunt and constructed in 1897. It quickly became known among the high society of the late Gilded Age.

Life at Brookholt was exciting. More than just a home, Brookholt hosted social gatherings and local fundraisers for causes championed by the Belmonts. The estate increased in size and grew to 800 acres. Alva's son, Willie K. Vanderbilt II, spent considerable time at the East Meadow home because of its easy access to wide open spaces – places to race his beloved modern toys: fancy, fast automobiles. Willie K.'s enthusiasm for motor vehicles was well known. He established the Vanderbilt Cup Races in 1904, which attracted large numbers of spectators and tourists. The races took place on public roads like Hempstead Turnpike, which happened to abut the northern end of the Brookholt Estate. Though the races brought lodgers to East Meadow inns and stimulated the local economy, the distaste for danger on public highways eventually led to the construction of the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, a private course for the fast-paced events. It was, according to historian and fellow East Meadow native Howard Kroplick, "the first parkway built exclusively for the automobile and part of the courses for the 1908 to 1910 Vanderbilt Cup Races."

Across Front Street from the main house sat the Brookholt Winter Gardens. The buildings at the gardens were truly impressive; they were equally as ornate as the house itself. The gardens sported a huge greenhouse-type structure and a windmill. After the 1908 death of O.H.P. Belmont from complications from appendicitis, the widowed Alva decided to use her gardens and land for the advancement of women's equality. Known as the Brookholt Agricultural School for Women, or simply Mrs. Belmont's Farm for Women, the charitable venture sought to attract a number of young ladies who had heretofore labored in New York City factories and bring them out to the countryside. Out here, she thought, these ladies, known as "Farmerettes," might learn how to farm the land and become self-sufficient. They would then be able to move to cleaner, safer areas and use their economic independence to liberate themselves in society. Alva paid them a few dollars a week and provided room, board, and lessons. She thought it would help lead to equal pay for equal work. The farm school was a highly-publicized endeavor but it only lasted for one year (1911).

Alva became an outspoken suffragette and used Brookholt as the base of local parades, marches, and rallies. She created the Political Equality Association (P.E.A.) and used her East Meadow home as its part-time headquarters. The P.E.A. was a very inclusive group of militantly pro-suffrage supporters. Belmont was often at odds with larger, more established organizations working toward the same goals but became very close with feminist Alice Paul. She created an excellent working relationships with African American leaders in Harlem, a rarity for the day. Alva empowered women to vote in local elections, as women of New York State were already enfranchised when the vote involved local representation and taxation issues. She was elected to the position of East Meadow School District trustee, though there are no concrete sources verifying the year.

In 1915, the estate was sold to Alexander Smith Cochran, who in turn sold to Coldstream Golf Club. During Prohibition, the house became a front for a still and the illegal manufacture of alcoholic beverages. It burned down in 1934, a year after Alva Belmont's death. Today, a section of Mitchel Manor occupies the same lot.

© Scott Eckers

Dr. Scott Eckers is the author of East Meadow in Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series. He serves on the East Meadow Board of Education. Scott is also an entertainer and recording artist.