History

Essay: The hidden past of Wildwood State Park

While looking for places to hike around Long Island, I have stumbled upon Wildwood State Park. The park boasts an amazing 767 acres where people come from all over to hike, fish and even camp. This post though is not about the park’s amenities or the activities that can be done at the state park, however it’s about the history of the park that has been buried.

While hiking Wildwood you would never guess that the park was once two separate estates, unless you made it all the way to a back corner of the park, where an old carriage house sit’s locked up, okay you may inquire about the row of tree’s that also look like it may have been a drive way to a ‘gold coast estate’ as well.

These two thing’s got me thinking about what this park was originally, only hiking Wildwood twice myself I decided to dive into Google and see if I could bring up a quick history of the park. Googling failed, majorly, to bring any kind of information about the parks history to light.. So I dug even further, and further. What I found was amazing! Wildwood State Park was actually TWO separate estates. The original Wildwood Estate, which the park is named after, was owned by a Roland Mitchell. The second estate was the Driftwood Manor which was owned by Joseph G. Robin.

The Wildwood Estate:

Doing a simple Google search for the Wildwood Estate in Wading River brings up plenty results, but non of them actually provide any real information on the rich history of the plot of land, it just brings up generic information about the Wildwood State Park, or houses you can purchase in Wading River. This stalemate has forced me to visit a few sites that are not that search friendly, the newspaper archives!

Many people believe that the original estate which the State Park currently occupies was considered to be the Wildwood Estate, including myself, would be wrong. The original property was just known as the “Mitchell Property”. This is seen as factual by the countless news articles from the year 1926 where they refer to the purchase of 300 acres in Wading River for a proposed park.

The original owner of the property was a Ronald Mitchell. According to an article titled “Original Area Stories of the Past in Wading River & Shoreham” by Elisabeth S. Lapham,

Ronald had made plans for the area to be a woodland country estate which would sit on top of the cliffs, the mansion itself was to be erected with brick and stones, with several auxiliary buildings dotted around the property that would be need to operate the estate. The mansion was designed by Stanford White, a world renown architect for rich millionaires, and the landscaping was to be done by the Olmstead Brothers, which also created the layout for Central Park. Mitchell spent around $100,000 on the country home.

Before the estate could be finished, in June of 1906, Ronald Mitchell died. The estate remained uncompleted, un-occupied for nearly twenty years. It also earned the nickname of “Mitchell’s Folly”.

As time passed, it would told that Ronald’s brother Arthur M. Mitchell from Babylon, would offer his interest in the estate as a gift to New York State. The remaining interest however would still cost $82,000 to acquire. Ronald’s heirs had also made a suggestion to the state to name the future park “Wildwood”.

The Creation of Wildwood State Park

The first mention of Wildwood Park is seen in an article from April 9th, 1925 from the County Review, which reported that the state had plans to improve and even create highways in the area, including a “Highway from the proposed park at Wading River, which will be known as Wildwood Park, to the Wading River – Roanoke – Mattituck highway”. The second mention is in an article from Jun 19, 1925 written by the East Hampton Star where they state that the State [Park] Commission had agreed to acquire 300 acre’s near Wading River that would be known as Wildwood Park.

Articles seem to disappear in regards to this part of the Wildwood park for about a year, and start to resurface again in 1926. On March 5th, 1926 the Long Islander announces that New York State had appropriated funds for the Long Island Park Commission, to be split between the counties. With some of that funding, Suffolk County was allotted $760,000 to be used for the payment of park land acquisitions and improvements. In their targets were the Mitchell Property which looks to be valued at only $75,000. The actual cost of the property however seems to be a bit more expensive. A few months later on April 23, 1926 the Long Islander published what seems to be a report on costs of parks as well as improvements to the parks. In the list they show that “Land Acquisition Project number 1” was the Mitchell property. the price tag that they gave was in fact the $75,000 but for the 300 acres they’re showing taxes as well as interest totaling $83,000, just for purchasing the land. In order to build improvements at the park, including building roads to the beaches, bath houses, care takers quarters, and so forth it’d total an additional $15,000.

