No expense was spared by architects Hiss and Weeks, who had previously leant their talents to the grand Peninsular Hotel in Manhattan. The Knollwood Estate took up 270 acres of prime Long Island real estate, its main mansion comprising of 60 rooms. The estate was featured in an issue of Architecture magazine in 1911: “It is set far back from the road by a winding drive through landscaped gardens”.
Today the landscaped gardens have been reclaimed by nature, as part of the Muttontown Preserve. But the winding drive can still be followed. This once led to the main house itself.
The gardens were filled with Linden trees and Hemlock hedges, rolling lawns and bridle paths. The mansion itself was described in the magazine as a ‘country residence’, although ‘palatial’ would perhaps be more accurate.
The imposing mansion was made of Indiana limestone, and fronted with ornamental balustrades and classical columns.
Winding our way through the forest, the first glimpse of the ruins of the mansion through the trees, are two, ornate, pillared porches and a central stone stairway. Archival photographs show that this would have led onto a longer lawn, and the great house itself. Today, the porches are crumbling, and covered in ivy, appearing out of the forest like the ruins of Cair Paravel.
King Zog bought Knollwood in 1951, for just over $100,000. He was rumoured to have paid for the mansion with a bucket of diamonds and rubies. The plan was to create a miniature Albanian kingdom in the middle of Long Island, New York, exiled in safety from Communist rule in his native Albania, where he had first been chased out by Mussolini at the start of World War II.
But just who was this peculiarly named wandering monarch? King Zog was born Ahmed Bey Zogu in 1895, when Albania was still part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, Zogu, backed by Yugoslavian mercenaries, seized control of Albania. Zogu set himself up, first as a dictator, then creating a monarchy, styling himself a King Zog the First, Europe’s only Muslim king.
Some historians have described Zog as a ‘despotic brigand’, who ruthlessly murdered his opponents, whilst others saw him as ‘the last ruler of romance’, who brought stability and national pride to Albania following the end of Turkish rule. British politician Julian Amery called him, ‘the cleverest man he had ever met’, but the Times of London referred to him as ‘the bizarre King Zog’. In 1929, Zog was conferred with the somewhat dubious honour of ‘the world’s heaviest smoker’, Zog regularly smoked 200 cigarettes a day.