Time to say farewell to the darkest depths of winter and, in the receding swirl of March snow and sleet, the holiday that always tries to perk it up—Valentine’s Day.
This year the Douglaston & Little Neck Historical Society (of which I am a co-founder) held our fundraiser in a house I recently renovated. The party was aptly called “A Valentine’s Soiree—Baby It’s Cold Outside," and the entire first level of the house was deployed for the party, including the addition of a heated tent to add more space for a bar for the 150 guests that showed up and celebrated.
I love seeing houses I’ve worked on used this way—there is nothing more delightful than a house filled with people having a good time, seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and all the while raising money for a cause they believe in.
For this Valentine’s event this house had an added special treat—a true love story—hidden away for decades, but recently discovered in the attic.
The house is one of my favorites, one of the first to be built in Douglas Manor in 1907, and designed by architect George Keister, who was known for designing Broadway theaters.
He designed the Belasco Theater, currently hosting Farinelli and the King. And Keister designed the fabled Apollo Theater in Harlem, which recently underwent an extensive restoration.
Keister was a master of creating fabulously ornate Classically inspired interiors for his theaters. But at this house, Keister put together a restrained composition in the Arts & Crafts style popular in the early 20th century.
The house, once known as The Knollwood, crests the top of a hill that overlooks Little Neck Bay. It is a very horizontal composition, shingled at the second floor, clapboard at the first, and with signature oversized stuccoed columns lining the glassed in front porch—a typical Arts & Crafts style feature.
Inside, like many American Arts & Crafts houses, there is an eclectic mix of traditional and stylized Classical details, as well as the more expected A&C features like the fireplace inglenook, which The Knollwood has.
Eleven-foot-tall ceilings give the house a spacious and elegant air, with large windows in all the rooms. The sunporch overlooks a garden I also designed, and is enclosed by tall hedges.
Ironically, I’d worked on this house 20 years earlier for another owner. I did some restoration work on the exterior, and designed a new terrace that overlooked the water.
I also looked at the third floor, which was unfinished, but vast, 35 feet long with a 12-foot ceiling, three generous skylights marching down the middle of the clear rectangular space and two triangular dormers facing east.
Despite these great assets—no go. Unfortunately the couple divorced, and the house got sold.
The next owner called me soon after, and also took me to the attic to see what might happen there. But alas—also a no go!
The house got sold again because that owner decided what they really wanted was a brand new house with a flowing “open concept plan” (see HG TV) with a Kitchen/Family Room, not possible with this house because of an enormous brick chimney.
In stepped the current owner, old friends at this point, whose previous house a few blocks away I had renovated for them 15 years ago. We immediately marched up to the attic, and as the saying goes, the third time’s the charm.
I soon had a compelling scheme going for them, an attic playroom with a big TV setup, ample room for a convertible billiard/ping pong table, a full bath, and built in couch cum beds for overseas relatives who arrive like clockwork to visit each summer.
Construction began in earnest, and work soon started on the attic space, which was the biggest part of the renovation. Things were going smoothly.
And then one day, the unexpected happened, a story that only can happen in a movie.
As one of the demolition crew began to clear debris, he spied a stack of papers far back in a corner, tied together with a faded red ribbon. Afraid to open the bundle, he called his boss.
The papers were letters from a young woman, Miriam Spaeth. The letters were addressed to—in a time long before zip codes and house numbers—“Emerson W. Smith, The Knollwood, Douglaston, Long Island”.
From the letters it is clear that Muriel met Emerson when he was lifeguarding in Ocean Beach, New Jersey in the summer of 1941. Muriel was immediately smitten by the tall hunky (from her description) lifeguard.
A romance ensued and Muriel was invited to The Knollwood where Emerson lived, and and met his family.
In her letters, she recalls various outings while she was in New York at The Knollwood, including one night when she and Emerson climbed a tree in the yard to watch the moon rise over the Bay—mucho romantico!!
At summer’s end, Muriel and her Mom headed to Fort Lauderdale where they rented a house, and Muriel began her studies to become an executive secretary at a school within walking distance.
Muriel and Emerson wrote each other several times a week (mail was delivered twice a day), and Muriel’s letters are filled with adoring comments and probing questions:
“When are you coming to visit? Darling, I can’t wait to see you.”
In one letter, she invokes several lines (incorrectly) from a favorite song, "This Love of Mine," just released that year by a very young Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Band:
“You’re always on my mind, tho’ out of sight, it’s lonely throughout the day, and all the night.”
And she ends the letter with this plaintive query:
“Do you remember that my heart was left behind? It was—Please write soon—Love, Muriel
P.S. Thank you for the happiest days of summer.”
Muriel had just graduated from high school. Muriel comments in one letter how she thinks—but isn’t sure—that Emerson is 21 years old (apparently he kept his age a secret!) as she knows he is registered for the service.
The letters begin in September of 1941—three months before Pearl Harbor—and end abruptly a year later. There are 60 letters in total.
During the course of the party, I brought three sets of Valentine’s Day revelers to the attic playroom as part of the house tour and told them the story of Muriel and Emerson. I read some selected passages from the letters.
Many were moved, or curious, at the least. “What happened they asked,” over and over again. But alas, there is no happy ending to this love story, or any known ending at all.
The Historical Society has uncovered no leads. The granddaughter of the family that owned this house for nearly 60 years, including during the early 1940s, still lives nearby. She didn’t recognize the names.
Who were Emerson and Muriel? What became of these star crossed lovers, separated by 1,500 miles after their idyllic summer together? Did they eventually marry? Was Emerson lost in World War II? I hope we find out someday, and have the ending to this story…
Some other pictures of The Knollwood today, after renovation and restoration:
Dusk falls on the new North terrace—time to contemplate what happened to Muriel and Emerson over a glass of port.