The Long Island State Parks Commission spent what seem’s like a good year trying to purchase the Mitchell Property for the creation of the Wildwood Park. From the first news article on Wildwood dating back to April 9th, 1925 we find ourselves at an article dated April 29, 1926 from the County Review. The same newspaper that has the first mention of the park I can find. The County Review’s article is clear though, the state commission had finally finalized the properties purchase. The article reads:

“Mitchell Property Deeded to State : Although the Mitchell property near Wading River was sold to the State for a State park almost a year ago, the deed has just been filed.
Up to this time there was considerable doubt about the sale actually having been made, and even the riverhead assessors last year carried the property on the assessment roll, claiming they were unable to get verification from anyone that it actually had been turned over the State. But the taxes never were paid.
The deed calls for 327 acres of land, and for this and the beautiful and costly mansion on it the State pays $82,396.52, the deed recites which is considered to be exceptionally cheap.”

When the State or New York officially opened the park they offered Woodland campsites, picnic areas as well as a bathin beach. The mansion that was never finished was eventually torn down by the Works Progress Administration in 1934 since it was deemed unsuitable for any public park purposes.

Driftwood Manor

Driftwood Manor is the second property that Wildwood State Park currently occupies.

Built by a wealthy Wall Street tycoon, Joseph G. Robin between 1906 and 1908, the mansion was to be designed by the architectural firm of Palmer and Hornbostel in the Baux Arts style, and was to sit on 110 acres of land. This was one of only two private residences that Henry Hornbostel would design, he is mostly known however, with helping designing and constructing the Queens borough bridge, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s hell Gate bridge, the New York State Department of Education Building in Albany as well as the layout for Emory University.

Even though the manor was still being constructed, in 1907 Robin was accepting guest’s. One of the guest’s of the still-being constructed manor was Theodore Dreiser, who authored the novel “An American Tragedy”. Mr. Dreiser was so inspired by Joseph Robin and his manor that he decided to use them both as the subjects for one of his short stories titled “Vanity, Vanity”.
In a letter to the Long Island Forum Dreiser describes the the house to the publisher:

“So un-pretentiously pretentious, so really grand in a limited and yet poetic way. Exteriorly its placement, on a rise of ground commanding that vast sweep of sea and sand, its verandahs, so very wide – Great smooth floors of red concrete — bordered with stone boxes for flowers and handsomely designed stone benches, its long walks and drives but newly begun, its stretch of beach, say half a mile away and possibly a mile and a half long, to be left, as he remarked, ‘au naturel,’ driftwood, stones and all, struck me most favorably.”

When completed, Joseph G. Robin’s mansion would have a total of three stories, with twenty-seven rooms and five bathrooms total. It was even considered to be one of the most expensive houses on the North Shore in 1911 costing a total of $125,000.

In December of 1910, during Robin’s absence from New York City at the time of his trial, the estate was transferred over to his sister Dr. Louise Robingovitch. However in April of 1911 it would be put up for an auction to satisfy a lien of $4,000 that was placed on the estate by Gilbert E. Loper, who built the house. With the auction on the house, a man who is said to represent R.G. Robin’s sister, purchased it for $4,000. The property was then reportedly sold in October of 1911 to a Thomas G. Clynes from Plainfield, NJ for an unknown price. Thomas Clynes had long sought a suitable country home on Long Island and not even a week after purchasing the property started to redecorate and alter the mansion. All of this was reported in the Port Jefferson Echo, in an article dated October 21, 1911.

While the Port Jefferson Echo was reported on October 21, 1911 stating that the estate was sold off to Thomas Clynes, the Suffolk County news published a bit of a contradictory article an entire year later. On September 6th, 1912 the Suffolk County news had reported on Page 6 that the Driftwood Manor was actually bought by the State Banking Department in the interests of the Washington Savings Bank, a bank that Robin apparently was charged with “wrecking”. The sale of the estate was reportedly held under foreclosure of a “mortgage given by Robin to the Washington Bank for $42,000.” The article continues to state that a man named Griffling, who was reported to represent Robin, actually placed bids against the Banking Department forcing the price to $41,500, a total of $59,000 cheaper then the $100,000 it cost R.G. Robin. This article by the Suffolk County news is something i’d take with a grain of salt seeing how it was reported that the sale from the Robins to the Clynes was already reported in 1911, an entire year earlier.

