Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between roundups of historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
At the turn of the 20th century, one of the most high-profile summer destinations for wealthy New Yorkers—one which has a lasting fame today—was Newport, on the coast of Rhode Island. But just a generation before, in the 1870s, there was another location central to conversations about where to go when temperatures rose: Elberon, New Jersey.
The community, set along the state’s northern coast and a part of Long Branch, New Jersey, was established by real estate developer L.B. Brown, who called it Elberon as a play on his own name. While Newport was popular with older, established American families, Elberon initially attracted upstart businessmen with new wealth.
“It was very much the nouveau riche alternative to Newport,” says Francis Morrone, architectural historian and instructor at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art.
These businessmen, among them Moses Taylor, a banker who rose to be one of the wealthiest men of the 19th century, still had to work during the week and needed a convenient weekend getaway. Elberon—just over the boarder between New York and New Jersey—fit the bill.
“The town really got started around the Civil War era because of boats,” says Mosette Broderick, Professor of Art History at New York University and author of Triumvirate: McKim, Mead, & White. “It was easy to get to Elberon: You could get on a boat and be there in about an hour.”
Broderick explained that the town was developed with suburban plots, meaning houses—many of which were along Elberon’s main drag of Ocean Avenue—were relatively close together. While sizable, they weren’t really the grand mansions that typify Gilded Age summer homes—those came later in the 1890s at Newport. “At Elberon, people were trying to build little, summer only, uninsulated wooden houses right on the water,” adds Broderick.
The houses were influenced by Europe. At the time, vacationing along the northern coast of France—specifically at towns like Trouville and Deauville—was fashionable. Many of the houses at Elberon took what’s called the “Villa Norman” style, which drew influence from French cottages.
“It’s what you or I might call a ‘Swiss Cottage,’ but in those days, it was thought to look like Normandy,” explains Broderick.
Other houses took the English Queen Anne style, influenced by the English architect Richard Norman Shaw. “The 1870s and 1880s make up a crazy moment in American architecture,” says Morrone. “It was really an anything-goes period of time. The buildings are quaint, but they’re also quite weird. The windows are never where you may expect them to be, for instance.”
Whatever the style, the houses were light, open, breezy summer refuges. This is well before the advent of modern air conditioning, so these houses needed to have good airflow to remain comfortable. Large wraparound porches were often used to shade the rooms, aided by the naturally cooler seaside air.
Many of the earliest—and most prominent—commissions, like the house of Moses Taylor, were won by a young upstart firm that had just gotten together: McKim, Mead & White.
“They were looking for a commission, and it was tough times for architects because of the 1873 depression,” explains Morrone. “Moses Taylor hired them for his big house, completed around 1877. Then L.B. Brown started hiring McKim to do things like the Elberon Hotel. It was Charles McKim’s first big commission, and the firm ended up doing many houses there. Elberon was the firm’s big break.”
Another prominent house was designed for Victor Newcomb, a businessman whose circle of friends included General Grant. While not a “Villa Norman” house, it was similarly influenced by French architecture.
“Instead of looking like the villas, it instead looks likes ‘manoirs’ which were farm dwellings of Normandy,” says Broderick. “The house has other Norman features like dovecotes, that rounded front turret.”
The Newcomb house, both Morrone and Broderick agree, is likely the work of Charles McKim and Stanford White. Another—largely unsung—member of the firm, Joseph M. Wells, was probably involved in its design. “He was the source of balance in the building’s composition,” adds Broderick.
One of the biggest draws for Elberon at the time was that it was the destination of choice for the President of the United States—specifically President Ulysses S. Grant.
“Many of the people who frequented Elberon had connections with the Republican party at the time, and Grant was given a house for free for the summer. What better publicity for the community could there be?” explains Morrone. And even better for Grant, the town was filled with wealthy families who, if they weren’t donors already, were potential donors.
“Keep in mind that all the houses were within walking distance of each other,” says Broderick. “It was a great place to meet, greet, and promote your ideas.” Getting the notoriety of the President meant a great deal to the success of Elberon—but the moment was rather fleeting.
Soon, a train was built through the center of Elberon. The community that once was only accessible by boat had a mode of transportation that anybody could use to visit for the day. “The railroad comes into town in the 1870s, and it kills Elberon,” says Broderick. “It brought you and me to Elberon. The allure ended.”
Where did everybody go? Some went up to Newport. The Rhode Island town didn’t have a railroad (weekenders would take the night boat from Manhattan on Friday night and arrive on Saturday morning), and society there was becoming slightly more accepting than it had in the past: A town that was once for the oldest, most established families—even the Vanderbilts were rejected from Newport society when they first tried to enter—was now accepting the self-made men who frequented Elberon. Much of the reason why the Vanderbilts constructed grand mansions like The Breakers was to raise their own social profile.
Others went to Southampton, New York, or to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires region, each destination catering to a specific community of people. Meanwhile, wealthy Jewish families moved into the empty houses in Elberon.
“Wealthy Jewish families in New York would not have been accepted at Newport,” explains Morrone. “So, they formed a parallel high society. The Seligmans, Loebs, the Guggenheims, these families were as rich as or richer than the Newport families, and they wanted their own summer resort, and they took over Elberon.” Lyman Bloomingdale, of the Bloomingdale’s department store fame, for instance, bought the Victor Newcomb house.
Today, Elberon is still a resort destination, although it’s more of a year-round community than something strictly seasonal. If one was to visit, one thing that’s noticeably missing are the many houses of the 1870s and 1880s.
All of the houses have since been demolished—from the Newcomb to the Taylor house, which was standing, according to Broderick, up until about 20 years ago when it was demolished unceremoniously for a new development.
“Some of the later houses are still there—the Murray Guggenheim house, designed by Carrère and Hastings, for instance, is standing,” says Morrone. The house, on par in both scale and appointment with the mansions of Newport, was completed in 1905.
“Elberon had a wonderful startup history, and a really terrible destruction history,” says Broderick, who asserts that the concept of a “seaside house” truly got its footing at Elberon. “Why Elberon, the resort of the presidents, the first major resort of America’s Gilded Age, cannibalized its own architecture is beyond me.”
Perhaps the answer can be found in an all too familiar—and practical—reason: “The houses were built as resort houses, not as year-round homes,” says Morrone. “Over the years, as people bought the houses, they didn’t want to live there. They didn’t think about them as significant McKim, Mead & White designs, they were thinking ‘I want my own house—with modern bathrooms!’ and so, all the houses of Elberon eventually bit the dust.”