The Wrecking Ball Comes for Daisy Buchanan

A QUICK TOUR of Lands End as it would have been in its prime: 20,000 square feet, 25 rooms, 10 baths, 10 fireplaces, 10 bedrooms, a pool, a pool house set below a terrace with gut-punching vistas of the sound, a seven-car garage, a guest house, a greenhouse, a vegetable garden, separate quarters for the caretakers, a tennis court, a tennis house and enough empty space on its 14 acres to play croquet with the entire New York Yacht Club.

“Have you seen the place? It’s a drop-dead unbelievable house on a spot not to be believed!” Mr. Brodsky, in realtor mode, said before broaching the topic of his choice to knock it down. “It’s just a special piece of property.”

The Observer had in fact seen the place—or at least what’s left of it. On Friday, April 8, we hopped on the Long Island Railroad to Port Washington and met up with Cliff Fetner, construction manager on the project. Mr. Fetner spoke in a muted Long Island honk. With his glasses and baby-blue sweater, he looked more a quiet neighbor than a man who demolishes houses for a living.

Sitting shotgun in his silver Mercedes, we zoomed around until the town—where the main strip is neglected during the cold seasons and “summer” is a verb, not a noun—got folded over by reams of sycamore, the once clear road fully ensconced in foliage. Then Mr. Fetner made a right.

“Here’s an example of what’s going to happen,” he said. The sedan caromed through a decade-old development, near-identical houses lining both sides of the road. It was once the estate of William Averell Harriman, the governor of New York. Each lot had 2 acres, and the values of the homes ranged from a few million to a few tens of millions.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘subdivision,’” Mr. Fetner said, rounding a turn. “I prefer the word ‘enclave.’”

We exited the subdivision, pinballed on tight angles and soon reached the last bit of solid ground before we reached the water, and the peeling white wood of Lands End loomed before us. By the entranceway, once gilded and enviable, were stark warnings of fanged dogs hung on a rusted electrical fence. Mr. Fetner jiggled his key in the gate, and we walked in. Cracked pavement wound past the blob of vine growth swallowing the greenhouse. The caretaker’s cabin was just a stump of its old structure. 

The house itself was in a similar state of disrepair. Ms. Payson commissioned a regiment of yearly paint jobs to combat the wear and tear of rain and ocean, but the Brodskys didn’t bother with such conditioning—or any conditioning whatsoever—and so the Doric columns had rotted, molted under sickly perspiration, the sidings eaten out, all of it faded to a soggy spin on off-white.

Yet there was Swope’s great green lawn that extended seaward in the specter of the mansion’s bulk. It was where Dorothy Parker would come with the Algonquin Round Table and plunge into benders. After one grueling string of parties at Lands End a hung-over Parker coughed up this threat: “I wouldn’t go back to the Swopes’ to see King Kong unzip his fly.” The lawn witnessed croquet matches between Harpo Marx and Harold Ross; meetings between John Hay Whitney and David O. Selznick that secured funding for Gone With the Wind; pre-dinner jaunts with Edward and Wallis, Duke and Duchess of Windsor; the re-creation of the life of Aristotle Onassis for the film The Greek Tycoon; and later photo shoots with Madonna and Kate Moss.

Mr. Fetner unraveled a blueprint on the hood of his Mercedes. Like the acreage, the view of the water will be parceled out evenly between the five houses, arranged through a process that the construction manager called “vista easement.”

Inside, the kitchen lay wrecked, as if a hurricane had blown through, empty apart from stacked beams and a single container of mayonnaise. The ballroom spilled open to the right, its chandelier gone, the wallpaper torn and cracked, the tin ceiling’s skin tarred and pockmarked, as if infected by a virus. From there The Observer walked gingerly—the floor might collapse at any moment—and arrived at the grand staircase, which led up to the row of bedrooms and high parlors. The house had been so battered by the elements that it assumed the eerie look of a long-sunken ship, every inch waterlogged and warped.

“It’s not about need, it’s about want,” Mr. Fetner said, sizing up the excesses the house once welcomed. “Who lives like this! People in Japan need shit. This? Nah.”

We walked to the backyard, where the full panorama of the sea unfolded ahead of us. Bushels of purple shells, picked up and left by seagulls, spilled out of the half-crescent pool house and leaked down into the muck-clogged swimming pool. Rubble lay strewn across the terrace. Sand dollars were cracked. The view was spectacular. Mr. Fetner took a step toward the ledge and pointed across the sound.

“When it’s clear, you can see the people walking across the water,” he said. “The house just sits here taking it all in.”

He twisted his neck to look at Lands End.

“It’s gonna take a few days to knock it down.”