So we were driving along Harbor Road in Huntington Harbor, and Miss Bronwen was eyeing me suspiciously. True to form, as I pulled into the parking lot of the yacht club, her eyebrow arched.
“Come here often?” she asked.
“Er, no” I replied. “But I figure that no one will notice if we’re just parked here for a bit.”
“Your car only has two hubcaps and your front license plate is held on by picture wire. Not to mention it’s a Beetle,” she pointed out.
“It’s Sunday, there’s snow on the ground and no one is around but the hired help,” I replied. “Trust me.”
And oddly enough she did. Probably at least in part because it was my car after all, and if I got ticketed or towed, I would be the one paying. I sat there for a moment, ruminating, remembered she’s smarter than I am, then put the car back in reverse and pulled back out onto the street, finding a spot to pull over onto the side. Perhaps I would be ticketed here as well, and her look said as much, but I thought the odds were less than the management of the yacht club calling a towing service on me. At any rate, we bundled up and set off walking down the road, a short, slippery little jaunt to the remains of Ferguson Castle.
Mrs. Juliana Armour Ferguson built her house like a medieval castle, with heavy walls some three feet thick, and details straight from the Mediterranean. Mrs. Ferguson was the offspring of H. Ogden Armour, the originator of Armour hot dogs, a.k.a. the dogs kids love to bite. Now Mrs. Armour loved Europe, particularly the monasteries she saw throughout France and Italy. Together with her husband, Dr. Farquhar Ferguson, she set out to build her own on the shores of Huntington’s harbor.
“Juliana’s womb started spewing out babies shortly after their wedding, it appears, so they needed
a place with some room,” I told Miss Bronwen as we slid around the curve and the massive foundation wall of the castle rose before us.
“Just how many children did she have?” she asked.
“Seven in all I believe,” I replied.
“Well that’s certainly fertility of a Mormonic scale,” she commented.
“Just a good Catholic actually,” I responded. “In fact she had a chapel built on a separate floor, apart from the rest of the house, and a priest came each day to say mass for the family and staff.”
“Thank God my mother never came up with that idea,” Miss Bronwen replied.
“In fact,” I continued, “the bedrooms, of which there were many, were sparse, square like a monk’s cell and each had a cross carved onto the bed. Though not teetotallers, Mrs. Ferguson and her crowd didn’t believe that excess of alcohol and debauchery were necessary for a good time.”
“What Mrs. Ferguson needed instead was to see people happy, particular the children,” I went on. “It was often said that all the neighborhood children had a home here in the castle,” I continued, “if not all the children of Huntington village itself. The Fergusons had the plans drawn up together, but his untimely death interrupted the actual construction for a bit.”
“Untimely death can do that,” she interjected.
“Yes,” I responded, “quite so. While the house was being built, the family lived in the Edgewater Hotel, which once stood near here. She would have a wheelbarrow of fruit wheeled in each day for the neighborhood kids. The children would roast apples in the fireplaces and generally made a nuisance of themselves.”
“That would never do today,” Miss Bronwen commented.
“I’d say not,” I agreed. “However, the Fergusons rented two full floors of the hotel so the management gave them a bit of leeway.”
Today there is little left of Ferguson Castle, having been torn down in 1970 after a protracted fight by residents to see it restored and to find a use for it. The concrete footings remain, as it was finally decided that it was neither feasible nor practical for a price tag of $40,000 in 1970’s money to remove the fourteen foot tall, four foot thick walls from the hillside. A door opens in the wall just off the street, and stone step leads to what once was the Monastery. The gatehouse, the driveway, a bit of sidewalk on the hill and the concrete from where the gate once led to their private beach and yacht moored nearby, The Mermaid, are all that remains. The yacht was a beast by itself at 110 foot, and the Fergusons used it to collect guests to fill their home, once it was finally completed in 1908. Mrs. Ferguson, as it seemed, could not bear the quiet, and had a genuine love for others. When her kids went away to college, they had standing orders that when they returned on the weekends, that they bring back a carload of guests each. The book “Ferguson’s Castle, A Dream Remembered” by Robert B. King tells numerous stories of her generosity, a trait which spilled over to her children as well. It was not unusual for the family to take all the neighborhood children on hayrides, or even sleigh rides in the winter through the hills behind the Monastery. The family even picked up the tab for medical bills of neighbors who were unable to pay.
