Author’s Note: As I was editing my writings on Long Island recently I made a discovery. I’d never written about Winfield Hall. It was one of the first haunted houses I went searching for, and had wandered around it a few times. It was one of the stories that captivated me, and I’d forgotten all about it for over a decade.
Then I found Monica Randall’s Winfield: Living in the Shadow of the Woolworths on Amazon, digital even, and found myself drawn to it once more.
At its heart, Winfield Hall is the record of one man. Not the family that lived there with him, nor those who came later. Those who found ill fortune within its walls were just collateral damage.
It’s F.W. Woolworth’s temple to himself. And it’s damned hard to find love and happiness in a house built for a narcissist. Even for those who shared his name.
When it comes to haunted houses, there are some which are legendary.
Winfield Hall. It even sounds like a haunted house. A massive chunk of marble stacked up in an imposing fashion in the town of Glen Cove, on Long Island, it was built by F.W. Woolworth. Went by Frank, unless you had to call him Mr. Woolworth, which most people did.
By the time he built Winfield Hall, he’d already built the tallest building in the world, The Woolworth Building, having made a fortune selling things which cost five or ten cents. Winfield Hall was only slightly cheaper than the Woolworth Building.
The house that Frank built had nine bedrooms and ten baths, sixteen fireplaces. Plus a library, study, music room, ballroom, billiard room, formal dining room, solarium plus porches, patios and secret passages. All decked out in marble, exotic hardwoods and gold.
There was an older house on the site which Frank bought, mainly to house the art he’d collected, and his family which he’d neglected. That house mysteriously burnt. The fire wasn’t particularly mysterious. The fact that he’d already drawn up plans for Winfield Hall set tongues a wagging though.
Winfield Hall was built to be showy, and it succeeds. From the imposing arch over the front gates, echoing the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the driveway leads up a slight hill, obscuring the house beyond. A gentle curve and the garage and bell tower appears, the fountain and then the house, the marble still gleaming after all these years.
The lady of Winfield Hall
Once upon a time the drive was lined with life sized Grecian statues, which have long since disappeared. A lot of the Gold Coast of this period has disappeared.
Winfield Hall is the only marble house left standing on Long Island. If the exterior isn’t enough marble for you, the seemingly simple staircase design in the foyer is pink marble, and cost in the neighborhood of two million dollars in World War One dollars. That’s $47,000,000 in today’s dollars, or enough to buy about 90 averages houses in the surrounding area.
The ceiling in that room is trimmed in 24kt gold. And there are fifty five more rooms awaiting you.
Monica Randall, who lived in the house for some time came away from there with a new appreciation for the supernatural. Most of what we know about what goes on inside those walls came from her, and her book Winfield, Living in the Shadow of the Woolworths. It’s a fascinating tale, part history, part folklore, part gossip and part memoir. That the lines between all these are blurred doesn’t take away from its importance.
Remember, as much as anything else, this is a ghost story, and ghost stories can seldom be said to be completely factual. We’re still waiting on that definitive evidence that ghosts still exist, let alone the rules under which they operate. Any discussions of ghosts will therefore always be somewhat subjective.
The important question, is does the book make you believe? It does. It was a little detail that made me a believer. The way she described hearing voices in the house, mumbling, undecipherable but you could tell they weren’t of that time … I’ve heard those voices myself. In a few different places.
If you Google Winfield Hall, you’ll usually find at least a mention of Ms. Randall’s book in whatever you choose to read, along with stories told by others. What they usually leave out, and often don’t even realize, is those stories come from her book as well. Judging from how often they’re retold online, they must be believable.
Most of the reports of ghosts end with the last chapter of her book. Though of late, there have been reports of the supernatural from the company which currently leases Winfield as their corporate headquarters.
A view of Winfield Hall
The first time I came up the driveway to Winfield Hall was on foot, blatantly trespassing. I had hoped to get a glimpse of the house from the road, but that’s impossible, and the front gate was open. I parked the car and walked in.
I was braver in those days. Or more stupid. Around that same time, the Russians let loose a pack of dogs on me outside one of their retreat houses, also on Long Island as I climbed a tree to take photos over the fence. The whole time CIA operatives were laughing their asses off in the top floor of the old folk’s home across the lawn, where they spied on the Russians.
