Monday, March 3, 2014


In the early 20th century, Blackton's Vitagraph Co. produced more than 2,200 silent titles -- some shot on the North Shore. That allowed him to purchase a swath clear across Cove Neck from Oyster Bay to Cold Spring Harbor. There Blackton created a modest -- by Gold Coast standards -- farm-like estate called "Harbourwood" complete with an elaborate boathouse to protect the speedboats he raced to compete for international trophies, with an upper level perfect for entertaining.
Nassau County 1914 Long Island, E. Belcher Hyde, Inc.

December 15, 1912

Commodore J. Stuart Blackton of the Atlantic Yacht Club has purchased, through Lewis Smith, the Swan property at Cove Neck, between Spring Harbor and Oyster Bay Harbor. The tract comprises the entire section between the two harbors and has a shore frontage of 3,200 feet. It adjoins the estates of Theodore  and W. Emlen Roosevelt. Commodore Blackton is said to have paid $250,000 for the tract, and will build a residence, garage, boathouse, and dock.

Commodore J. Stuart Blackton - 1915

December 21, 1913
Among the residential developments in the Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor section is one which, in some respects, is being laid out on more typical farm lines than is the case with most of these Long Island country estates. It is being done by Commodore J. Stuart Blackton on his eighty-acre tract, formerly the Swann estate, having a magnificent frontage on Cove Neck, at Cold Spring Harbor. Commodore Blackton, who is well known as one of the greatest motor-boat enthusiasts in America, bought the tract a year ago, and he has had one of the most comprehensive building schemes to be found on the island prepared by his architects, Hoppin & Koen.

Farm building group on estate of Commodore J. Stuart Blackton at Cove Neck overlooking Cold Spring Harbor.
Hoppin & Koen, Architects.
  The farm building group has just been finished, and Mr. Blackton is living in what has been designed as the gardener's cottage. This farm group, which is more clearly displayed in the illustration, is on a commanding site about a quarter of a mile back from the water and in the rear of a hill on which the large house will be built, looking over the bay.

With the studio thriving, first in Manhattan and later in Flatbush, Blackton bought the property in Cove Neck in 1912 for $250,000. It had 3,200 feet of shoreline, but Blackton didn't move in until 1914. He built a U-shaped complex with a Georgian Colonial-style cottage, dairy and barn connected by loggias that he called "the Farm" on what is now Tennis Court Road, as well as the boathouse on the Cold Spring Harbor beach.
   The architectural type of the farm group of buildings is of the Georgian Colonial.

Blackton lived part-time at "Harbourwood" with his wife, Paula, and daughter, Marian. Blackton, who served as commodore of the prestigious Atlantic Yacht Club in Brooklyn and liked to affect that title in everyday life, and his wife shared a passion for powerboat racing. Before World War I they had accumulated 15 vessels, including two steam yachts.

 When the property was for sale again in 2007, the listing described it as a 20,000-square-foot "palatial Beverly Hills compound" with a four-bedroom main house with spa, a gym and a wine room, a pool house, guesthouse, carriage house with a ballroom, and a garage with apartment space. The property was in the news when Avianca Flight 52 crashed nearby on Jan. 25, 1990, and the front lawn became a triage station for survivors. 

    On the west side is the gardener's cottage, a two-story and attic building having a frontage of about eighty feet. It is of stucco and brick, with a green and red tile shingle roof. Mr. Blackton has had a suite of apartments fitted up there in which he may live when his large house, to be completed next year, may be closed. Besides quarters for the gardener's family, there is also a general office.

The property was subdivided in the 1950's. The upland tract has had a succession of owners, including John McEnroe Sr., who bought it in 1982. His tennis star son and wife Tatum O'Neal renovated the carriage house and lived there for a while. McEnroe sold the estate in 2000.

   Connecting with the cottage by means of a columned loggia is the dairy and a similar covered walk connects the dairy with the barn on the north side. The barn is divided into two  sections, one being for horses and the other for cows, with accommodations in each for about twelve animals. The barn likewise is connected with the large garage, on the east side of the group. This is a two-story building, perfect in every detail, with storage space for over a dozen cars and twelve rooms on the upper floor for the chauffeurs and workmen on the farm.

   A few yards north of this farm group are small houses for ducks and chickens, a carpenter shop, a cowshed, and dog kennels. Another part of the grounds contains an artificial ice plant On the south side are the formal gardens and the truck garden, laid out as regularly and attractively as could be devised for the choicest flower garden. The building features here are the elaborate greenhouses, built in the form of two wings, each about 100 feet in length. One section of the garden is restricted to roses and several hundred plants were set out this season.

