Sunday afternoon, about 4 PM eastern time, marks 45 years to the exact day that I witnessed along with my brother Butch and our friend Doug Percoco, the smoke billowing out of the upper windows of the eastern face of the Knapp Mansion and turned in the alarm. For those who came here without knowing what this is all about, I suggest you read the very short story "The Mansion" to get a clue to what is going on here. For the others, many know that for past three years I have been studying a whole lot of history related to in one way or another this fire, this town and this family.
Well as the old saying goes " Where There's Smoke...There's Fire" and there certainly was a hell of lot of both that afternoon and well into the next day. And there's still smoke today! The three fire departments that responded in 1959; Mastic Beach, Mastic and Brookhaven were there for about 12 hours until 4 AM the next day. One fireman from Mastic Beach was hospitalized (ironically in Bayview, another old Mastic Beach mansion future fire casualty) On the following day after school, I was the lone witness as Sam Cole knocked the three huge chimneys into the pile of rubble. I can still feel the ground shake.
This past year 2003-04 has yielded some of the biggest discoveries yet that have come through "the smoke" for me about all things Knapp and Mastic area related. A lot of them from the help of various web sight readers I like to refer to as "Knappsters". Many revelations have been reported in the various pages I have posted since 2001. But some will just have to wait for the book to come out....actually the two books "The Knapps Lived Here" and "The Mastics ..from Blue Blood to Blue Collar" after all if I printed everything I know here, why write the books? Although I have been accused of a few things through the last few years, I don't think anyone will ever accuse me of with holding too much info for the loyal Knapp websight readers......I'm happy to say I get a lot of positive email from around the world on it.
However.... I thought instead of just rehashing the fire here (You can read the newspaper account complete with the errors and assumptions by clicking here) that I would give you a taste of the various things that have spun out of my childhood short stories "Buzz & Pee Wee , Butchie & Me" and have lit this fuse.... many are still pretty hot three years later. I am also providing direct links here to the related webpages, so you can read more about it if you care to. (just click on the underlined words)
Several years before my friends and I were old enough or bold enough to venture into the"haunted" Knapp Mansion, we explored one of their abandoned barns. The thing is although the Knapps were long gone from Mastic Beach, their mansion wasn't 'haunted" then. It was just the two year old Parish House & Community Center for St. Jude's RC Church and the pet project of Father John Skelly. Prior to that it was owned by a fellow named George Sutter of the Bronx who turned it into a summer boarding house from 1941-1950. Father Skelly who rented it from Sutter, convinced the church to buy it in the spring of 1950 and wanted to turn it into a school. One of the Knapp outbuildings was known then as Schulte's Barn and it stood off the south west corner of Dogwood and Jefferson, just a block east from the mansion. Paul Schulte aka 'The Mayor Of Mastic Beach' was the owner of several pieces of property and buildings that once belonged to Joseph F. Knapp from 1916- 40. Schulte's pal and right hand man, Willie Schluder was Knapp's last caretaker.
Schulte's barn was only a few feet in off the road, through the tall grass and trees and was very inviting to our gang of little kids that varied in age from 7-10 years old. Of course it was the older ones who said 'Let's go in it' and it was Tony Yodice, the boldest kid of "our gang" who went up the stairway to the loft first. I think my brother Butch may of followed him and then it was.... Hey wait for me! Well when all seven of us got up there, our jaws dropped with our discovery! Airplane and radio equipment were strewn all over the loft. It was all broken up pretty badly, but when your a little kid, who cares if some yahoo has taken a sledge to the altimeters and turnbank indicators etc. IT WAS GREAT STUFF!! Some of it as I recall , had Property Of The US Navy or Army plates on it. There was also a cockpit dashboard with one or possibly two airplane steering wheels (the sticks) still attached. Well before you could say "JFK Airport and step on it" to a cabbie, our little group, the Dennings, Yodices, and Butchie & Me (the Josephs) were running home to get our wagons to haul this stuff off to our backyard 'cause " The Big Kids Will Find It and Steal It or Wreck It" Small kid logic 'cause the big kids or perhaps bigger adults had already wreaked havoc with it.
Well in no time at all the treasures from the barn were set up on a picnic table, saw horses and milk crates in our backyard and we were all having a great time with it, playing airport. Not sure if The High & The Mighty movie was out yet, but I think we also played Aircrash with it because the cockpit stuff was pretty well smashed up. The Yodice girls Mary Ann and Sally Ann were nurses who doctored the pilot and co pilot with their play nurse kits. We even made a stretcher out of an old door. Ahh Kidom in the '50's ...great time to be alive....... and the pure imagination of it all. I remember when my father came home he was very interested in where we found the stuff. He was a Navy radio operator in the South Pacific during WWII.