The next time I tried crashing Winfield Hall I wasn’t so lucky. I finally found the nerve to drive through the gates, only to find several people already there, who obviously belonged there, and knew I didn’t. Not having a Long Island accent, and Indiana plates on the car, I plead stupidity and asked if they knew where the Holocaust Museum was.
They said no, even though it just was just down the road.
I hadn’t figured out yet that you could drive down the side streets and get great views of the house. In particular, the gardens in back of the house, with statues, gazebos, wide staircases – it looked like Gatsby and Daisy might stroll out at any time.
But that’s a small consolation for missing the view from the front drive, as the house comes slowly into view. It looks small in photos, but in person it looms.
And there in the trees off the veranda, you could swear you see a lady in a blue dress looking out on you.
From rural poverty to a titan of business
When Frank was a boy, he wanted to buy his mother a birthday present. He only had fifty cents, so he took his brother shopping to do the best they could. They saw a scarf in the window, it was in their price range it turned out, but the sales clerk made fun of them for paying in loose change.
That stuck in Frank’s craw. He decided then and there, and told his brother, he wanted to start a store where anyone could shop, rich or poor, and buy several things for fifty cents. And not be made fun of for paying in change.
That scarf built an empire that changed retail shopping in America, and soon enough the world. It turned out Woolworth Five and Dime was actually more popular in Britain than here. A slightly different name to reflect the currency, but the same concept. Get the best price straight from the manufacturer by buying in bulk, display the product so it sells itself, and fix the price.
Frank got stinking rich off people’s nickels and dimes. His noble aspiration accomplished, he found himself addicted to business as a competitive sport. There was always more money to be made, more ways to show off your wealth. And many rich men showing off their own success to compete with.
That meant he didn’t have much time for his family. He showered them with gifts, and with one of the most amazing homes ever built. But you can’t buy time.
It’s one thing his wife complained about before she slipped into premature senility and madness. Jennie Creighton had rescued Frank when he had a nervous breakdown following the failure of his first business. She nursed him to health, got him his old job back, at a higher salary and was there when he built his empire. And watched as she lost him to a golden idol.
Above the fireplace in that foyer is a Coat of Arms he designed. It’s like Woolworth himself, pompous and overblown. He’s in profile at the top, looking regal in a medieval helmet, marching off to war. His wife’s profile is below him, encased in a knight’s helmet, obscuring her entire face.
Below that are his three daughters, with a crack right through one’s portrait. From that night …
The interlopers at Winfield Hall
There’s something curious about Winfield Hall. There are times it doesn’t want company.
When there were no more Woolworths to keep it occupied, it sat empty for years, before Julia Louise Parham, the wife of Richard S. Reynolds, founder of the Reynold’s Wrap fortune bought it. From what I can tell it was her house more than his. She lived there for years, alone most of the time except for the dwindling number of servants and gardeners. One or two people living in the house doesn’t matter much to the Hall. It takes more people than that to fill Winfield.
She kept the house pretty much the way it was when the Woolworths left it. But it is said she did start keeping the Marie Antoinette Room locked.
After she moved on Winfield became Grace Downs Academy, a business school for young ladies, more correctly a finishing school, until they ran into some mysterious misfortunes with a few of the students. A secretary staying in the Marie Antionette room woke in the middle of night by a crying woman, who told her that soon she would be joining her. Within a couple of months the secretary was dead of a heart attack. A student who smuggled her boyfriend into the house also spent the night in the room, saw that same spirit and was soon dead of a car crash.
Rumors still swirl that Mrs. Reynold’s heard the woman crying in that room at night which is why she took to locking the door. She also said it was always cold in there. And of course she had heard the rumors of what was supposed to have happened there.
At any rate, scandal and the extraordinary costs in keeping up Winfield spelled doom for the Grace Downs Academy and it was put up on the auction block, along with its contents in 1976.
The furnishings the academy didn’t use went into storage in the garage, where it’s likely that millions of dollars of items were ruined by weather and rodents. Most of the rest of the original furnishings disappeared in the auction, items worth tens of thousands of dollars going for a few hundred. At the auction itself the house failed to sell, and it looked like it would be razed. But was then bought soon by Martin Carey along with other investors, which counted a brother as governor of New York.