My assumption is the house would have been placed in the elevated clearing between the boathouse and farm complex. I've never seen any views of the proposed house but I can visualize based on the Architects body of work and the theme of what was built. Something big and blocky with columns and classic ornamentation.

   The owner's residence, for which the site is being prepared, will occupy a commanding position on an elevation overlooking the bay, and the approach from the water to the house will be by means of three terraces. The house will be about 150 feet long and two stories high with an attic. Below the house, on one side of the bay, will be the boathouse. It is almost safe to say that it will be the most elaborate building of its kind in the country.

   The foundations are of granite, the type of construction being same as is used for ferry slips. The dimensions are 100 by 125. The lower part of the boathouse, on the water line, will have accommodations for twelve large motor boats, in addition to smaller craft. A marine trolley will be installed, so that the boats may be hauled up on either side of the interior water channel, and on the far edges of these boathouses   will be sleeping rooms for half a dozen men, the mechanicians and motor-boat chauffeurs. The upper floor of the house will contain a large assembly room, with studios and dining rooms adjoining, and a wide terrace, or balcony, in front, overlooking the water.


The boathouse's second floor was referred to as a casino, which in that era meant a gathering place for parties and recreation. 
The Entrance from the Land.

   WITH the increasing use of the power-boat has arrived the necessity of properly equipped "marine garages," especially in cases where an owner has several or more motor boats and yachts of varying types and sizes to accommodate during the Winter season and to moor with protection from the elements in the Summer months at such times as when not actually cruising.

Entrance from the Water.

Commodore Blackton's New Boathouse at Oyster bay.
From the harbor, Blackton's speedboats would glide into the long narrow canal and enter a wide cavernous arch graced by a lion's head keystone at the top. Once inside, a pair of sharp-pointed iron gates would close behind it. 

 The boathouse housed Blacktons Harmsworth Trophy racers.

The boathouse was used for entertaining the Gold Coast society guests and the emerging stars of the motion picture industry.
The boathouse, known then by the name of Leeds Boathouse,  was demolished in 1983.

   What probably is the only motor-boathouse in the world of so elaborate design and construction has lately been erected on the estate at Oyster Bay, Long Island, of Mr. J. Stuart Blackton, Commodore of the Motor Boat Club of America, and of the Atlantic Y. C. The general design of the edifice is Italian and was carried out from plans of Hoppin & Koen, architects, New York City, and the effect is certainly very handsome, as well as practical, although difficulties were met with in connection with the erection of the dock, owing to the rise and fall of the tide having to be overcome. Consequently, the boathouse is capable of berthing Mr. Blackton's largest motor yacht at all states of the tide. The basement is built of granite with white stucco over hollow tiles above and the entire building is fireproof.

View from the Interior of the Dock. The Vessels are Mr. Blackton's One-Hundred-and-Thirly-One-Foot Express Cruiser Arrow and One-Hundred-and-Eighty-Five-Foot Steam Yacht Sagamore

During Prohibition the boathouse was known for rum-running activities.

Main Floor Plan of Mr. Blackton's Boathouse.

   On the ground floor the central space is occupied by a large wet dock 56 feet long by 34 feet wide, with two long jetties at the entrance. On either side of the dock are floor spaces for storing boats—six all told—and the ceiling is well equipped with proper hoisting tackle, while there also is a slip-way. There is quite an amount of accommodation for the staff, etc., on this floor, including two bedrooms, kitchen, lavatories, boiler room, fuel room, workshop, with an entrance hall, ladies' room and cloak room for Mr. and Mrs. Blackton and guests.

The Ballroom Over the Dock
Below red and white awnings a pair of massive fireplaces stood at each end of the room. Arranged in groupings were fawn-green Victorian wicker chairs and couches.
“vaulting social ambitions” explains the need for this! 
The second floor was destroyed by fire in the 50's  when the decorative tent ceiling caught fire.

   On the floor above there is a fine dancing room, which also can be used as a smoking room or studio. It is beautifully fitted up, as will be seen by the illustration, and the effect of the latticed walls and draped ceiling is somewhat of a conservatory, particularly when all the large French windows are open. All the electric light fittings are arranged with growing ferns and flowers, this in itself giving a charming effect. Outside, on the same floor, are two covered terraces, one uncovered veranda, three loggias, and a pantry.

