Sunday, February 26, 2012

Fathers of the Five Towns: James Alexander McCrea

          Western Long Island at the turn of the Twentieth Century was losing its rural character and beginning its path to suburbia.  Land development companies bought parcels of farmland and subdivided them  -- sometimes into great estates, often into more moderate plots where vacationers might enjoy the life of a country gentleman-- if only for a summer.  The development of railroads during the late 19th century made it an easy prospect for businessmen to travel to Manhattan from most of  Long Island and, after the electrification of the Long Island Railroad in 1905, development increased extensively.

James Alexander McCrea house, Woodsburgh
  In 1901, Robert Burton began the residential development of Woodmere in earnest.  His vision of a community where residents could find reasonably-priced, well-appointed homes in close proximity to quality shops, schools, transportation and utilities was well under way when in 1909, he sold the entire town to a consortium headed by Maximilian Morgenthau, who was by then a powerful force in Manhattan real estate.  In the years that followed, a residential section of Woodmere decided to incorporate under the name of Woodsburgh, thus ensuring better services and utilities than the newly-formed county of Nassau could provide.

James A. McCrea
The beauty of the Rockaways and its proximity to "The City" made Woodsburgh a very desirable area for financiers, industrialists and professionals.   James A. McCrea was one of them.  In  about 1909 he hired architect Charles A. Platt to design his Neo-Georgian house on South End Road in Woodsburgh.  A member of the Rockaway Hunting Club and the Cedarhurst Yacht Club, James McCrea was well-acquainted with the Five Towns area (then known as The Branch).  He maintained the home in Woodsburgh in addition to his Park Avenue apartment, which he shared with his wife, Mable (nee Clarke; married 1897) and his children -- sons, James and Charles, and daughter, Agnes.  Between 1912 and 1914, McCrae served as the first President ( the title of Mayor had not yet been established) of the newly Incorporated Village of Woodsburgh, and was a Trustee of the village from 1914-1918.

During his time in Woodmere, James Alexander McCrea  (born in Philadelphia, PA on May 26, 1875) held the position of General Superintendent of the Long Island Railroad.  The son of James McCrea, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the younger McCrea graduated in Yale's Class of 1895 with a Bachelor's in Philosophy.  Trained as a civil engineer, he too was employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad before joining the LIRR. 

McCrea entered World War I in October of 1917 as a Major in the Engineering  Corps and was rapidly promoted to Colonel in the Railroad Transportation Corps.  He was Manager of Transportation for the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F)  and eventually attained the rank of Deputy-General in the zone of Advance.  He earned the Distinguished Service Medal for his services on the staff of Brig. Gen. W. W. Atterbury, Director General of Transportation of the AEF.  When he left the army in 1919, he was elected a Vice President of the Bankers' Trust Company of New York.  (United States Investor, July 19, 1919, p.1538.)  In October 1920, McCrea rejoined the Pennsylvania Railroad as Vice President in charge of the Central Region.  McCrea died of pneumonia in Pittsburgh, PA in 1923.

McCrea's Woodmere home, which was Platt's only South Shore design,  is described in  Long Island Country Houses and their Architects, 1860-1940 ( p. 348):

A seven-bay, two-and-a-half-story central section was flanked by two-story wings of three or four bays in width, one devoted to service, the other designed for a drawing room with bedrooms above.  The interior plan ...emphasized a dominant short axis from entrance hall to rear loggia, crossed by perpendicular corridors to connect major rooms on the first and second floors.  The relation of the house to its surroundings was zoned with an entrance on the north, a vista across open lawns to the water on the south, a formal flower garden to the west, and a service court to the east.
Floor Plan of the McCrea house, 1909

After McCrea's death, the property, subsequently named "Holmeridge" was purchased by John Holme Ballantine II (1892-1976), president and director of the Neptune Meter (later Neptune International Corp. ) Company.  Although the address is listed as "South End Road, Woodsburgh," on the 1920 and 1930 census, the street was not today's South End in Woodmere, but rather in  the area of Ivy Hill Road between Channel Road and Willow Road.  An angular stand of trees marks the border of the original property. The house was demolished circa 1960.

Further reading:

No comments: