Woolworth stores are gone, but opulent houses remain
Frank Winfield Woolworth made a rich statement with mansions and homes built in New York.
New York Times News Service
Crescent Beach Road in Glen Cove, N.Y., is a pleasant suburban stretch, all pitched roofs and tidy green lawns. On a leisurely drive, it might look like a million other serene spots around the country, until suddenly. Something very different has emerged from around the bend: a towering marble archway about 15 feet high, which appears at the side of the road like a gateway to another era, fallen from the sky.
Through that arch is Winfield Hall, built in the early 20th century by Frank Winfield Woolworth, the founder of the now-defunct five-and-dime stores that carried his name. The enormous stately mansion, with its accompanying gardens and marble fountain, looks like a cross between an old federal building and a house belonging to the character Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice."
Though it is more than a little unusual among its neighbors, Winfield Hall was not the only grand building that Woolworth commissioned. Most famously, there is the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan, which is being converted to condominiums at its 30 uppermost floors. But there were others as well, including a mansion for himself on Fifth Avenue and East 80th Street in Manhattan, which has since been demolished, and three elaborate town houses just a few yards away, one for each of his daughters.
The surviving Woolworth mansions in Glen Cove and in Manhattan each exist today in different states of grace; some are single-family homes in various degrees of repair, while one has been chopped into smaller co-ops. But all of them do share a particular scent, deep in their mortar and marble, left over from when they rose from the ground. That scent is money.
"They wanted to make the statement that they had arrived," said Charles Young, an architect who did extensive remodeling on one of the 80th Street homes. "This was the way you did it."
And especially for men like Woolworth, whose money was new, Young continued, "they all wanted it to look like their grandfathers had built the house."
According to "Five and Ten," a book about Woolworth and his business by John K. Winkler, the house in Glen Cove had what Winkler called a Louis XV room, paneled in old ivory and antique gold; a Louis XIV bedroom, covered in murals and brocade wall hangings; and a French Gothic room, with vaulted ceilings and a stone mantel. There was also a bathroom in the house that was an "elaborate copy of one designed for Napoleon," Winkler said.
Winkler's book also recounted the reaction of Woolworth's father, John Woolworth, a farmer, when he first saw his son's Fifth Avenue mansion.
"Well, Frank, you always did like to lay it on thick," he said.
That structure was torn down in the 1920s to make way for an apartment building at 990 Fifth Avenue, but the houses around the corner have fared better.
No. 2 East 80th St., whose white marble facade has been smoothed and rounded by time, is now three co-op apartments. No. 4 East 80th St., the widest of the three buildings and the most distinct, has a limestone facade that looks a bit like an expertly dripped sand castle. It was the home of Lucille Roberts, founder of the gyms bearing her name, and has been listed for sale since last spring for $90 million; it is the most expensive single-family listing in New York City, according to the real-estate website Streeteasy.
The translucent marble face of No. 6, meanwhile -- designed, like its sister buildings, by Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert -- is so immaculately preserved that it looks like it might have been completed sometime in the middle of last week. It was bought by the philanthropist and collector Frederick Koch in 1986, and was meticulously renovated by Young, the architect, a few years later.
Step inside, and one is greeted in the entryway by white marble in every direction. Marble floors, marble walls, a marble fountain and a staircase that is marble down to its chubby banister spindles. When Koch bought the house, however, the banisters were made of real marble only on the first floor; above that, they were wood painted to match what was below. Today, the stone stretches all the way up.
"Much of what you see now is actually new, but it was created in the language of the original architect," Young explained. "We created the stairs all the way up to the skylight as though C.P.H. Gilbert had had a great day."
The detail throughout the house is so intricate that it is almost reminiscent of Napoleon's apartments in the Louvre Museum in Paris, but without the thumbprints of millions of visitors. Tiny, delicate flowers crawl in relief along peach-color walls. There is an explosion of gold filigree above a chandelier in the dining room. There is even a whirlpool tub made entirely of marble in the basement, and two 18th-century lapis lazuli pillars -- the same deep blue found in the oceans shown on nature programs -- stand proudly in one of the bathrooms.
"We had fun with that," Young said.
This sort of painstaking renovation, however, comes neither quickly nor cheaply, Young explained, and he was lucky to work with Koch, who felt no need to skimp on either. But not every house has such resources.
The house in Glen Cove is by far the largest of the surviving mansions, but that can be as great a burden as it is a blessing. On a recent visit to the property, the grass was freshly mowed, but the garden was badly in need of a trim, and the facade wanted a scrubbing. Some rooms were well maintained; others looked worn.
Millicent Carey, who owns Winfield Hall with her husband, Martin (brother of a former New York governor, Hugh Carey), said they bought the place about 30 years ago. The property was on and off the market for several years -- in 2010, it was listed with Glen Key Realty for $19.5 million, according to an article in Newsday -- but no longer. Today, the Careys rent it out for film and photo shoots, and Millicent Carey said they were using the proceeds to make restorations, in the hopes of bringing back a little more of the home's former glory.
"We feel in love with the interiors," she said, as she flipped on 15 light switches and entered a giant ballroom, its ceiling splashed with gold, and an organ hidden in the walls behind wooden latticework. She pointed to a smiling mustachioed face, one of four carved in wood at each corner of a large picture window. Millicent Carey said she believed it to be a certain former resident keeping an eye on the place.
"That's Mr. Woolworth," she said.