   To give an idea of the work that had to be carried out by the builders, the Eliot C. Brown Company, we may say that a 90-foot channel was dredged from a point approximately 1,000 feet offshore into, and including the position of the boathouse. The deepest foundation consisted of the two piers, each 136 feet long, and the continuation of these in the shape of a U, which formed the basin inside the boat house, 56 feet long by 34 feet wide.  Piling was driven around the proposed position of entire submerged U, and, after sections had been taken of the bottom, form-work was built completely above high water, and upon completion, lowered with the tide and then jacked down into place. The bottom of this form-work in the slip outside the boathouse was from 18 feet to 20 feet below low water, and inside the building was from 12 feet to 15 feet below low water. The entire portion was 10 feet thick and was  filled with concrete to a point 2 feet below extreme low water, tremic tubes***wood forms slowly lifted as the cement runs out and settles*** being used for this purpose  The forms were then pumped dry and all faces exposed to the action of water were faced with granite, the same having a minimum thickness of 6 inches, 25% being headers running back into the concrete from 1 to 3 feet. These successive steps were then filled with concrete until this U portion was complete.

   The work at this time was entirely offshore and upon completion of the U-shape portion, piling was driven in the surrounding area to carry the foundation walls proper of the boathouse. The entire area around the boathouse was then filled in, the piles being cut off at low water, and after placing a heavy reinforced mat over the pilework, the foundations of the house were built directly on top of the same. This mat was left perforated in order that the tide, in rising and falling, would have free access to all parts under the building and eliminate any danger of air pockets forming. At all points where the deep U-shape portion joined the foundations proper, the two were tied together by railroad rails.

   The carrying out of this work involved the following quantities: Dredging.... 50,000 cubic yards, Pack fill around boathouse and outside of slip.... 20,000 cubic yards, Piles..... 800, Concrete.... 3600 cubic yards, Granite.... 655 tons.

   It is interesting to note that on account of the method of assembling the form-work complete before lowering same for deep sections and the use of handle nuts on all ties, this entire work was carried to completion without the necessity of any divers. Alongside the boat home is a sandy bathing beach.

 Oil on canvas, 1895.  40 x 55 in.
Signed and dated J. Stuart Blackton 1895. In the 1890's, before establishing himself as a brilliant innovator in film and animation, he worked as a cartoonist, reporter, and an avocational marine painter. Currently at Sailors' Snug Harbor
   J. Stuart Blackton came to the US with his family from Sheffield, England, in 1885 at age 10, settling in New York. He became friends with Albert E. Smith, who later became his business partner and they started a short-lived vaudeville act together. Blackton was the "Komikal Kartoonist"( Smith the "Komikal Konjurer") who dashed off "lightning sketches" on an easel pad as he delivered rapid patter. 

   Blackton soon found a new career as a reporter and artist for the New York Evening World newspaper and was sent to interview Thomas Edison. He so impressed the inventor with his drawings that Edison suggested he allow some of them to be photographed by the Kinetograph camera. The result was a short film, Edison Drawn by World Artist (1896). Blackton got the film bug.
Vitagraph's "Open-air Studio" on the roof of Morse Building at 140 Nassau Street. (Sketch by Vitagraph co-founder J. Stuart Blackton, from Two Reels and a Crank, by Albert E. Smith.)

  He left the paper and bought a Kinetoscope projecting machine from Edison, and he and Smith formed the Vitagraph Company exhibiting films all over the city. In the early years it catered to the public's appetite for anything that moved: short films of between 50 and 100 feet of comic pieces, scenes of famous places and current events, though not always on the spot—the Battle of Manila Bay was recreated in a large tub in its "studio," the roof of the Morse Building on Nassau Street in Manhattan, where the company's office was then located.  

The Flatbush Studio c. 1910. The water tank stand-in for the Delaware River in Washington Under the American Flag, and for the Red Sea in The Life of Moses, is in the upper left side of the quadrangle. (from Two Reels and a Crank, by Albert E. Smith.)

   In 1903 they were on a search to build a bigger studio, which soon led to the construction of a glass-enclosed studio in Brooklyn. Vitagraph filmed classics including the first American film version of "Romeo and Juliet," shot in Central Park in 1908.  His 1909 The Life of Moses is generally considered the first feature film. In Florence Turner, the "Vitagraph Girl", they had the first major film star; a collie named Jean, the "Vitagraph Dog" was the pioneer in animal stardom. He was also publisher and editor of Motion Picture Magazine, one of America's first film-fan publications. He was influential in experiments with sound and color film. 

The Vitagraph Studio is the only one that remained in its original location since pioneer days when film companies first settled in Hollywood.

   They created a second film studio in Santa Monica, California in 1911, and a year later moved to a twenty-nine-acre sheep ranch on Prospect St. in Hollywood.

   By 1925, Vitagraph suffered from financial troubles and was bought out by Warner Bros. who had their main studios on Sunset Boulevard at the time and used the old Vitagraph lot as an annex. 

