While looking for places to hike around Long Island, I 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 to a back corner of the park, where an old carriage house sits locked up, okay you may inquire about the row of trees that also look like it may have been a driveway to a ‘gold coast estate’ as well.
These two things 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 history of the park to light.. So I dug even further, and further. What I found was amazing! Wildwood State Park was TWO separate estates. The original Wildwood Estate, which the park is named after, was owned by 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 of results, but none 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 that 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 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.
Update as of July 30, 2021; I noticed someone posted on Facebook requesting to know what the iron gates were and the concrete wall that lined Route 25 in Calverton, looking at the comments shows plenty of people having memories of the Driftwood Manor before the state had torn the dilapidated structure down. With that being said; everything after this is hearsay from locals regarding Driftwood Manor thanks to the Remembering Riverhead Facebook group.
According to a Bob Aldrich on Facebook, his father was the only male staff at the manor and was tasked with the upkeep of the house and its surrounding property, additionally he was the chauffeur. Mr. Aldrich’s father was even tasked with driving all of Mrs. Meyer’s business associates, lawyers, and hairdressers out from the city or from the Port Jefferson Train Station.
. Mr. Aldrich was kind to provide information through his comments, where he states that at a younger age, Mrs. Meyer had only summered at the Driftwood Manor as it had cost a furtune in heating oil to warm the entire estate, mixed in with the fact that the manor itself was not insulated. He continues to state that, in the winter, Mrs. Meyer would state with relatives in the city on Park Avenue or at the Hotel Henry Perkins in Riverhead.
As Mrs. Meyer’s health declined, she had spent her final years in a private room on the third floor of the original building at Central Suffolk Hospital (now Northwell Peconic Bay Medical Center). If she were there today, her view would be blocked by the skilled nursing facility which overlooks the eastern parking lot.
To pay for her medical expenses Mrs. Meyer had eventually agreed to sell the Manor to New York State, which eventually took the tital of the property upon her death.
Mr. Aldrich continues on by saying that Robert Moses had grand plans for the new annexation of Wildwood State Park and wanted to build one or more golf courses on the piece of property, which is not hard to believe. Mr. Moses had envisioned the Driftwood Manor to be the golf courses fabulous clubhouse, but the funding had fallen short, and by this time, Robert Moses influence over politics had fallen.
Mr. Aldrich’s comments continue on with passion about the property as he says that the property “was finally mercifully torn down” after it was gutted by vandals. When it was torn down “many long-time residents of neighboring Oak Hills came and wept as it was brought down over two days. The rebuble was simply buried in its immense basement.”
In addition to the Manor House, or what is reffered to as the “Big House” as it was called. There was a remaining carriage house, which still stands alone in the corner, and the caretakers house. Which was a replacement until the early 50’s. Additionally; there was a large barn with its original stables, that were built for the show horses. However, it is believed to have burnt down in the 90’s, as well as a guest cottage that was torn down by the state.
If anyone has any information or even photographs of the Driftwood Manor or the Wildwood Estate prior to it becoming state parklands, I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mitchell Property Sources:
- The County Review – News Article about property being transfered from taxable to non-taxable – 1939
- Newsday article regarding arrowhead found – 1988 at “Wildwood state park”
- Valuation of State Park’s – shows Ronald Mitchell Estate & Wildwood State Park – nov 16, 1928
- july 26 1929 – Girls and family vacation at wildwood state park
- The County Review – April 09, 1925, Page 6 :: States that Suffolk County was looking to improve the Highway system on Long Island, and included a highway from the proposed wildwood state park..
- The East Hampton Star – June 19, 1925, Page 8 – A Commission had plans to Aquire 300 acre’s near Wading River to be known as Wildwood Park
- The Long-Islander., March 05, 1926 Page 15 – Under the 1925 report of the LI State Park Commission, $750,000 was allotted to Suffolk County for the payment of park land purchases and imporvements to “Mitchell Property, Wildwood Park, Wading River
- The County Review., July 08, 1926 Page 18 – Girlscouts open permanent camp at wildwood Park
- The East Hampton Star., April 23, 1926 Page 9 – Two of the proposed 1926 projects, the first a park upon the Mitchell Property at Wading River
- The Long-Island., April 23, 1926, Page 13 – Land Aquisition Project No. 1. Mitchell Property, $75,000; Wading River. 300 Acres under option 1924 at $75,000; interest and tax, $8,000; total $83,000.
