Billie Burke, Oz, Ziegfeld and the Hastings on Hudson Estate

Billie Burke

Photo: By Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Meet ya’ at The Tree!” kids would call to their friends. “The Tree” meant only one tree, the giant copper beech on The Billie Burke Estate in Hastings on Hudson. By 1970, the year of her death, Billie Burke, who was famous as a radio performer, silent film actress, Ziegfeld Girl, and “Glinda” the Good Witch of the North, no longer owned the property. It has changed hands a few times since she sold it in 1940, yet it is still uniquely her land where magical memories were made by children on a daily basis.

There was something about those 22 acres that enthralled the imagination and ignited a childlike sense of wonder. Those who lived there may remember seeing teenage photographers, working on school projects, roaming The Billie Burke Estate in order to artfully capture the peaceful landscape with their trusty 35 mm cameras. This was back in the day when it took time, talent and patience to compose and develop a stunning photograph. Old pictures and sketches lost in transition or put away in boxes give silent evidence to this ethereal place where days of the past and present tangle in time. Life really was simpler as kids were free from many of today’s electronic distractions. Going to play on The Billie Burke estate was just what the children did for amusement. There was so much to see and do. The smaller kids couldn’t wait to get big enough to scale that big tree with a mighty trunk. that circled six feet in diameter. Some called it the “Elephant Tree” some dubbed it “The Tree of Knowledge”. It was pretty awesome whatever you called it. Kids climbed or sat in “the” tree, which was big enough to hold two friends who shared their hopes and secrets. On crisp autumn days, young football players would be inspired by the tall branches to practice throwing higher passes. Quite a few passes of the more personal kind happened as well under that giant copper beach, it being the perfect spot for lovers to steal a kiss.

Although the estate was a local hangout, the neighborhood kids had respect for the land and did not trash it or vandalize the grounds or the on-site buildings. They treated it gently because it was an extension of their home. It was a special, sacred place. The Billie Burke estate was easily accessible from backyards on Broadway (Albany Post Road) and surrounding avenues. In the 50s and 60s, Hastings was growing with families moving out of the New York boroughs. By 1970 Hastings had become quite a mini metropolis, yet you could still let your kids go out in the neighborhood where they could play, dream, and explore. There are still so many stories to be told of the fun had on the estate, all year long. Snow days were amazing, according to one former Hastings resident. He laughed as he recalled that one time it snowed so hard and so deep that you could sled straight on for half a mile, all the way down to Broadway. There was a new type of sled, the Snurf board, and while California kids were catching waves, Hastings New Yorkers were “snurfing” the freezing powder on the Billy Burke Estate.

Billie Burke

Photo: By ORIGINAL 1933 VINTAGE MGM STUDIO PHOTOGRAPHER NEGATIVE STUNNING [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke, (Billie) bought the property in 1910 at age 24 as a home for herself and her mother. The daughter of a performer, she grew up around the entertainment industry and became famous as a dancer, and silent and talking films actress. Once married to her famous husband, Florenz Ziegfeld of the “Follies” fame, she lived in New York City for a while. Once she became a mother to one daughter Patricia the family moved up to Hastings full time in 1916. They named the home “Burkeley Crest” Flo and Billie built a two-story playhouse for Patricia, modeled after Washington’s Mount Vernon, out of leftover set pieces from one of Ziegfeld’s grand productions. Billie loved children, and local historians say she would take local children along with her daughter for trips to the Bronx zoo in her fleet of Rolls Royce automobiles. Celebrities and reporters came up to Hastings to visit the era’s power couple and to spend time on their lovely grounds. At one time there was an elephant, a couple of bears and a buffalo family living on site. They were part of Ziegfeld’s plan for an entertainment attraction. This did cause concern by some of the locals at the time and the wild animals were later re-homed at the Central Park Zoo. Most of the residents; however, became their friends as well as their neighbors.

Even before the Burke-Ziegfeld household made Hastings their home, the community has always had its share of famous residents, including 19th-century astronomer Henry Draper, who’s family built an observatory on their property. What better place to see the stars just about twenty miles away from New York City where the night sky was not obscured by gaslights and pollution? With close access to all the glitz and glamor of the city, Hastings is still a popular commuter town for those who enjoy all the culture of Manhattan in a more laid back, greener setting.

Sadly, in 1940, after her husband, Flo, passed away, economic necessity forced Billy Burke to sell off much of her personal property including the pastoral treasure, Burkeley Crest. Although Billie Burke had received outstanding acclaim for her role as Glinda in the Wizard of Oz, her husband’s debts were considerable. Tales still abound that Billie Burke donated the land to the National Trust or the local school board; however, these claims are untrue. Billie Burke was known as a very kind and generous person; however, she was just not in a financial position to do such a thing. Although she had to part with Burkeley Crest, one could easily imagine “Glinda” smiling down from heaven watching the children enjoy her Hastings property. Her mansion was taken down to make room for the home of the new owner, Dr. Jacques Gerard, who built a uniquely designed cream-colored mansion accented with French style blue tile. The local school board did at one point take over the property, although debates continued on about how the town could get the most tax revenue from the land. Some of this controversy over the land’s use is the subject of a 2016 rock opera album by a group called Hudson, who recorded a tribute to the historic site called “Burke Estate Blues”, https://burkeblues.bandcamp.com/releases . Hudson is passionate about their message. To get the whole picture, you need to listen to all the tracks in one sit down. Like the Who’s “Tommy”, “Burke Estate Blues” is whimsical and yet turns rather scary in places as its central theme is about the future of this treasured land.

Wizard of Oz Billie Blake

Photo: By MGM (ebay posting) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

No matter who has possessed the deed, since 1910 it has, and will always be The Billie Burke Estate. The good times had by the “Hasting kids” many nearing or well past retirement age are still alive and well, kept close to their hearts. There is a Facebook tribute page to The Billie Burke Estate, https://www.facebook.com/groups/37841781006/ and other pages created and frequently visited by Hastings residents, past and present. There’s even a one man band, a performer named Andy Liotta, who calls himself The Billy Burke Estate, a stage name inspired by his time as a child sledding like the rest of the kids who fondly treasure memories of the all the fun had at this iconic Hastings landmark. The last track on his 2005 album, “Giving It All Away”, https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bburkeestate , simply titled “Love Song”, contains haunting lyrics about what is important in life sung to a simple, yet moving piano melody. The mood that the song invokes is just perfect to go with the remembrances of those lucky enough to have enjoyed those carefree times. The innocence of picking wild berries from the brambles and forging lifetime friendships at the place with “the” tree are part of the legacy for those who love The Billy Burke estate in Hastings on Hudson. After all, it was “just a little while ago”, because, after childhood, time really does speed up as the decades pass.

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