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The Julian Abele Project: About "The Great Hall"

American Palaces

By Samantha Walton

History 317-01: Museum and Archives Management Basics

Professor Ziobro

Fall 2020

The extended story of the building we now know as “The Great Hall,” likely largely designed by pioneering African American architect Julian Abele, actually begins with the purchase of a parcel of land in West Long Branch, New Jersey in 1902 by the young President of The New York Life Insurance Company, John McCall. It was reported in the Long Branch Record that McCall intended to build “‘A handsome country seat’… he wanted a villa ‘suggestive of the grandeur of the Alhambra, the Petit Trianon, or Sans Souci.’”[1] For this magnificent undertaking he recruited an architect by the name of Henry Edward Cregier. Cregier, originally from Chicago, built McCall a palace of Hellenistic glory filled to the brim with exotic influences and lavish trappings. The summer palace was expansive and boasted both a gorgeous Grecian outer style and a modern and extravagant interior. The interior is described by author and Guggenheim fellow James Maher in his book The Twilight of Splendor as follows: “A majestic stairway, probably designed by Cregier, rose through a two-story arch from the axial central hall to a mezzanine, then continued in separate return flights to a second-story gallery that circled the well of the hall and led to the guest suites.”[2] After the completion of this ostentatious estate for $850,000 total, the first in a long series of scandals involving the building came to fruition. McCall was accused of and admitted to bribing several state legislators for favors with funds from New York Life. Outrage spiked and the company demanded he pay back the money he spent in bribes out of pocket. However, having just paid for a modern palace, he hardly had the $150,000 to repay his misdeeds. He was forced to resign from New York Life. Losing his salary meant that he only had one course of action, to sell the magnificent home he had only been able to spend one season in. He died five months later, still deep in debt. McCall’s son would later say of his father’s money troubles, “My father earned a good deal of money, but he lived up to almost every cent of it.”[3]

After the untimely death of McCall, the estate at Shadow Lawn changed hands many times before purchase by the wealthy Mr. Joseph Benedict Greenhut in 1909. He was the “principal partner in the Siegel, Cooper Company, the earliest of New York City’s monumental department stores.”[12] The department store took up nearly an entire city block and boasted the slogan “The Big Store – A City in Itself.”[13] One can only imagine that its partners would be full to the brim with spending money. Greenhut was in fact eager to spend his money and he did so by purchasing the estate at Shadow Lawn outright and “assuming all of its encumbrances,”[14] which finally freed past owners (and their had been several since McCall) of their mortgage duties. It is reported that Greenhut paid $200,000 for the estate and then another 400,000 to his associate Duncan Kelly to restore the house and grounds to their original glory.[15]

It was during Greenhut’s ownership that the home was inhabited by the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson accepted Greenhut’s offer to use the Shadow Lawn estate as a summer White House with gusto because he had a fond spot in his heart for his adopted home state of New Jersey, however, in a move that shocked the public, he did request to pay for the rental himself.[16] Greenhut turned down his offer of payment and the $2,500 was instead allocated by Wilson to local charities in the surrounding New Jersey towns.[17] The occupation of the estate by a sitting President logically brought a great deal of attention to the area, and in total it is estimated that some 200,000 persons traveled to Shadow Lawn to hear Wilson speak or to catch a glimpse of the lavish summer White House.[18] The town saw such a spike in popularity that local officials campaigned to have Shadow Lawn become a permanent summer White House. When their bill went to Congress for discussion in 1917, they were too busy with WWI to think about a summer holiday home.[19]

Shadow Lawn underwent one of its only voluntary transfer of owners when Greenhut sold the estate to another real estate firm called the Harsen-Langham Corporation. It was from the Harsen-Langham Corporation that Mr. Hubert Parson purchased Shadow Lawn for $800,000 (with an extra $150,000 for some surrounding land). Parson was at this time blissfully unaware that he would be the last owner of the original Shadow Lawn home.[20]

