Of all the adventures Butchie and Me had as kids, I don't think any could top what happened to us over the years in "The Mansion" as it came to be known. They were wild, wooly and will burn forever in my memory.
My big sister Gerry was actually the first one to go inside of it, and that was when it was still occupied. At that time it belonged to the St. Jude Roman Catholic Church. Gerry was a Girl Scout then and they would have their meetings there in the great hall. She would tell Butchie and me stories about all the neat stuff inside, like the knight's armour. The place took on a mystery with us years before we ever set foot in it. I recall a couple of times going with my mother to pick Gerry up after Girl Scouts. It was just down the road from Mr. Clark's barn, less than a half mile from our house, but if Mom had errands to do, we would take the car. One time she went there to get Gerry, but told me to wait in the car. She had parked on the back side of it. I saw a long garage with windows and rambled over to look in. There were two huge cars in there, either Packards or Chrysler Imperials. All the while I was carefully watched by the caretaker, who was mowing the property on a small tractor.
I seem to recall hearing the house was built around 1890 by the Knapps, who we thought we were relatives of the Floyds. (they weren't) Actually the Floyds built several very large mansions in the Mastic area, but none just around the corner from our house. This one was three stories high and had a whole lot of fireplaces and four chimneys. It sat on a couple of acres bordered by three roads and a grove of trees. It was white with Greek blue shutters on the windows (Fr Skelly may of repainted them Irish Green) and a red metal? roof. One day around 1954, the church people that lived there, just walked away from it. They never even locked the doors! Before long folks were hauling off carved furniture, statues, antiques, musical instruments and God knows what.
After a while "older kids" started hanging out in there and vandalizing the place. Before long it took on the look of a full fledged haunted house and all the kids I knew, gave it a wide berth. True we all would look at it on our bikes from a distance and fantasize about what it would be like to explore the innards, but no one dared go inside. Rumors even sprung up their was a dungeon in it.
By 1955 our "summer kids" gang had grown a bit. There was Spike, a cousin of Donald and Paddy who was now old enough to hang around with us and the Yodices. It was probably Anthony Yodice who first suggested to our bored little group that we go "explore" the mansion. At first a lot of us looked at each other to try and figure out what the other one was thinking. Somehow we must of felt safety in numbers because before long we were heading out for it with the eagerness of Miss Rosado's 5th graders on a field trip. However, you could feel the tension building as we approached the grounds.
For a while we just circled it, wondering who was going to go in first. There were doors on all sides with the main front doors on the south side. All of them were boarded up, but the porch windows were broken out and it was just a matter of stepping inside right off the huge stoop. I don't recall if we chose for who would go lead the way, but I think it was Butch and Anthony who first climbed in the window. Then the rest of us like Jefferson in a Charlie Chan movie said," Wait For Me!" The porch was all windows and didn't seem too scary. It was a good room to get your feet wet at being in a place like one that I'm sure none of us had ever been in before. The floor was covered with broken glass and debris. We huddled together and slowly went into the hall way. Off to the right side was a spiral staircase. We decided to stay downstairs for now. To the left of the hall way was this huge dark room. It had to be at least 50' long and was all wood paneled. It must of been the great hall Gerry had told us about.
There were alcoves in it and small pedestals that probably housed the statues and the armour Gerry had spoke of. Several of us looked for a secret passage that we thought must be in there somewhere. ( there were several ) At the far end were french doors that led to the west entrance.
There may of been a table or desk left, but other than that it was very dark and empty. We wandered out a doorway in the middle and found several smaller rooms and a bathroom or two. Eventually we came upon the kitchen. It too was enormous and though it had windows to the east, seemed very gloomy. It had a dumbwaiter in it. It was the first one I ever saw outside of an Abbott & Costello or Charlie Chan movie. And several of us took turns riding in it till the rope broke. The musty smell through out was very distictive and almost overbearing. There was an entire wall of refrigerator compartments, huge multi stoves and a sink you could sail a boat in.
Going out the other kitchen doors took us back into the hall and we wound up at the stairway again. No one seemed too eager, so I became the show off and decided to climb it. We came to a landing with a small room off of it and a terrace . Then up the second flight and we came to the master bedroom. It was over the great hall and had a terrace that you could of hosted a party for a 100 on. Up another flight and the rooms got smaller, probably servants quarters and lots of closets. One had a ladder to the roof. The view from the roof was incredible. You could see the bay and Fire Island, which gave us a perspective of how high up we were. The only other place you could see Fire Island was "The Fire Island Tree" across the street from my house. The roof was both flat and pretty steeply pitched but the terraces below us on both the west and east sides gave a false sense of security that if you slid off or fell you wouldn't go all the way down.
We must of spent at least an hour in it the first time and gathered on the front stoop to compare notes and take it all in before heading home. The only place we had not gone was into the basement, as none of us were ready for that yet. We were also breathing a sigh of relief that the cops hadn't showed up to chase us out. We had heard that the Church had asked them to patrol it when it first started to get vandalized and they would haul you off to jail. Before we all got up though, Anthony burst into the opening of My Prayer which was a new song by the Platters (the Great Pretender). I was amazed at how good he was. "WHEN THE TWILIGHT IS GONE.....AND NO SONGBIRDS ARE SINGING"..................
For most of that summer, the Knapp place occupied most of our attention. We devised this great escape plan to get away from the cops in case they came for us. We actually had ropes tied in the upper rooms that we could go out the windows and rappell down the sides of it. While doing an escape rehearsal, Butchie cut his arm on a broken outside light fixture. He was bleeding pretty good, but made a temporary bandage out of his undershirt. He ran home to get bandaged and soon rejoined us. I can't recall how he explained that to our Mom.