Today it’s the headquarters of the Pall Corporation, which makes industrial filters. A not so glamorous use of one of the grandest houses ever built on Long Island.
Though glamour continues from time to time. Several tv shows and films have been filmed there, including porn. Taylor Swift recently recorded a video at Winfield. It’s helped pay its own way over the years.
What you don’t find here are the kind of joyous lives it would appear on the surface that Winfield was built for.
When is a house not a home?
One thing Winfield Hall doesn’t seem to be good at is being a home.
Woolworth didn’t have time to enjoy it in life, as he died two years after the home was built … septic poisoning from an infected tooth. One of the richest men who ever lived was felled by a fear of dentists.
Stories abound that Woolworth was fascinated by the occult, particularly Egyptian occult practices. There are certainly bizarre elements of Egyptian art in Winfield Hall, as well as the mausoleum where most of the Woolworths of that era lie still. It’s also true that hidden throughout the architectural details of Winfield Hall is the face of Frank himself, looking down when you least expect it.
Whether true or not, it’s believed by many that Woolworth still wanders his marble mansion. In particular, he’s been known to play the pipe organ, even though he couldn’t play it in life, and supposedly hired a full time organist. It was so loud the neighbors could hear him banging away, and there have been several who claim to hear it in the night, even though it’s no longer playable.
Monica Randall seems convinced that it’s not just the ghost of Woolworth that remains in Winfield. There are many secret passages, secret rooms built into the design of the place. It’s her belief that undisoved in Winfield is a replica of the King’s Chamber from the Great Pyramids, and there you’ll find the ancient Eqyptian sarcophagus he was known to have bought, and inside the man himself.
After all, it took nearly a year to build the Woolworth tomb, and during that time his corpse had to be stashed away someplace. Perhaps it just never made the final journey, and was never supposed to.
Winfield is a man’s house. It’s not feminine. In particular, it’s one man’s house, and perhaps nobody could ever really understand its secrets except for Frank.
Woolworth also bought relics of Napoleon, whom he was fascinated by. It’s said that his servants grew accustomed to seeing their boss walk around the house in a uniform once worn by Napoleon.
Woolworth was obsessed with the little general, that much is obvious. He slept in a bed which once belonged to him, in a bedroom which connected to his mistress’s bedroom – The Josephine Room- by a hidden passage.
Meanwhile his wife slept in a plain room at the far end of the house, with a single bed and a rocking chair, her mind gone and a nurse sitting outside the door.
Along with the peculiar carvings of Woolworth’s mug blended with mythological and other symbols, you find bees, the symbols of Napoleon. Napoleon was obsessed with the Eqyptians and their ideas of immortality, just like Woolworth.
So maybe symbols of Egyptian deities, or serpents wriggling across the ceiling was just another fascination. Or maybe it was much more, something that made the house more of a living thing.
The bizarre nature and details of the place are such that Woolworth’s granddaughter described Winfield Hall as a house of horrors. This was Woolworth’s baby, one of his last major projects. Say of it what you will, what it does well is reflect Frank’s personality. It takes a megalomaniac to build a house like this, just as it takes one to build a business and fortune like he did.
Winfield is still there whilst most of the other mansions of that day have gone away. Even in its stripped down state, it still contains the code Frank designed into the place. His thoughts, beliefs, dreams and other secrets are still written there, still undeciphered.
Regardless of where his body lies, F.W. Woolworth still lives in Winfield Hall.
The crack in the mantle
The most famous ghost of Winfield Hall is believed to be that of Woolworth’s daughter, Edna. She had fallen for one of her father’s business associates, who turned out to be a loser. He drank, cheated and made his wife’s life a living hell. But he was rich, well connected and so he must be forgiven. Again and again.
The official record states she died from suffocation, brought on by an infection, in her room at the Plaza Hotel. A more commonly accepted story is that when she found out about yet another mistress, she donned her finest lace dress, and knocked back a fatal dose of poison.
That same night, out on Long Island, F.W. Woolworth was having a party. A storm had come up out of nowhere and a bolt of lightning came through the open window and struck the mantlepiece, the one with him and his family’s portraits. The lightning strike somehow spared the mantlepiece, except for a crack through his daughter Edna’s face.