   In 1948, the lot was bought by the ABC Television Network(now Walt Disney Company) where it was used for many games shows and sitcoms. 

   In 2002 the property underwent a major renovation and was renamed The Prospect Studios.

Movie pioneer James Stuart Blackton(1920) produced the first animated movie, the first propaganda film and possibly the first full-length feature. He hobnobbed with presidents, generals and celebrities. His neighbors were Theodore Roosevelt to the north and Louis Comfort Tiffany to the south.
   A year before Blackton sold his Cove Neck property, he left Vitagraph to produce films independently while also working as a director for hire for other studios. Unsuccessful, he returned to Vitagraph in 1923 and remained for two years, until the partners sold the company to Warner Brothers for $750,000. He produced four movies as an independent for the studio.

   Blackton, who was married four times and had four children, made out well. He dabbled in real estate, tried to do film projects and lived extravagantly until the stock market crash in 1929. He filed for bankruptcy two years later. Blackton spent his remaining years trying to interest studios in letting him make films, but most of his time was spent showing his old films and lecturing. Later he was hired as director of production at the Anglo-American Film Company(British distributor), where he worked until his death.

   After Blackton died attempting to cross a street, a silent- film director friend, William P.S. Earle, bought a plot in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, Calif., for Blackton's ashes.

February 16, 1919

Increasing Demand for Suburban Homes in All Sections of the Island—Many Large Estates Along the North Shore Purchased by New Yorkers

   There have, of course, been exceptions.....Another instance was the sale of Commodore J. Stuart Blackton's new estate at Cove Neck, Oyster Bay—a shore front property on the east side of the Neck, just south of Sagamore Hill—comprising between 50 and 60 acres with 950 feet of shore frontage. The land alone was valued at $200,000 and the improvements had cost the seller some $350,000 more.

   The buildings, however, were not completed; the main house had not been built, and that fact was largely responsible for the sacrifice in price. The property was offered for sale at $330,000 and was finally disposed of to F. D. M. Strachan(pronounced Strawn) of Brunswick, Ga. last Spring for $225,000.

   Strachan(prominent ship owner and lumber dealer) renamed his property "Stratbrae" with plans to "build a modern dwelling on the estate as soon as conditions permit." He subsequently rented the property to Rodman Wanamaker who entertained the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIIIDuring the Prince’s visit in 1924, hopeful matrons and aspiring debs pursued him relentlessly. ‘Never before in the history of metropolitan society,’ wrote one New York columnist, ‘has any visitor to these shores been so persistently and so extravagantly fĂȘted. The hedonistic Prince insisted that he was simply on holiday. To the dismay of his aides, he spent much of his time on Long Island dancing, playing polo, and drinking in public with a set of flashy Americans who the British Ambassador, EsmĂ© Howard, disparaged as ‘oily magnates’.

   At the end of the First World War, the British monarchy sought to strengthen bonds across the English-speaking world. In 1919 the prince made a trip to Oyster Bay on Long Island where he laid a wreath on the grave of Teddy Roosevelt, who had died earlier that year.

Nassau County 1927 Long Island, E. Belcher Hyde, Inc.

  William B. Leeds, Jr. initially leased then purchased property in 1926 for $475,000, renaming it "Kenwood". 

The Princess Xenia was a second cousin of the late Czar Nicholas of Russia, and since most of the Czar’s relatives had been driven out of Russia by 1921, and many of them had come to America, the Leeds’ home at Oyster Bay became the gathering point for many of the nobel emigres.

   Leeds’ father, William Bateman Leeds Sr. of Richmond, Ind., established one of the nation’s largest fortunes through his tinplating process in the late 19th century. His mother, an Ohio beauty, bore the title Princess Anastasia of Greece through a marriage to Prince Christopher of GreeceLeeds inherited $7 million from his father when he was six years old(nine), but this was only a fraction of his eventual inheritance. He was taken to Europe to live by his mother when he was 13 and in 1921 married Princess Xenia of Russia, a niece of King Constantine of Greece at whose court the couple met. Xenia was a cousin of Czar Nicholas II.

The Moana, one of the largest yachts afloat at the time, had a crew of 59, a swimming pool and a hospital.

   For a glamorous way of life, few couples could match the Leeds in the golden days that preceded the Great Depression. He raced his yachts "Sea Fox" and "Moana", which cost $1.5 million, speedboats and planes, and was a passenger on the first trans-atlantic flight of the dirigible Graf Zeppelinlected Rembrandts, supported a leper colony in Tahiti, and fished the exotic seas of the world.

The "Pretender" on the dock at Oyster Bay during her visit with Princess Xenia Leeds circa 1928.

