Historic Structures

Shadow Lawn Mansion - Woodrow Wilson Hall, West Long Branch New Jersey

Date added: August 28, 2020 Categories: New Jersey House Mansion School

The present central building of Monmouth College is the second Shadow Lawn. For a short time in the summer of 1915, the first house was the site of the "summer White House." President Woodrow Wilson used Shadow Lawn as a base for re-election and narrowly defeated Charles Evans Hughes that autumn.

On June 11, 1918, Hubert Templeton Parson and his wife Maysie acquired the property for $800,000. The original 65-acre estate grew into 108 acres. Half the land was set aside for farming. Parson became the country gentleman on the estate, although he conducted business in New York City. The house burned to the ground in January, 1927.

Parsons started planning immediately for the new house, based on the ground plan of the old. After seeing Whitemarsh Hall, the Stotesbury palace in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, they decided to hire Horace Trumbauer, the architect of that vast American Versailles. The ultimate irony is that the Parsons were building what the local paper called "the finest country estate in the world" just as the Stock Market Crash of 1929 would end the illusions of great estates forever.

In the history of American palace architecture, the architect of Shadow Lawn, Horace Trumbauer, was the finest practitioner of the French classical tradition as Richard Morris Hunt had been to the Loire Valley chateaux tradition. At Shadow Lawn, Trumbauer had no historic precedent to follow and as a result he designed a very large and very sober French residence, noble in magnitude and subtle in its felicities around a pseudo-Italian floor plan. Shadow Lawn was the largest commission to come his way since 1898, when he was commissioned to design Lynnewood Hall, a Palladian-Georgian echo of Rome for Peter A. B. Widener. Trumbauer was also to be praised for the Neo-Georgian Widener Library at Harvard, the late Greekrevival Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Late Gothic-Revival campus of Duke University. Although there was a tendency to be very critical of eclecticism, it should be remembered that these lavish estates were high style in the first quarter of the 20th century.

The second Shadow Lawn was the last of Hubert T. Parson's ventures in real estate. As a young Protege of Frank Woolworth, the five and ten cent store magnate, Parson began as a $12 a week bookkeeper and ended his career as president of the vast F. W. Woolworth empire. Although Parson was clever enough with figures, he had also the same fatal need as his mentor, Woolworth, to acquire vast estates, expending large sums on imperial splendor. The odd thing about Parson and his wife Maysie, is that they rarely entertained, if at all. At one point, Parson had a Fifth Avenue house, a town house, (Hotel Particulier) in Paris, and the "country estate" at Long Branch, New Jersey.

While the new palace was being built in 1927, no expense was spared. Parson wanted a bowling alley on the lowest level where special foundations were required because of ground water. This special construction cost an extra $600,000 and the alleys were never used. The most incredible part of this vast building scheme is that Parson, the businessman must have known that the 1929 financial disaster was imminent but he was the prisoner of his own illusions caught in a world committed to the pursuit of affluence by building ever larger palaces, the mute evidence of status among the princes of commerce.

By the beginning of 1929, in spite of his large personal fortune, Parson had spent $7,500,000 on the house in Long Branch. In November 1929, 80 percent of Parson's stock in Woolworth was wiped out. As the depression ground on, his losses were in the millons but he continued to indulge Maysie her decorating whims at Shadow Lawn. Another $500,000 was spent on the Solarium. Finally, it all collapsed. Woolworth's directors decided it wasn't wise for one of its directors, his wife, and her sister to be living in a new $10,000,000 palace with 96 rooms and 100 servants while thousands stood in line for bread and soup. Parsons troubles compounded. By 1932, he was in arrears in federal income taxes and West Long Branch real estate taxes. He tried to sell Shadow Lawn but no one wanted a $10,000,000 estate. Before the end of 1938, Parson lost all his palaces. In 1939, the estate was sold for $100. The vast collection of costly but mediocre furniture was sold at auction in May 1940 at a great loss. Parson died of a heart attack two months later, but the durable Maysie outlived him by sixteen years. The estate became Monmouth College in 1956.

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