And of course there were the parties. Mrs. Ferguson seemed to feel that if the house was not teeming with life, then life was not complete. There was plenty of room for life in Ferguson Castle. Nor was there a lack of food. The long, medieval table of the refectory was kept overflowing with food by two full-time Japanese servants. Even the servants at the Monastery lived a comparatively easy life as the house was designed with several ammenities which made their tasks easy, some of which were quite advanced for their day.
Due to the sheer size of the place, they needed all the help they could get. The Great Hall measured 64 feet long, 47 feet wide and three stories tall, and Mrs. Ferguson used to push the furniture against the walls and used it for a roller skating rink. A litany of furnishing proves breathtaking; two seventeenth century marble lions from Verona, art treasures, some as old as the twelfth century decorating the walls, a fountain made of ancient Persian tiles, a fifteenth century French Gothic plaque with the Madonna and Child, as well as a piece of Egyptian era art. The house had forty rooms, six baths, fourteen fireplaces, a chapel, a servant’s room and a gatehouse.
“Despite the quality of art in her collection, nothing appeared to be too ostentatious or gaudy,” I continued. “The whole place was designed and decorated with a sense of understatement, even if the setting for the art and decorations themselves was done on a grand scale.”
“Perhaps the strangest part of her collection though,” I said to Miss Bronwen, “Mrs. Ferguson collected the gravestones of children from all over Europe, all under five years old at the time of their deaths, all over three hundred years old, then had them installed in the floors, halls, entranceways and gardens of the house. In some places Mrs. Ferguson made benches of them, and seemed to exhibit a sense of black humor when speaking of the lost children.”
“For a woman that obviously loved children so much,” Miss Bronwen replied, “That’s such a strange habit. Why did she do that?”
“Couldn’t tell you,” I replied. “There doesn’t seem to be any mention of why she collected them, just that she did. Often she would say to a startled guest who would notice when crossing a tombstone set into the threshold of their bedroom, “I hope you don’t mind sharing your room with little Jimmy.”
“There was little sense of responsibility among the rich of the gold coast when it came to their collections in that age,” I prattled on. “America was on the rise throughout the world, and the wealthy would scour Europe for art and historical treasures, with little sense of responsibility that they were pilfering the heritage of other countries. There was a sense of entitlement that seemed to go unquestioned, even amongst someone with a good heart, as Mrs. Ferguson certainly seemed to possess. “
In 1916, the house was used for the original silent version of “Romeo and Juliet.” A crew of 180 actors, actresses, stage hands and extras swarmed the castle, bringing with them 75 horses. Unfortunately, all prints of the film now appear to be lost.
Miss Bronwen and I stood across from the remaining wall, with our backs to the harbor. Atop the hill now sits some modern monstrosity, which seems almost laughable considering what stood there before.
“It seems such a waste that such a lovely place was replaced by something that in comparison looks to be made of cardboard,” Miss Bronwen said wistfully.
“It’s not just that house,” I added. “The whole hillside is now a subdivision it seems. Dirt on Long Island is such a precious commodity that people feel compelled to build on every available foot. But what is amazing is that one hundred or two hundred years from now even, when all these houses are gone, this wall will still be there. And of course the greatest loss isn’t the house itself, but the sense of community that the Ferguson family built up. Mrs. Ferguson and her family were the center of life around here for a period of time, which at least in a small part is still being talked about and remembered. This was almost the apex of a golden age really, a house filled with incredible art and treasure, so valuable that no single person could step in when the family was gone and take it over. Too large for the county to maintain, too large for a band of concerned citizens with the foresight to see the value in it even to rally enough support to save it from strictly commercial interests. Sometimes people just suck.”
