Long Island, New York is home to a legion of stately mansions that in the early 20th century, would provide the inspiration and backdrop for The Great Gatsby. The so-called ‘Gold Coast’ became the playground for Manhattan’s wealthy elite, who built themselves English-styled grand houses, with plush, landscaped gardens, and the most luxurious interiors money could buy. Some have survived, whilst dozens have been sadly demolished and forgotten. But there is one mansion that has perhaps the most bizarre story of all; once owned by none other than Zog the First, King of the Albanians, ousted from his own country in 1939. We went into the forest, to explore the decaying remnants of a home where the lost fortune of jewels belonging to one of the strangest monarchs in European history, is supposed to be hidden somewhere amongst the ruins.
King Zog’s mansion was originally known as the Knollwood Estate. It was built between 1906 and 1920 for Wall Street financier, Charles Hudson, and located in the small village of Muttontown in Nassau County. We took the Long Island Railroad to the nearby town of Syosset, and walked through what Business Week ranked as one of the wealthiest places in all of America.
Past private golf and country clubs, modern luxurious homes and stables, at the end of Muttontown Eastwoods Road is an oversized stone and iron fence. Imprints on the pillars show where once there had been grand lamps, for this was the main entrance to the vanished mansion.
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.
But Zog’s reign was tempestuous, and he survived a reputed 55 assassination attempts. His kingdom was virtually propped up by Mussolini, and when Zog refused a demand to have Italian taught in Albanian schools, relations between the two countries rapidly deteriorated, until Italy invaded Albania with little resistance in 1939.
Zog and his royal family fled into exile, being escorted by none other than Ian Fleming of Britain’s secret service. They settled first into the luxurious confines of the Ritz Hotel in London, and then in Egypt as guests of King Farouk in 1946, the year the Albanian Communist government formally deposed the monarchy.
Six years later, King Zog bought the mansion on Long Island.
Today, the central stairway is partially blocked by a large tree, upended and broken in half by a recent storm. Remnants of the old, formal gardens can still be seen, broken pillars and stone pathways partially visible through the undergrowth.
At the far end of the ruined gardens, lie the largest remnants of King Zog’s mansion; a large double staircase that would have led to the house itself. The staircases themselves have a pair of arched alcoves in them, about 12 feet tall.
Above the double staircase however is nothing. For this grand mansion of the Gold Coast was torn down in 1959.
Despite buying Knollwood with loose gemstones, King Zog decided to remain in exile in France, where he died in 1961. Rumours that his jewels were hidden somewhere in the home, saw it ransacked by looters to the point where it was torn down for safety precautions.
We visited in the dead of winter, when Muttontown Preserve was deserted. Wandering through the snow covered forest, with only the sounds of woodpeckers and the creaking of the trees for company, the ruins of the peculiar Balkan king are undoubtedly eerie.
The ruins still visible today are just a tiny trace of what was once one of the most beautiful stately homes in Long Island. Gone are the sumptuous drawing rooms and the dozens of exquisitely furnished bedrooms. The 1911 magazine showcased splendid lawns, tennis courts and a swimming pool, all of which lie buried under the forest.
Perhaps there are basement cellars somewhere under the razed foundations, where the lost jewels of Zog I, the King of the Albanians, lie undetected. The abandoned ruins seem to be waiting for an exiled monarch who never returned, in one of the more peculiar chapters of Long Island history.