You can find less sensational accounts, but that’s the basic story and that’s pretty creepy.
There are those who say she fell in love with a chauffeur, or someone else of a class which her family deemed a nobody. She wanted to ditch the loser husband and follow her heart. Daddy wouldn’t have any of it, and if daddy said no, that’s the end of the story.
Some say she died at Winfield, in the Marie Antionette room, and that’s why that door was always locked. Even before Mrs. Reynolds moved in.
Students of the Grace Downs Academy talked of hearing a woman crying behind the door of the locked Marie Antionette Room. She’s been seen walking the halls, in various rooms and according Wikipedia, which normally doesn’t go in for such stories, the gardens.
For many, Winfield Hall is a house of horrors. It was built to be where the emperor of capitalism was going to live out his days in opulent exile, surrounded by his family and friends. Instead his fortune went to his wife alone, as he had neglected to sign his final will. Her mind was almost completely gone by then, so when the fortune came to his granddaughter, Barbara Hutton, it made her one of the richest women in the world.
She was the unfortunate child of Woolworth’s daughter Edna, the one who found her mother’s body. Following her mother’s death, she was sent to live at Winfield with her grandfather, who died within a year as well. By most accounts, she wasn’t fond of the house either.
Since she gained her mother’s inheritance, as well as what she received on the death of her slimy father, the brother of E.F. Hutton, she was one of richest women in the world. She became one of the most famous socialites of her day, “the poor little rich girl,” and married often, including to Cary Grant. It’s said all of her husbands with the exception of Cary took her for all they could. What they didn’t take, she freely gave away. It’s believed at the time she died she was down to $3,500 bucks.
Oddly enough, she bought an estate in Britain which had recently burned, tore it down and built a new house, more grand than the first. Echoing her ambitious grandfather, it had the second largest garden in London. Eventually she sold it to the U.S. Government for a buck.
A voyeur at Winfield Hall
One trick I learned trespassing on the Gold Coast of Long Island was the tweed suit. It’s a timeless look and it was pricey. But when you wander the Gold Coast with hair below your shoulders you’re an old hippie and they call the cops. Wear the suit and an impressive camera and you’re an artist.
Still, I couldn’t just walk up to the front door of Winfield Hall freely, I had to resort to what people did in the old days, when folks like the Woolworths lived behind the fence. I peered through the cracks.
For a while, much of the fence was torn away, exposing the side of the house overlooking the gardens. I felt like a voyeur, hoping to catch the glimpse of that lovely lady in blue, who I knew was out of my league, in life just as surely as she is in death. I laughed at myself and the thought … till I suddenly flashed on the image of a bit of curl and an eye staring back at me terrifyingly through the greenery.
It was my imagination, but it was easy for the imagination to run wild here. Winfield isn’t in ruins, it’s fairly well kept. But it’s a shell of itself, and you don’t feel like you’re looking into the past, but rather a faint echo of the past.
There’s something missing in the garden at Winfield Hall, as well as the house. It’s missing life. Or perhaps that was never Frank’s intent, to create a home for the living. Perhaps it was built to be his great pyramid disguising his tomb. And perhaps, like Great Pyramid itself, the tomb is empty.
For a second there, hiding in the shadows and hidden in the bushes, I thought I saw a woman hurry by in front of me, the faint fragrance of flowers, and the sound of a dress swishing past. My imagination added a soft laugh. Or could it have been crying?
It didn’t matter. Imagination or not, at Winfield, if your name isn’t Woolworth, you don’t belong. And that ghost was out of my league.
Fred K. LeMaster
Winfield Hall is The Mausoleum for Frank! For Ms. Edna, Her Poor Soul, (Sheusy Have Looked A Goddess, Like Venus). Of Which I Sincerely Hope That Ms. Edna Will Some Time In The Very Near Future Could Truly See That Blinding Light At The End Of That Tunnel, Therefore Ms. Edna Would Eventually Follow That Blinding Light, Which Would Follow Her Foot Steps At St. Peter’s Pearly Gates, Then She Will Find Comfort In The Open Arms Of Our Dear Lord Jesus Christ, AMEN!!!