“Agreed,” she added.
“And for the Ferguson family, everything seemed to fall apart quite rapidly,” I went on. “By all accounts, Mrs. Ferguson lived for her children. By the beginning of World War I, things had changed. By then, all the children were grown and had moved away. One died of influenza. Four days later, another died in the trenches of the war. Another divorced under hints of scandals which ruined the family name. Things got so bad, that even their yacht, The Mermaid, sank. Mrs. Ferguson couldn’t accept the death of her son in the war, and had a wax dummy made to look exactly like him. Each night she would dine with it, alone, at the long table which once held the bounty for their children. She went on a couple of years, depressed and increasingly in pain, before dying of cancer in 1921, at the age of fifty six.”
“So the children turned out to be unlucky in love and life?” Miss Bronwen asked.
“So it appears,” I answered. “Mrs. F. seemed to anticipate this, or at least realized they sucked at handling money, and stipulated that after her death the castle would be held in a trust fund, from which the estate would be broken up. None of the children wanted the house, opting instead for the cash. But due to the value of the estate, and that there were very few people around who could afford, and fewer who wanted it, it was more than fifteen years before the estate was settled. It became a girl’s school, but perhaps because of the high cost of maintaining the house – it took over a ton of coal a day just the heat it – only one class ever graduated. It reverted back to the Ferguson family, who then were so desperate for cash, sold it to a William J. Connors, a politician and newspaper publisher from Buffalo, who bought it as a present for his wife. They spent three summers there before he died of cancer as well.”
“The Curse of the Ferguson Castle continued,” Miss B. remarked.
“Evidently so,” I answered. “The Connors tried to make a go of it, cheer the place up, even had the tombstones tucked away into the basement, the chapel made into a gym, and renamed the place Castle MacFergus, hence the name. After his death, his wife tried to have the building made into a cancer research laboratory. But she bumped into zoning issues it appears. Afterwards the interior was more or less gutted of its treasures which were sold off by the Ferguson family, with items often going for a song. A chariot, which was built for Emperor Maximilian I of Germany nearly four hundred years earlier of ivory, encrusted with wood and rubies and covered in reliefs went for six grand. A $9,000 piano went for $475. A 16th century renaissance tapestry went for $1,000, antique oriental rugs for seven bucks, and carved, antique Chinese figures for seventy five cents. “
“My God,” Miss Bronwen exclaimed. “Was the family that desperate for money?”
“I assume that they were,” I replied. “The next year a family named Cord bought the house, or in some other way came into possession of it, perhaps in exchange for services, and paying back taxes. He was the opposite of Mrs. Ferguson, and visitors were quickly run off. It’s said that he lived in a single room, cooking on a kerosene heater and sleeping on a cot. And there he lived for forty years. Afterwards the building seemed to remain empty, was heavily vandalized, and ran up extremely high tax bills. And of course in 1970, the wrecking crews came in, and the Monastery was no more.”
“And that’s the end of the story?” she asked as we started walking back to the car.
“Well not entirely,” I answered. “It’s said that after her death, Mrs. Ferguson’s ghost could be seen at nightfall, descending the long staircase leading to the dining room in her white robe, going down to dine with the wax figure of her dead son. It’s my guess that as long as that wall stands, her spirit might very well continue to make that trip.”
We reached that car and true to Miss Bronwen’s prediction, beneath my wipers was a ticket from the Huntington constabulatory for illegal parking. She kindly refrained from saying “I told you so,” contenting herself with a subtle lifting of the eyebrow. I drove off, slowing in front of the wall which once held the ground in place upon which Mrs. Ferguson’s Monastery stood. I stopped the car and hopped out.
“Excuse me,” Miss B. called after me, “where are you going?”
I hurried to the door which once led up to the house, and tucked the ticket in the crack then came back to the car, put it in drive and pulled away.
“Mrs. Ferguson always enjoyed visitors. She’ll take care of it for me.”