F.W. Woolworth Company President Hubert T. Parson was an eccentric man seemingly obsessed with splendor. For example, he hired an interior designer, Helwig Schier, to do the interior design for his new Fifth Avenue property. It is reported that his only instruction to Schier was that he wanted, “…everything to be richer and finer than the decorations in [his mentor] Mr. Woolworth’s house.”[21] Parson seemed unable to separate his personal worth from his monetary success and thus plunged himself deeper into financial trouble by conducting several large-scale projects at once. By the end of the four years it took Schier to finish the interior of the Fifth Avenue home, Parsons was already looking to buy a new home elsewhere. When he purchased Shadow Lawn there was a $125,000 lien against his property on Fifth Avenue, a lien which his loving mentor Woolworth would pay off as a last gift before his passing.[22]

Under Parson’s influence both the Woolworth Company and Shadow Lawn thrived. Shadow Lawn pulsed with life and with extravagant spending. Under his directions the estate acquired,

“…a ten room house for the superintendent; a new two-story estate garage; eight greenhouses; a horse barn with six stalls; a cattle barn with twelve stanchions; a poultry house; a two-story palm house; a bullpen; a ram pen; sheep pens; pheasant pens; rabbit hutches; an icehouse; cottages (refurbished farmhouses Parsons had acquired with the land purchases) for the dairyman, the greenhouse man, and the poultryman; and dog kennels for the police dogs that were turned loose on the grounds each midnight…The artificial lake was stocked with ducks, geese and swans. A little summer house was built on the small island in the middle of the lake.” [23]

The monumental fees associated with this complete overhaul of the estate and grounds was still not enough to satisfy Mr. and Mrs. Parson’s desire for luxury. Mrs. Parson in particular wanted to flex her design capabilities after having watched Schier carefully while he designed their Fifth Avenue home. She therefore took a more active role in directing the new designer Hans Sieben in exactly how she wanted the rooms to turn out. The complete interior redesign of Shadow Lawn by Sieben cost the Parsons another $1,000,000. This million-dollar expenditure in 1925 is the equivalent of over 14 million dollars in 2020.[24] No long after, though, Shadow Lawn burned to the ground.[25]

            To their credit, the Parsons’ only worry was that no one was harmed in the fire; thankfully, nobody was. Then, paying no heed to the thousands he had just spent in France, Parson sped ahead with finding an architect for his new and improved estate at Shadow Lawn. This is the point at which the story of Shadow Lawn intersects with the other subject of our libguide, Mr. Julian Abele. Horace Trumbauer was hired by the Parsons to complete their ultimate fantasy.

                It's hard to know how Julian felt about the office's new commission, as records are scarce. Abele biographer Dreck Spurlock Wilson noted in his oral history interview with our class (available in another section of this libguide) that it is unlikely Abele ever visited the site, noting, "when [architects] had important commissions they would regularly visit the construction site. Because if you think about it, back in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, communication wasn't that solid. And so if there were problems, or maybe there had to be changes to the construction because of unforeseen circumstances, the best way and almost the only way to deal with it or to resolve it was to go to the site…[the] reason that Abele did not go to the site had to do with race. Construction sites one, were very unsafe, they didn't have the same types of safety protocols that we have now. And almost all of the laborers at construction sites were mostly European immigrants. And they were in various trade unions, and the trade unions were very discriminatory. They didn't have any African American union members. And so any non-white that might show up on a construction site was really in jeopardy. And Julian Abele, his personality was very quiet and unassuming, and he never wanted to be the instigator of anything that was unpleasant. And so he simply did not go to the construction site. What he did, or what Trumbauer did to mitigate that circumstance, is that... Trumbauer would send a junior architect to go to the construction site, review what the problems were, and then come back and report to Julian Abele and say, "This is what's happening. These are the problems, what can be done about it?" And then Julian would communicate... Drawings had to be prepared, detailed drawings, they would do that. But that's how they handled that issue, or that situation."

              The new Shadow Lawn, when complete, was a palace which, according to the Long Branch Record, "eclipse[s] the one built twenty-five years ago.”[26] It was an undertaking with unforeseen issues, like the Parsons’ refusal to relocate the bowling alley, which reportedly cost them an extra $600,000.[27] The mansion, which was built specifically to be significantly fire proof, cost the Parsons a sum total of approximately $8 million dollars.[28] In the relatively short time that they lived in the new estate they barely entertained, as they seem not to have been well liked. They did not have a chance to better their standing in society before financial devastation would strike.