Well all of "this great stuff "was long forgotten about and hauled off to the town dump (Where the William Floyd High School is today) by the time we ventured into the then abandoned Knapp Mansion around 1955. St. Jude's oddly just walked away from it about 1953 and Father Skelly left the parish. The last time I was in the loft of Schulte's Barn before Sam Cole bulldozed it, there was hardly a trace of the equipment that was once housed there save for a few scraps of wire and some old radio tubes. Thing is we never thought about why this stuff was in a loft of a barn? Did the Knapp Rooster broadcast his wake up call to the livestock? Long missing from alongside that barn was the Knapp Secretaries residence, that I would only learn about in 2001 when I saw it on the maps. It was moved to town behind Paul Schultes other barn the one he made into a tavern in 1932. Although I had been inside the house in the early '60s, I had no idea then it was once part of the Knapp Estate.
Well it all came back to roost for me three years ago when I first started writing about the good old days of being a kid in Mastic Beach. It wasn't long after I first started digging that I discovered there was a wireless station along with a seaplane base on Knapps estate in 1917. I first assumed this may of been what fostered his interest in radio and airplanes but I recently discovered his interest with a wireless radio goes back much further.
Lee DeForest "The Father Of Radio" did some of the first radio broadcasts ever made in America in Joseph P. Knapp's American Lithographic Building. J. P's son, Joseph F. Knapp would be about 13 or 14 then. Not too long after that The Patchogue Advance reported these goings on some 60 miles east of NYC in Bellport Village where a 17 year old Joe's mother Sylvia and sister Claire were living a good deal of the time and J F K Jr. obviously some of the time..... Jr. must of dazzled the whole village in 1909.
The big fellow on the right is none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creator of Sherlock Holmes. Wonder what he is listening to. I know it's not Alan Freed
And you ask how I know that Dodi' s Mom and sister were living in Bellport then. Well besides the 1910 Census that shows them there in May of that year, there are many tidbits in the local paper that place them in Bellport during the winter off season too.
Although it didn't take me very long to find out who really burned the Knapp Mansion down. There were lots of rumors, and finger pointing back then. (I was the first suspect) I am still looking to find out who built it, and what went on there during Knapps time with it, which to me is a far more interesting story.
I am also looking hard for more photos of both interior and exterior. Like Fox Mulder I know they are out there someplace. I have recently received several strong leads and do hope to be nailing that down this year. For example I now know that it was the Mrs. Mike Gilewski (wife of MBFD Fire Chief when it burned down) who told the Albanos who live there today right on the west lawn, that she had photo(s) of Knapp's place when it was in it's glory. (See Ground Zero) According to Bob Lee who lives on Locust just across the street from the mansions main entrance , he recalls seeing those photos, and says that Mrs. Gilewski's daughter may still have them. Robert Ursum who lives on Ramshorn Rd. still may have photo of the front of it taken by his uncle in the late 40's or early '50's . He told me late last year he is hunting for it. I know this : because of it's size, 3 stories tall , that it appeared in the background of the homes that went up all around it in sections Three from 1926 -59, and Nine the north side and Ten the south from 1938-1959. So I'm sure that when folks in the area got out their Brownies to record the family gathering, backyard barbecue or arrival of the new car, you would see at least the top half of any given side of Knapp's place. I also know that Charlie Stevens, a pro photog who also lived just across the road from it took professional photos of it for St Judes. His prints and negatives may still exist. I have known that the affairs St. Judes held in the ballroom in the early '50's (concerts, card parties etc) were photographed. St. Judes displayed at least one photo of the interior during their 50th anniversary several years ago, but I have yet to see it. Efforts to obtain a copy through the church have been futile but there is always hope ! This newly found photo below may be of the interior, but it is not confirmed. I never saw it furnished only empty and vandalized.
Another question I'm still looking for the answer to is: Was it already built when Dodi bought the property? Frank Mauran Lawrence of the very prominent Lawrences grew up in Mastic in the 1870's and then moved to Providence, RI. to manage the Mauran Family coal business. They also had steamships. I know that in 1896 he bought at a NY auction the estate of his late uncle Charles W. Lawrence and that it was offered with two residences and various outbuildings on it. His sister Hannah Newbold Lawrence moved and remodeled one of them (the Woodhull Lodge). Charles Jefferey Smith had built both houses in the 1850's. These two homes would become known in the 1900's as The Garrity /Dermody house and The Muse House (The Woodhull Lodge) In 1916 they were both owned by the Knapps who could of lived in them while they built the mansion. Both are still standing strong on Locust Drive today.
