The life of businessman and entrepreneur Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852-1919), also known as F.W. Woolworth or Frank W. Woolworth, was an American financial success story. Woolworth, who rose from a general store stock clerk to the owner of a company that comprised more than 580 variety stores, also was builder of the Woolworth Building in 1913 — which at the time stood as the tallest building on Earth.
Woolworth always had a connection to Long Island, aside from his signature five-and-dime stores that served LI communities, it was in Glen Cove that his eponymous Gold Coast mansion “Winfield” was built.
There have been those who have suggested that Woolworth had unusual penchants and supernatural predilections, and looked at the large house as a center for mysterious doings and paranormal occurrences. Here’s a breakdown of some of the facts, some of the legends — and some of the tragedies — linked to the massive manor that was built as the mogul’s home, but today stands as one of his monuments.
Meet the mansion
Winfield, with ornate chandeliers and gilded ceilings, includes a ballroom, billiard room, formal dining room, music room, solarium and a library, as well as nine bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. Along with its several patios and porches, there are 16 fireplaces. It's believed there were also a number of secret passageways constructed in order to allow for unannounced entrances and departures. Although the grounds have since been used for business purposes -- it was once a business school for young women (the Grace Downs Academy) and also the base of operations for an industrial manufacturer (the Pall Corporation) -- it has generally been a private home (once to Richard S. Reynolds, of the R.S. Reynolds Metal Company and currently by the Carey family, relatives of former New York Gov. Hugh Carey). The property is still occasionally used for film and TV shoots.
Many people have worked, stayed or lived at Winfield, and tales of secret rooms and hidden doors pervade its oral history -- as do stories of phantoms, unearthly happenings and unexplained noises.
Pricey flight of steps
One of the signature pieces of decor in Winfield is this grand staircase, which at the time (1915-1916) cost Woolworth a reported $2,000,000. To give an idea of what that truly costs, when adjusted for inflation, those steps would cost about $47,000,000 if purchased in 2016 -- a sum that could also currently buy you roughly 470 new Porsche 911s, 300 Robinson R22 helicopters or 90 houses in Nassau County.
Winfield a 'Napoleon complex'?
Frank Winfield Woolworth was said to have had an obsession with Napoleon Bonaparte, collecting related artifacts and memorabilia, calling his Manhattan executive office the "Empire Room" and placing a massive Arc de Triomphe-style gate at the foot of the lengthy driveway that leads from Crescent Beach Road to Winfield (it's still there today, although now the name "Carey" -- as in the Carey family that currently owns Winfield -- adorns that structure). Further tales tell that Woolworth may have kept a collection of Napoleonic clothing in his closet and that he believed himself to be a reincarnation of Napoleon.
Woolworth on the keys
Woolworth's Aeolian Organ was reported to have been worth $100,000, and that assessment was made in 1917. Built into the wall of a music room used to entertain guests, locals have shared word-of-mouth stories that say when Woolworth played, his music was audible at great distance.
A tale of lightning and tragedy
Despite the fact that the media of the time reported that Edna Woolworth Hutton, daughter of F. W. Woolworth, died in May 1917 at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, rumors that she committed suicide while in a bedroom (known as the "Marie Antoinette" room) at Winfield persist. Furthermore, one of the most frequently told tales concerning the Woolworth mansion holds that a bolt of lightning struck the house the day before her passing, cracking a representation of Edna's face in a family crest carved into a stone mantel -- an event considered a supernatural omen of her unexpected demise.
Some who have spent time at Winfield say that the Antoinette room remained sealed for decades, and that ethereal sobbing -- attributed to Edna's spirit -- can be heard coming from that space.
More claims of supernatural activity
The ghost of Edna Hutton is hardly the only otherworldly presence said to be connected to Winfield, as ghosts have been reported passing through the garden, and some visitors claim to have heard banging on pipes in the basement, by ... something. Speculation that F.W. Woolworth had an obsession with the occult and that he had mystic symbols placed within the interior design is also part of the legends that have been attached to the house, as well as reports of hidden rooms and tunnels woven throughout the structure. (Pictured: Cherubs and seraphim appear in one of several pieces of intricate artistry that adorn Winfield.)
Winfield hosts filmmaking (not always family-friendly)
The very regal trappings of Winfield make it a natural for film and TV shoots, and it has been used in such productions as the "Mildred Pierce" HBO miniseries, featuring actress Kate Winslet (pictured). However, two of the movies filmed at Woolworth's one-time estate, "The Story of Joanna" (1975) and "Through the Looking Glass" (1976), were adult features that garnered XXX ratings.
Felled by a dental infection
Frank W. Woolworth died in April 1919 at Winfield, his death caused by an untreated tooth infection (Woolworth was said to have had a heavy dislike of dentists). His remains are located in a mausoleum in The Bronx (in Woodlawn Cemetery), but -- much like Woolworth's life at his Glen Cove mansion -- rumors surround F.W. Woolworth's passing, and there are those who suggest his body is actually hidden somewhere within the walls of Winfield. (Pictured: A winged likeness of Frank W. Woolworth carved into the molding of the ballroom window in Winfield.)
The birthplace of Reynolds Wrap?
Yet another rumor attached to the legacy of Winfield is that Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil was invented in a laboratory on the grounds. Richard S. Reynolds Sr., founder of the U.S. Foil Company, purchased the Woolworth mansion in 1929 and converted a carriage house into a workspace -- where he was said to have devised his famous product. However, aluminum foil was already in production years before 1929, so while Reynolds may have tinkered while a Winfield resident, and was a giant of the food-storage industry, chances are he did not actually invent a new item while toiling at the estate.
Fire a part of the legacy
The construction of Winfield followed the destruction of the large house that was previously the center of the estate at 77 Crescent Hollow Rd. in Glen Cove. The structure there before was built by C.P.H. Gilbert in 1899 for Dr. Alexander Crombie Humphreys, who sold it to Emmet Queen in 1907, who in turn sold her house to Woolworth in 1914. Rumors suggest Woolworth wasn't happy with his new home, and in 1914 it mysteriously burned down -- leading to his hiring Gilbert to build what would become Winfield -- and the builder used marble with the intention of creating a "fireproof residence."
Decades later, in 2015, a fire seriously damaged Winfield, and repairs continue. (Pictured: Firefighters respond to a blaze at the historic Woolworth mansion in Glen Cove on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015.)
A final ‘foot’ note
Frank Winfield Woolworth may be long gone, and Winfield no longer a property belonging to his family, but it is still recognized as part of the Woolworth legacy. You might also encounter a bit of the Woolworth influence when purchasing sneakers, as the F. W. Woolworth Company was succeeded by Foot Locker. The athletic-wear retailer was once only a specialty chain operated by the Woolworth Company, but it grew to be the company's top-performing brands and in 2001 officially changed its name to Foot Locker Retail, Inc. (after being renamed "Venator" in 1997).