            The Great Depression, started by the stock market crash of 1929, eventually devastated the Parsons. Parson himself was a large holder of Woolworth stock and watched as his entire life’s earnings slipped away. He retired from the Woolworth Company when he reached sixty, the company’s  retirement age.[29] Some suggest he was forced to do so, when the rule was not enforced for others. In any event, this meant the loss of a steady salary in addition to a depletion of his stock portfolio. This left him with three separate mortgages to pay: one for a Fifth Avenue home, one for a Parisian home and, the largest of all, for Shadow Lawn. All of these factors left the Parsons destitute with no other choice than to part ways with their New Jersey palace. They had trouble both in finding a buyer for the estate but also for the interior furnishings. Eventually all of the interior furniture was sold individually at auction for a fraction of their value and the estate changed hands several times before being acquired by Monmouth Junior College (now Monmouth University) in 1955.

            Everyone who has attended Monmouth University since has personal memories of the building alternately called Shadow Lawn, Wilson Hall, and The Great Hall. But if you ask them about the building, they are probably more likely to mention Woodrow Wilson’s brief stays at the original Shadow Lawn building, or the current mansion’s starring role as Daddy Warbucks’s home in the movie Annie than they are the fact that it was largely designed by a pioneering architect, and perhaps “the greatest American born Beaux-Arts architect,” Julian Abele.[30] Author John Maher says of Abele’s role in designing Shadow Lawn, “…one may sense … the presence of Abele at his drafting board gently persisting against the academic absolutism of the modernist era—an eloquent man, who was also, in Ralph Ellison’s bitter phrase, an invisible man.”[31] We hope that this project helps ensure Abele will be invisible on our campus no longer.

 

[1] Robert Van Benthuysen, Crossroad Mansions: Shadow Lawn and The Guggenheim Cottage, (West Long Branch: Park Avenue Printers, 1987), 5.

[2]James T. Maher, The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles od the Age of American Palaces, (Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1975), 340.

[3] Robert Van Benthuysen, Crossroad Mansions: Shadow Lawn and The Guggenheim Cottage, (West Long Branch: Park Avenue Printers, 1987), 7.

[4]  James T. Maher, The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles od the Age of American Palaces, (Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1975), 342.

[5] Van Benthuysen, Crossroads Mansions, 7.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] James T. Maher, The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles od the Age of American Palaces, (Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1975), 342.

[10] Robert Van Benthuysen, Crossroad Mansions: Shadow Lawn and The Guggenheim Cottage, (West Long Branch: Park Avenue Printers, 1987), 7.

[11]Maher, Splendor, 342;

[12] Van Benthuysen, Crossroads Mansions, 8.

[13] Maher, Splendor, 343.

[14] Ibid., 342-343.

[15] James T. Maher, The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles od the Age of American Palaces, (Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1975), 343.

[16] Robert Van Benthuysen, Crossroad Mansions: Shadow Lawn and The Guggenheim Cottage, (West Long Branch: Park Avenue Printers, 1987), 9.

[17] Maher, Splendor, 343.

[18] Van Benthuysen, Crossroad Mansions, 16.

[19] Ibid., 344.

[20] Robert Van Benthuysen, Crossroad Mansions: Shadow Lawn and The Guggenheim Cottage, (West Long Branch: Park Avenue Printers, 1987), 16.

[21] Ibid., 336.

[22] James T. Maher, The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles od the Age of American Palaces, (Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1975), 344.

[23] Ibid., 346.

[24] James T. Maher, The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles od the Age of American Palaces, (Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1975), 347.

[25] James T. Maher, The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles od the Age of American Palaces, (Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1975), 354.

[26] Ibid,. 356.

[27] Ibid,. 356.

[28] Robert Van Benthuysen, Crossroad Mansions: Shadow Lawn and The Guggenheim Cottage, (West Long Branch: Park Avenue Printers, 1987), 21.

[29] Robert Van Benthuysen, Crossroad Mansions: Shadow Lawn and The Guggenheim Cottage, (West Long Branch: Park Avenue Printers, 1987), 23.

[30] Class oral history with Abele biographer Dreck Spurlock Wilson.

[31] James T. Maher, The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles od the Age of American Palaces, (Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1975), 370.