- The County review., April 29, 1926, Page 27 – Mitchell Property Deeded to State :: Property sold to state almost a year prior. Deed finalized
- Plate #008 Left – Riverhead of the Suffolk County 1909 Vol 2 Long Island, New York Atlas – A view of the estate of G. Mitchell at 300 acres
Driftwood Manor Sources:
- The County Review – Oct 20, 1911 – Guy married, employed at what was once J.G Robin’s Driftwood Manor
- the Port Jefferson Echo., October 21, 1911 – Estate sold from Joseph Robin (Northern Bank fame) sold to Thomas. G Clynes of Plainfield N.J. Estate comprised of 110 acres. The article say’s the house was a 3 story concrete building which cost $125,000. Was considered one of the most expensive houses on the entire North Shore and was styled to mimic Italian Renaissance with 27 rooms and 5 bathrooms. December of 1910 the house was transferred to Robin’s Sister, Dr. Louise Robinovitch when J Robin disappeared for trial. The house was also put up for auction in April in order to satisfy a $4,000 lein that was put on the house by Gilbert E. Loper, who build the house. It was later sold for $5,100 to a man whom represented Robin’s sister. When Mr Clynes purchased the house, he was looking for a suitable country home on LI and had it redecorated and altered.
- The Suffolk County news., Sept 06, 1912 – Report of Driftwood Manor being sold to State Banking Department on that Tuesday, in the interests of the Washington Savings Bank. Also reported that the manor cost Robin over $100,000.
- The County Review., July 23, 1925 Page 11 – Driftwood Manor’s 100 acres sold to Alfred H. Wagg of West Palm Beach, Fla. / Will use the estate for a summer residence.
- the County Review., September 16, 1926 – Alfred H. Wagg (Manor owner) was one of the show places for Annual Suffolk County Fair and one of the largest exhibitors for a fair. Entered ten Farm and Saddle Horses as well as some ponies for a show.
- The Suffolk County News., October 01, 1926 – Alfred H. Waag is a senator for Florida
- The Port Jefferson Echo., May 09, 1929 Page 13 – note’s J.G Robin recently sold the famous summer home to Mr. Miller of New York. The spacious grounds and unique appearance apparently led to people to believe the place was an institution
- The County review., September 10, 1931 – reports heirs of a late Scepter W. Luce ate a dinner in Aquebogue.. What’s interesting is that it states Mr. Luce lived in the Driftwood Manor Estate
- the Watchman of the sunrise trail., December 31, 1931 Page 7 (mattituck) – Mrs. August Sopinkey from Driftwood Manor (Baiting Hollow now)
- The county review., January 09, 1936, Page 6 – Driftwood Manor is mentioned to be part the Will for a Arthur G. Meyer who lived in Manhattan and Baiting Hollow. Meyer’s will gave his entire estate to his widow. Margaret W. Meyer. Mr Meyer obtained his fortune from the woolen business.
- the County Review., January 16, 1936 Page 17 – Arthur G. Meyer recently died in Washington, D.C. Owned the estate for seven years and did a lot of enhancements.
- April 14, 1938 – Margaret Meyers still owns Driftwood Manor
- October 01, 1942, Page 4 – PBA Dinner held at Driftwood by Meyer
- The Patchogue Advance., September 11, 1952, Page 26 – Park Police at Wildwood State Park reported to have found a mine that had floated ashore to the Driftwood Manor Estate. Coast Guard unit from Eaton’s Neck remove the 600-pound mine.
- Long Island Forum, Volume 24 – Page 267 – december 1961 – Mentions that the house is currently owned by Mrs. Arthur G. Meyere, but was in the negotiating phase to be purchased by the Park Commission
- Plate #008 Left – Riverhead of the Suffolk County 1909 Vol 2 Long Island, New York Atlas – Jos. G. Robin Property is seen, along with a house and a dirt road on his property.