   In 1927 a woman who had lived in Berlin since shortly after the war convinced Mrs. Leeds she was the daughter of the slain Czar. She was brought to America under the Leeds’ protection, as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas. Princess Xenia was one of the few Russians – of those who had ever met Anastasia before the Bolshevik Revolution– who believed Anna Tschaikovsky was the real deal. Since proven by DNA that she WAS NOT Anastasia.

   William Leeds found her presence increasingly annoying, finally ordering her to leave. Anna Tschaikovsky might really have been a Polish peasant, but she had a royal temper. All the drama finally got to Leeds. But even after the would-be Anastasia departed from Oyster Bay, the drama continued, and it probably was no coincidence that the long anticipated divorce of Leeds and Princess Xenia finally happened shortly thereafter.

   He became a regular on the Gulf Stream circuit from Bimini to Miami to Havana to Key West on one of his many yachts all named "Moana".

Ernest Hemingway and eldest son Jack “Bumby” Hemingway, on the stern of the"Moana", circa 1935. Click HERE to read the story behind the Tommy gun finagled from Leeds.

In addition to serving as the venue for a couple of Hemingway drinking stories, the "Moana" had quite a history of its own.  It was built in 1931 at the Bath Iron Works in Maine, and was christened the "Caroline".  After Leeds purchased it, he renamed her "Moana". In 1941 Leeds sold the "Moana" to the U.S. Navy, which re-fitted her to become a PT boat tender, and was renamed yet again, the U.S.S. Hilo.  She had an illustrious service record, and earned four battle stars during campaigns across the South Pacific.

   Leeds announced he would make the "Moana" his full-time residence. His 54-acre Long Island estate would be auctioned off. He also announced intention of selling his 17-room Beekman place apartment. The yacht was more spacious than either land residence. L. L. Stevenson, in his newspaper column, Lights of New York (May 14,1937), wrote that Leeds had become "annoyed by beggars and other pests."

The eight-berth mausoleum Leeds family mausoleum, designed by John Russell Pope is priced at $3.5 million. The main body of the building was crafted from a single marble block. It features a relief by the sculptor Adolph Weinman and boasts a central sarcophagus made of Carrara marble. 

In 2002, Nancy Leeds Wynkoop, the daughter of William B. Leeds Jr. and Princess Xenia, had her grandfather’s(William B. Leeds Sr.) body removed from the mausoleum and relocated next to his parents at Earlham Cemetery in Richmond, Indiana

   Despite being heir to a fortune estimated at $40 million, he took up with a cigarette girl, died(1971) a wastrel and was cremated, his ashes strewn at sea.

   After the sale in 1937  a variety of owners and leasers appear in the papers(Belmont, Gould and a Countess). A fire in the 50's destroyed the top portion of the boathouse and it was abandoned. Vandalized, the pride of J. Stuart Blackton was demolished in 1983.

wikimapia locationLink to historicaerials 1953.


  1. NYarch
    Really facsinating story of one property through many owners, time and twists of fate. That boathouse was spectacular, functional below and built for entertaining on a grand scale. The farm complex was a beauty too. Great post.

  2. A great post! This has always been a favorite of mine. Have the floor plans of the upper level ever been published? I've always wondered about it.

    1. Published? Not that I've ever seen. Columbia U./Avery has a collection of drawings for the boathouse with plans of the second floor - - I would like to know if Hoppin & Koen ever put on paper their ideas for the planned house! Columbia U./Avery has a number of drawings for the firm -

  3. Thank you for this great post! I am researching the steam yacht, "Sagamore", and trying to ascertain if this was the same vessel known as "The Limited", purchased from A.C. Bostwick estate after his death. Trying to find any evidence regarding "The Limited" bell and what became of it. There is no mention of boats being used for a civil defense fleet prior to WWI. Is there any factual evidence that Blackton actually used vessels for such an endeavor?

  4. Thank you for this great post! I am researching the steam yacht, "Sagamore", and trying to ascertain if this was the same vessel known as "The Limited", purchased from A.C. Bostwick estate after his death. Trying to find any evidence regarding "The Limited" bell and what became of it. There is no mention of boats being used for a civil defense fleet prior to WWI. Is there any factual evidence that Blackton actually used vessels for such an endeavor?

  5. Very much enjoyed the post. I am researching a 1913 Peugeot Type 150 "Skiff" with coachwork by Henri Labourdette of Paris, France. I believe the car was purchased new by William B. Leeds and gifted by him to the tenor and pioneer car collector James Melton. (Ref. pg. 147 in Melton's book "Bright Wheels Rolling" published in 1954) Any information or photos connecting the car to Leeds would be greatly appreciated.