So We Beat On
By Sydney Reade
Sleep came fleetingly as aneight o’clocksun danced over my face and ebbed into the tendrils of my consciousness. The long July rays urged that I open somnolent eyes and observe the landscape. A sticky, heavy sweat glued my legs to cinnamon-scented seats. The hour-and-a-half drive past thirty LIE exits seemed an eternal journey, ending only in what I thought would be a glimpse of ocean, a spray of salt, and an about face towards home.
Slamming car doors roused me. A hulking, white clapboard house, washed and withered by the relentless elements, loomed into view. It was resplendent in its imperfections: A cracked tennis court with tufts of weeds that poked out through the broken ground which scuffed under foot; the thick heat of a summer devoid of air conditioning ensconced the interior, mingled with the smell of must. A few other families were living there, too. My sister and I were to sleep on the floor, camped out atop a layer of sandy grit. The backyard contained a pool nestled amidst a labyrinth of tangled grass that unfurled off the patio, until the hills of its acreage folded into the ocean.
Nightfall brought a revitalizing breeze and the rhythmic beat of waves, drumming out a lullaby. Stars were visible here, white marbles embedded in a purple sky colored in undulating hues that rolled onto the horizon. Rainy days allowed discovery of a bevy of books, and excursions into town revealed streets upon streets of independent retail. A particular favorite: A penny candy store that sold coffee milkshakes, for which my taste buds have yet to find a proper substitute. This is my first memory of theHamptons, and it forever instilled in me a fascination with, and longing for, that majestic summer.
Twelve years later, junior year of high school brought to my attention the novel with which many associate Long Island: The Great Gatsby. I came to realize that most regard Eastern Long Islandas a mystical reprieve where the Roaring Twenties lived and breathed, and where the rich and famous capitalists of the years before built their legacies. To most, Eastern LI is an island paradise bereft of coconuts and palm trees, but an island nonethelessits charm stemming from its detachment from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I could not see it then—after all, I live on theWest End year-round, and never had I heard of a Gatsby-esque soiree. Of course celebrities of the twenty-first century have residences out East and surely entertaining fêtes, but none comparable to Gatsby in either structure or stature. His were the kind with “champagne…served in glasses bigger than finger-bowls,” “baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs,”—a party so large as to be considered intimate. After all, “at small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
So what was it? Why come out to the end of an island where Gatsby no longer lived, alcohol was legal, and Jazz and the Charlestonhad given way to DJs and Hip Hop? The answer was simple to someone whose early intrigue sprang from a weather-beaten seaside dwelling The mystique of that bygone age, of the Gold Coast, of an era when prosperity and rebellion abounded, is not wrapped up in the people, or the events, or even the landscape of Long Island, but in the homes that the rich and famous inhabited, the architecture that built the foundation for, and epitomized, their lifestyle. The allure of that other world past exit forty-nine emanates today from the relics that remain. As much as theHamptons home my family shared in 1998 became a character in my story, the industrialists’ mansions of the previous centuries were characters in theirs, and certainly Mr. Gatsby’s home had a personality all its own in Fitzgerald’s novel. Even now, there are stories in the walls that still stand, waiting to be told to anyone who will enter and listen.
A house is a sanctuary, a respite from routine. With this in mind, Long Islandhomes of the late nineteenth early twentieth centuries were designed to reflect a departure from conventional country architecture as a means of transport to an entirely different state of mind. Antebellum architecture out East evidenced a desire to find simplicity in a rural setting, removed from the headaches of life. Large estates created for this purpose were done in the Beaux-Arts style, the components of which traveled all the way from France before settling most prominently on Eastern Long Island. The principles were taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts school in Paris, the palace of Versailles being a major influence on the teachings of spatial organization and flow through a structure. Particular emphasis was given to the relationship between space and function. The extreme attention paid to symmetry and order demonstrated a widespread yearning for unity following a tumultuous era in American history. To enhance a feeling of relaxation, the Beaux-Arts style was characterized by interpenetrating spaces and a sense of transparency between interior and exterior, making the home an organic extension of nature. However, the exterior of these homes were quite grandiose and bombastic, with sculptural reliefs, ornate stonework, imposing columns and balconies, and elegant Palladian windows.