The place had around 22 rooms so there was some great places to hide. We did play hide and go seek in it a whole lot. One time nobody could find Donald, some of us thought he might be in the cellar, but no one dared go look. Finally I was in one of the first floor rooms that had a fireplace and I heard his voice. He was stuck in the chimney. Several of us ran up to the roof and sure enough, there he was laughing his head off a few feet down in it, but stuck none the less. We used one of the escape ropes to haul him out. We were lucky kids, but we were pushing our luck.
We sort of made an unofficial ritual of all gathering on the front steps before we headed home ever since our first visit. It seems each time we went, we'd spend more time in there and push things a little further. After one long noisy afternoon we were sitting on the stoop when we all froze. There were two of them and I can still see them coming at us from both sides. The boys in blue from the Brookhaven Town Police. One of them was Sgt. Burkhardt, who's teen age son Jacky was one of the older kids who initially went in it when the church first left it. We all were pretty scared, but all that happened was a lecture from them and they made us promise to stay out of it for our own safety. I asked Sgt. Burkhardt if the church really cared about what was happening to it, why didn't they take better care of boarding it up. He had no answer.
We had found out that the people who lived on the other side of the pine trees had called the cops. So we stayed away for a week, but one thing kept calling us. The fact that we never went down the cellar. Mary Ann Yodice kept provoking it saying we boys were too scared. What a troublemaker she was. So a plan was hatched, first we would split up and take different routes so the nosy neighbors wouldn't see a gang of kids heading for the joint. We brought along candles and flashlights and Donald and I led the way down the stairs. We went down them in twos and when we got to the bottom step, Donald blew out the candles. All the rest screamed and tore back up the steps. I had only got a glimpse of what was down there and really wasn't eager to go again. But after we all caught our breath and Mary Ann gave us her flashlight and took control of the candles, we headed back down. You could hardly see anything, just the huge coal furnace. By the stairs was a door and it took a whole lot of nerve to open it. It was pitch black inside and its a good thing we shined the light on the floor first. There was none, it was a coal bin of undetermined depth. Then somebody said, " I see a rat " That did it....another mad scramble for stairway and that was the last visit any of us ever made to the cellar. We knew enough not to hang out on the stoop anymore, so when we all regrouped over at the Yodice house, everyones imagination contributed to what they really saw down there. From chains on the walls to skeletons. Needless to say, no one wanted to return to verify or contest it.
For the first year or two it was a lot of fun and adventure over there. I remember smoking my first cigarette sitting on the roof. It was a Newport menthol, I got real dizzy and almost fell over the side. We would go in it in the winter time too with a whole different group of kids, like the Schulz brothers. I remember an after school game of hide and go seek where I really fooled them all, pulled a Donald Denning and hid in the chimmney. Trouble was they all gave up on me and went home. It gets dark early in the winter and when I no longer heard anyones voice, I started to call out. Realizing I was alone , having to come down three flights of stairs in the dusk and getting the hell out of there was the scariest few moments I had ever experienced in my 11 years on earth. The last few steps I took through that big gloomy kitchen is forever encased in my fear locker.
There was this whole other group of "winter kids" in the neighborhood that we knew of, but didn't hang around with very much. You could say we were kind of leery of them. In high school Butchie would become friends with their unofficial leader Willy Conklin. It was around 1958 that Willy fell off the mansion roof and onto the porch roof below breaking his leg in the process. The place was getting really torn up and just wasn't as much fun anymore. The summer kids would really notice the difference when they came out. The last summer we spent in there, the entire stair railings had been ripped out, steps were missing and I don't think there was a single unbroken window. It was getting to be very dangerous.
One Sunday February 15, 1959 , my dad took me to some Go Kart races, I got home around 4 o'clock and was telling Butch and his friend Doug about them. Though I was excited, they were bored and I think it was Doug who said, "You want to go over to the mansion before it gets dark" We walked on over and when we turned off Jefferson Drive onto Ramshorn I saw it. The mansion was down the end of the street but you could see the top half of it over the trees. I can still see the smoke pouring out of one the top windows. It was a small one in a walk in closet and it was acting like a chimney. As we turned around to run home and call the fire department, along came Charlie Ratigan in his forest green '58 Ford Brookhaven Police patrol car. Butch flagged him down and he called it in on the radio. He then took off for it as we ran behind him.
We were there before the first fire truck arrived. A couple of fireman ran into it to see if there was anyone in there. Charlie told them he had already checked it, then he saw us and came over to take our names. Soon the grounds were covered with fire trucks from Mastic Beach, Mastic and Brookhaven Fire Departments. A decision had been made to let it burn and I had a lot of mixed emotions as I watched the flames leap through the roof. Larry Schulz's dad took home movies of it and for years I'd get a chill everytime I saw the roof collapse. The firemen stayed till 4 AM.
It's a good thing I went to the Go Kart races that day because it became part of the alibi I had to use. Charlie Ratigan thought for sure I did it. Several neighbors spoke up for us though.* For a long time there was lots of speculation about who did set it off. Willy Conklin was a prime suspect as was any kid who was thought to be a juvenile delinquent .
The following day I returned to the property after school. Sam Cole was there with his bulldozer and dump truck. He was taking down the chimneys and told me to stand back. As each one toppled the ground shook. After he drove off it was starting to get dark. I took a quick look through the rubble and thought about all the great times we had playing in it and wondered again what it must of been like to be there when the Knapps lived there.
*mainly a Floyd English Teacher, Dorice Nelson
© 2000 Ken Spooner excerpt from forthcoming book "Buzz & Pee Wee, Butchie & Me