John Eberhardt 1921 – 2014
As you arrive by ferry to Cherry Grove to your left sits a castle like building that stands out with it’s white facade. Is it a palace of some long ago prince? I guess you could say it is. John Eberhardt created a fantasy here. His own. That he has left for all to experience. He also left his history, that is now ours to share…
1949. Belvedere owner John Eberhardt had first arrived to Cherry Grove with a friend, and stayed in a pup tent on the beach. After two years or so, he started to build. Eberhardt with one helper would put up frame houses in a matter of a week or so. It is estimated that he is responsible for the construction of over 50 homes through the years. These homes, unlike the hotel which he began construction on at the same time, were advertised. Ads would tempt potential renters or buyers, telling them about their dream summer homes complete with wood deck, and fireplace. All for $3200.00 excluding the lot. With the lot they were a whopping $5000.00. Before John lived in the frame house he built on Maryland Walk, and wintered in Palm Beach, he was living in New Jersey. Born in Maplewood in 1921, he later built and resided in a home in Edgewater with a view of the Hudson and Manhattan. He vacationed in Key West at the time where he had purchased a house as well. By trade he was an artist, even though he had no formal training. Eberhardt owned a company responsible for designing and manufacturing items for opulent window displays at many of the large New York City department stores. Especially for Christmas. He made things like “Santaland, little elf houses, and ducks by the hundred. Mostly out of paper mache.” While he was building his Edgewater home out of salvaged material from a defunct mansion in Short Hills New Jersey he was working as a scenic artist for a small opera company and for ABC and CBS . According to Eberhardt , “on company time, I would do a lot of my homes construction, and if I was needed on the set , I had a small fast MG sports car, so I could get to Fort Lee fast where the scenic painting company was located.” His designing jobs kept him in the money, and allowed him the freedom to build his dream homes.
It was in the summer of 1957 that John Eberhardt built his Belvedere. The main section took a season to build, “without ornamentation of course,”but by July 4th of that first season there were already guests. Although they did not have the luxury of a roof, and according to Eberhardt, “of course it rained but everyone had a great time anyway.” The hotel, with it’s continuous building, much from Newport mansions has taken on a life of its own, according to the whims of the designer and builder. When asked what his main inspiration was to do something in a Baroque style John Eberhardt, without skipping a beat replied ” I was kind of thinking of Venice,” a city to which he traveled often. In 1980 he met his partner Craig Burns, then adopted him in 1989 making him legally Craig Eberhardt.
The Belvedere is in fact such a tribute to Venetian architecture that the mayor of Venice sent their city’s flag as a gift. It still flies above the hotel’s ornate towers along with the american flag and a pride flag. It also has it’s own chapel in the quiet, gated entry way just like any Italian villa.
“I first met John at a bar in New York and went home with him,” Craig says. “He invited me out to stay with him on the island, and when I got there, lo and behold, it was The Belvedere.” After staying there the first time, Craig didn’t leave for 13 years.
A master carpenter, Craig helped John usher in the establishment’s second life. Together they added a pool and Jacuzzi area and started to add on to the house, annexing the buildings next door (which John also owned) to make additional wings to the right of the main house. Craig also built all the balconies, decks and private baths that guests enjoy today.
While Craig was building, John was decorating. He painted all the gorgeous trompe l’oeil murals that are still in the house today and rounded up all the antiques—many of them from Europe—that give the house its infamous interior design. Each of the rooms was decorated in a particular theme, and while some of the hardware, fabric and linens have been updated, they’re still in the style that John intended.
Also in the ’80s, the hotel went from coed to being a men’s-only, clothing-optional resort. Since then the hotel has had a rather frisky vibe, one that the staff neither actively encourages nor frowns upon. Craig Eberhardt says they’ll never slap anyone’s hands as long as they’re being respectful.
The structure was completed by the early ’90s, but that doesn’t mean the building hasn’t been touched since. The bell tower, one of the most noticeable features of the estate, blew off during Hurricane Gloria in 1985—destroying part of the house on its way down—and had to be rebuilt. In 2005, the top half of one of the other towers blew off in a tornado and had to be replaced. Eberhardt is happy to report that none of the building should be toppling over anytime soon.
When Craig and John’s relationship ended in 1994, Craig moved to Florida and started a real estate career. John continued to run The Belvedere, but due to his advancing age, he couldn’t tend the property like he could in his younger years and it fell into a state of disrepair. In 2003, John asked Craig to take over the property and he moved to Florida full time.
In 2005 Craig brought his new boyfriend, Julian Dorcelien, up from Florida—where he was working for CNN—to Fire Island to help him get the guest house back in shape.
“When I got here, it was raining and gray and you know how it is in Fire Island in the middle of April,” Julian says about his first trip to the property. “Everything was shuttered. It looked like, I don’t want to say Grey Gardens, but that’s the best way to describe it. It was this beautiful place that’d gotten out of hand.”
John & Craig 2009.
After super storm Sandy the building required many repairs. Now completed it has given the Belvedere new life. Today the Belvedere is a destination. People come from all over to experience it’s castle like elegance.
To book your stay go to: http://belvederefireisland.com/