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Weird NJ: The Spanish Mansion and Al Capone

Neil Slowik for Weird NJ

BERKELEY – Located in the wood on the outskirts of Pinewald, near Cedar Creek, can be found the mysterious ruins of a hacienda-style dwelling that has come to be known in local lore as The Spanish Mansion. Today all that remains of the once opulent home are a few crumbling concrete archways, shrouded by intertwining thorn bush tendrils and poison ivy vines.
The actual name of the property was Cedar Crest and was once the home of B.W. Sangor, who developed Pinewald in the early 20th Century. But whenever the Spanish Mansion is brought up in conversation, someone will inevitably chime in with the rumors of Al Capone running an illegal liquor operation at the site. Most people who are familiar with the area seem to enjoy hearing and passing on these stories, but generally dismiss them as works of fiction. Well, it turns out that there might be a legitimate reason for the property's association with the mob after all.
B.W. Sangor was a close friend and business associate of Harry Donenfeld. This is the same Harry Donenfeld who at one point owned Detective Comics (DC). Donenfeld had ties within the New York mob community and reputedly engaged in a number of illegal activities, including running booze during Prohibition. Sangor was crooked as well and did time in the state slammer for embezzlement and larceny. I've never seen direct evidence of it, but I think that it is highly likely that Donenfeld visited Cedar Crest on one or more occasions. Given the friendship and business relationship between these two men it's possible that Cedar Crest really was used to produce or stash alcohol during Prohibition. Now, obviously that's a far cry from the locally circulated rumors of mob assassins burning bodies at the site, or a rat's maze of tunnels being located beneath Pinewald's sandy soil, but Sangor's association with Donenfeld definitely lends a little credence to some of the mob rumors.
Most of the mob rumors about the Spanish Mansion, however, involve Al Capone. So, did Capone ever set foot in Pinewald? I'd say the likelihood of that hinges on whether or not Harry Donenfeld, and possibly B.W. Sangor by extension had any verifiable ties with Capone's branch of the mob. It is also worth noting that the Spanish Mansion is not the only location in the area that is said to have ties to Capone, the former Royal Pines Hotel in nearby Bayville has long be rumored to have once been a favorite haunt of Scarface. As far as I've been able to determine though, Donenfeld's contacts were solely with the NY mob, and not Chicago. However, as it is said, there is a kernel of truth at the core of every legend. I often wonder if the locals of the day were confusing Donenfeld for Capone. In the meantime, I continue to look for more evidence.
The preceding article an excerpt from the brand new issue of Weird NJ magazine, #43, which is now available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com.

Weird NJ searches for Al Capone's summer home deep in the Jersey Pines

Though best known for his criminal career in Chicago, Al “Scarface” Capone actually began his life of lawlessness in Brooklyn, and expanded the reach of his Prohibition-era crime syndicate into New Jersey and Philadelphia, smuggling and bootlegging liquor, bribing government figures and dealing in prostitution in the early 1920s.
Fans of the popular HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” see the criminal exploits of a young (fictionalized) Capone at the Jersey Shore in Atlantic City. But how much time did that crime boss actually spend in the Garden State and just what was he doing here?
That’s what Weird NJ wondered ever since we first began hearing rumors of Al Capone’s summer home being located somewhere in Bayville, near Toms River in Ocean County.
When we decided to see what we could dig up on the Chicago crime boss’s travels here, the only bit of information we had to go on was that the alleged summer home was now called Crystal Lake Healthcare and Rehabilitation (formerly known as the Bayview Convalescent Home), and was located near Double Trouble Road. (Hmmm, sounded like gangster’s lingo to us.)
When we inquired about the place and its Capone connection at a local deli, the girl behind the counter told us, “Oh yes, I’ve heard that for years. The place is just down the road. It’s a 10-story building that just rises right up out of the pines!”
A man standing by the magazine stand chimed in with “And his mother was there, too! I heard that he actually built the place for her, as a kind of retirement home.”
Armed with these few scraps of hearsay evidence, we headed to the diner next door and asked our waitress if she had also heard legend.
“Oh, that’s old news, honey,” she snorted. “Al Capone built the hospital for his mother, who was a patient there.”
So we headed over to the Crystal Lake Healthcare and Rehabilitation center, where we noted that certain architectural features of the large, imposing-looking building, such as Corinthian columns and reliefs depicting sailing and hunting scenes, gave the place an odd appearance for a hospital.
The adjacent Crystal Lake was overgrown with reeds; a long forgotten cement deck overlooking the lake was crumbling slowly into the water. We inquired at the admitting desk about the date of the building, and the woman behind the counter was more than happy to tell us she had a brochure that described the place in the 1920s.
We told her we’d heard a legend about Al Capone visiting the hotel when it was the Royal Pines, or perhaps when it was a hospital and sanatorium known as the Dennis Rest Resort.
“Well, I can’t vouch for that,” she replied, “but if he did visit here, he came when it was a hotel. That story has been circulating for a long time.”
It was then that one of the administrators showed us a brochure that someone had found in an attic and brought to the hospital. The front of the brochure said “Royal Pines Hotel” and boasted fine dining and dancing. The booklet had many pictures of the hotel in all its Art Deco splendor, including a grand view of the Indian Room, the Mediterranean-style solarium and tiled outdoor patio. The pictures also showed a manicured Crystal Lake in its heyday, with guests swimming and gondolas gliding across the water’s surface.
We walked into a room that is now used for the elderly residents to converge and watch TV. Looking at the intricately designed rafters in the ceiling, we could see that at one time this beautiful dining hall could have very easily attracted high-profile members of society. We also suspected that, due to the location of this hotel just on the outskirts of the Pine Barrens, prohibition laws might have been somewhat less strictly enforced here than they were elsewhere.
“This was the only hotel stop in the 1920s midway between New York and Atlantic City,” said our guide. Then we asked him if he had ever heard any stories about about the appearance of Scarface at the hotel.
“Oh yeah, I’ve even tried to find the hidden tunnel entrances that are supposed to be all through this place, but I’ve yet to discover them.”
Whether or not the Royal Pines was ever a favorite hideout of Al Capone is still a mystery. Perhaps he was just one of many guests who at one time enjoyed a stay at this once luxurious retreat, leaving a local legend in his wake that would persist for decades after his visit.
Two things are certain though. In its prime, this place must have been one hell of a joint; and if you ask anyone you might meet in Beachwood or Bayville about Al “Scarface” Capone these days, they will undoubtedly point you in the direction of the Crystal Lake