This 1888 map recently found raises more questions than it answers. First off it shows Frank M. Lawrence as a landowner in 1888 or earlier. If that is the case why did he have to repurchase his own land in 1896? The two buildings near C.W. Lawrence are in the area of the Garrity/ Dermody house just above it and The Muse House just below. In the F. M Lawrence group on the right The large bulding at the bottom of the circular road is in the right place for it to be the mansion. There are at least seven buildings on F. M & C W's property. And a totally new name has now entered the picture. That of one G. E. Taylor sitting on the Richard Floyd/ Dr. Robert Estate (Pattersquash aka Bayview Hospital).... Tell me Dr. Watson..... Where is Sherlock Holmes when you really need him!
One of my leading candidates for either the designer of Knapp's Mansion or remodeler of same is a fellow named W. Edgar Baker, who lived in Mastic from 1914-28. (He was Ella Danas first husband) ,,,, like all things Knapp related I may be way off course...but let me lay out my reasons why I think Baker could be the plan man. Three days after Joseph F. Knapp bought the estate off of Frank M . Lawrence, he signed it over to his older sister Claire. ( I would assume this was on their fathers orders, whom I also assume paid for the place ) For the next nine years sister and brother shared the 200 acre estate. Claire started her show dog kennel Clairedale there until she married and moved out in 1925. Besides being an architect and close neighbor of Knapp, W. Edgar Baker was also a breeder and American Kennel Club Judge. In 1922 he wrote a book on the standard of the Airedale which was Claire Knapp's first choice of breed and from where she derived her kennel name. Although she switched speciality to Chows, then Sealyhams and a few other breeds over the years. I know she crossed paths with Baker probably socially and professionally. Dog Shows were started as a social event. Baker was the judge on her biggest night at Westminster in Feb 12, 1936.
Besides remodeling older estate homes and giving them that Georgian look. (He did it with Nichol Floyd 's house) Baker also designed show dog kennels and farm buildings. His Tanglewold Farm in Mastic was an example and the outbuildings and barns on Knapp's estate were mostly all first class. Most importantly the fact that the place was always known as the Knapp Mansion not the Lawrence one strongly suggests the Knapps had it built....but once again...it remains unknown. But perhaps this year......the answer will turn up
Many of the surviving Mastic Beach pioneers like Greta Speiss had no idea of who J. F. Knapp was or what he did. I recall the first time his name came up to me was when we first went exploring in his house. The Denning boys told their grandmother that we went inside it and were describing the apparent grandeur it once had. Nora Denning who lived in town since the 1930s told them Knapp was a millionaire, but she didn't know where he got his money. Well that certainly is no longer a mystery his Daddy J .P. Knapp Had It In Spades...
This year I also found out that Joseph F. Knapp aka Dodi had at least two wives. Gertrude O'Brien from about 1930 -37 and Marion E. H. from the late 1930's. Three years ago when I had a very brief dialogue with one of Claire Knapp's granddaughters, I asked her what happened to Marion Knapp (who buried Dodi in 1952) Her answer was "I don't know ...she just disappeared." Well I found out on my own where she disappeared to and who with , but much more interesting is what I'm learning now about how she appeared in Dodi's life and the mystery of what happened to Gertrude O'Brien Knapp ..... They say Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was deeply into seances and channeling.... perhaps I should get a fresh battery for my old Knapp Questioner or Remco Radio Station and see if I can raise Sir Arthur or tune in Sherlock....STAY TUNED....
Postscript: 1959 what a year that was for me. The seventh grade, learning the guitar and yearning for an electric one, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper all perished on Dodi's birthday Feb 3rd, Claire Knapp passed away at her final Clairedale estate in Hampton Bays , Long Island that October. I have often wondered lately, if she knew her home from 1916-25 burned down that winter. Besides the local papers, it was reported in the Long Island Press.
But life went on ..... Music & Songwriting have been in my life since the gitgo ,as they were in the life of Dodi and Claires's Grandmother, Phoebe Knapp ... In the summer of that year we built onto our house that sat on Knapp property and in fall of that year my grandparents moved in with us....so what better way to sign off today than with a little song. In 1959 these guys took this one to number 2 on the Billboard Charts. My Mom really liked this song, and I would get to actually play with these guys onstage a few years later... But most of all , this song seems appropriate for today and for all things connected with it and keeping it all in perspective. So....If you have a fast connection (cable or DSL) feel free to give it a listen.