After the articles in the Port Jeffereson Echo and the Suffolk County News, the trail goes a bit cold. No articles were really found in regards to the Driftwood Manor until 1925, when The County Review published an article claiming the estate was sold. The article was titled “WADING RIVER ESTATE SOLD TO A.H. WAGG OF FLORIDA”, and stated that the one hundred acre’s of land, along with the solid concrete, Italian styled, mansion was sold to an Alfred H. Wagg of West Palm Beach, Florida. The estate was sold by a company called the M. Morgenthay-Seixas Company for a Mrs. Edith L. Williams. How Mrs. Edith Willaims obtained this land is a bit of a mystery at this time, no archived news letter’s seem to exist in regards to the transfer of the land from the Clynes to her, but none the less the estate would now be used as a summer residence yet another finance juggler.

Under the ownership of Mr. Alfred H. Wagg the estate, still called the Driftwood Manor, had enjoyed plenty of publicity. Several newspaper articles report that he would continuously show off horses and animals at fairs. One fine example of this is reported in the County Review on September 16, 1926, where Wagg had used the manor grounds as one of the show places for the Annual Suffolk County Fair. Not only did Mr. Wagg use the grounds for one of the show places, he also was the largest exhibitor for the fair, show casing ten Farm and Saddle Horses.

During the 1929 wall street crash known as The Great Depression, Alfred H. Wagg’s fortunes were wiped out and the property ended up being owned by several banks and mortgage companies. The property had exchanged hands so many times that even one of the southern companies that held the title went bankrupt and dissolved itself.

The next, and last, private owner of the estate would be Mr. and Mrs Arthur G. Meyer. The Meyer’s together owned the successful Patchouge Lace Mill, and Authur’s family were the owners of several lace and fabric mills located in Massachusetts. An article in the County Review put’s the Meyer’s family purchase to be in either 1929 or 1930.

During the summer’s the Meyers would entertain many of their well known friends and acquaintances, one of them being Edward G. Robinson.

In 1934, Alfred was away reportedly on a trip to Washington D.C. and had died. Margaret, his now widow, would continue to maintain the property. It seems like Margaret did not have complete ownership over the land, or may have been in a sort of limbo over ownership after her husbands death. On January 9th, 1936, the County Review published an article regarding Arthur G. Meyer’s will being filed for probate. The will was declared that upon the death of Arthur Meyer, the entire estate was to be given to his now widow, Margaret W. Meyer. The Meyer’s neighbors have been reported to say that Arthur had made a lot of enhancements to the manor’s charm and attractiveness.

Throughout the years after Arthur Meyer had passed away, his Widow Margaret had held onto possession of the Driftwood Manor. Margaret had continued to host parties and events in the summers. Nothing really spectacular was reported during these times, with the exception of one event. On September 11th, 1952, the Patchogue advance had reported that the Wildwood State Park Police had made reports of a mine that had washed ashore at the manor. The Coast Guard was dispatched from Eaton’s Neck and removed the 600-pound mine that was used by the U.S. Navy during practice.

Little is published on the internet about the end of the Driftwood Manor and the luxurious landscape that surrounded it. However, reaching out to the local historical society did bear some fruit, and according to a document which was emailed to me by a Stephanie Bail from the Wading River Historical Society, Margaret would eventually agree to sell the property to the State Parks Commission in 1934, which upon her death in 1968 would take control. When the property ownership was transferred to the state it was said to be in immaculate condition, but the state, with its limited funding for Parks, allowed the mansion as well as the grounds to deteriorate. The Manor house that was constructed in the early 1900’s was eventually demolished in 1980. Today, there is only one structure still standing, and it sits in a lonely corner of the park.


Source’s:

Mitchell Property Sources:

Driftwood Manor Sources:

 

 

I first created LIParks in 2007 as a simple blog style website that was loaded up with random information about the history or Long Island's vast park system. Eventually the website was turned into a directory style where people would be able to filter parks based on their preferences. I have also started including historic articles and news in regards to Long Island's public lands, parks, and historic sites.

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