Long Island is unparalleled when it comes to gilded mansions of the Roaring Twenties. Tycoons with renowned names like J.P. Morgan, Vanderbilt and DuPont all built their “play palaces” there…it was the height of convenience. The businessmen would spend the week working in New York City, while their wives and children enjoyed the estate life. The men would join their families on the weekend. Lavish parties were commonplace as the millionaires all tried to outdo one another.
Frank Winfield Woolworth, the legendary “five and dime” king, chose Glen Cove on Long Island to call home. Woolworth’s was something of a pre-cursor to today’s Walmart, selling household items at attractively low prices. This made Mr. Woolworth a huge financial success. He chose to spend a nice chunk of his change on building the perfect home. When his current home was destroyed by a mysterious fire, Woolworth immediately went to work on building Winfield Hall, the plans for which, serendipitously, were already drawn. With walls and pillars of marble, the house ended up costing a cool nine million dollars in an age when nine million dollars was mad money. The grand staircase alone cost two million dollars!
For all his lavish spending and opulent building, his money could not buy happiness. His wife, Jennie Creighton, the mother of his three daughters suffered from dementia, slowly losing her grip on reality. His daughter Edna, mother of the notorious socialite Barbara Hutton, committed suicide. Legend has it that on the night she took her life, Mr. Woolworth was hosting a party for a group of his friends and associates. During the festivities, while a storm raged outside, a bolt of lightning struck the marble fireplace in the entrance hall and sent a crack through a family coat of arms that adorned the mantle. The coat of arms was decorated with a relief sculpture of Woolworth, his wife and his three girls. The crack from the lightning split the likeness of Edna, the other family members’ images were untouched. The next morning, Edna was found dead by her five year old daughter Barbara, having taken her life at some point during that stormy night.
Woolworth died two years after Winfield was complete, one year after his daughter Edna. Petrified of dentists, he delayed having an infection treated until it was too late; he died of a septic infection. His wife inherited his incredible fortune, but suffering from her illness, she never even realized his money had all come to her.
After the Woolworths moved on, the house sat empty for years, and was eventually purchased in 1929 by the wife of Richard S. Reynolds, of the R.S. Reynolds Metal Company fame. After her tenure, the house became the Grace Downs Academy, a business school for young ladies, then was purchased by Martin Carey, brother to former Governor Hugh Carey of New York.
During the years it spent as a school, the house acquired its reputation for being haunted. The Marie Antionette Room was the most notorious of the rooms. People reported hearing the sounds of a woman crying during the night, though the room was kept empty. A secretary who stayed in the room one night was awoken by the crying woman and was told by the sobbing spirit that she would be joining her soon. The secretary wondered to friends what the meaning of the encounter could be and coincidentally, she was dead within two months of a heart attack.
A caretaker of the home claimed to have ongoing communication with an unknown something that would interact with him by tapping messages on pipes in the basement.
There are claims that Woolworth was active in his interest in the occult during the time he lived at the mansion. Supposedly (I’ve never been inside to validate these claims) there are occult symbols utilized throughout the frieze-work and other adornments on the interior and exterior of the building.
Organ music is sometimes heard in the house, which is somewhat fitting as Mr. Carey enjoys singing opera. Perhaps the spirits only wish to accompany him in his musical endeavors. A wispy white mist has been seen flitting through the corridors of the 56 room mansion. In the garden people have caught sight of morose woman in a faded blue gown, who is thought to be the same wraith who haunts the Marie Antionette room. Tales of paranormal happenings have been recorded in the recent past, while the mansion was being leased by the Pall Corporation as their headquarters.
With all the tales of the ghosts of yesteryear, it’s a happy change of pace that I can share at least one tale of not death, but resurrection. Woolworth’s, the famous five and dime store chain that went out of business in the 1990′s, has risen from the ashes in the guise of one of their more popular divisions, Foot Locker. Although nowhere near a five and dime, it’s nice to know that Woolworth’s lives on at least in some form!