Sunken Orchard

Sunken Orchard, Oyster Bay Cove, Nassau County, New York

Completed in 1916, for Fay Ingalls (1882-1957) and his wife Rachel Gaff Holmes (1885-1966). The 29-room Georgian-style mansion on Long Island's North Shore is unfortunately still best associated with what Life magazine referred to in 1955 as "the shooting of the century," since popularized by the publication of two books. The main house and beautiful gardens remain privately owned today. Neither are open to the public and therefore privacy is to respected. However, the Tudor-style music room that once formed part of a separate outbuilding known as "The Playhouse" (where the shooting took place) is today the St. Pius V Chapel, which is open to the public.
Ingalls was a younger son of Melville Ezra Ingalls (1842-1914), President of the Big Four Railroad, co-founder of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and according to The New York Times a candidate for the Presidency of the United States at the turn of the last century. 

Originally a lawyer, Fay Ingalls successfully entered the munitions business during World War I. Despite what may have seemed like a typical career path for the son of a tycoon, Ingalls grew weary of the cut and thrust atmosphere of New York business and left it in favor of Virginia where he is remembered today as a conservationist, outdoorsman, author and diplomat: his wife, Rachel, was a noted horsewoman.

George Bruno de Gersdorff (1866-1964) was an architect who had trained with the celebrated firm of McKim, Mead & White from 1895 to 1912. In 1914, the Ingalls' hired him to design their three-story, 29-room Georgian-style mansion with an interior featuring old oak-panelled rooms and frescoes on the walls depicting rural scenes.

Set amid beautiful rolling countryside and mature woodland, the estate itself contained several outbuildings and encompassed a working farm with chickens, ducks and a vegetable garden. There were two sizeable hidden ponds and also two orchards plus a further Sunken Orchard, for which they named their home.

The landscaped gardens surrounding the main house were designed by Innocenti & Webel, the same men who were responsible for those at Clarendon Court and Champ Soleil among others. The excellent blog halfpuddinghalfsource vividly describes its rich gardens:
The grounds included a woodland carpeted with wild flowers, a pond bordered with iris and azaleas, the sunken orchard (hence the name for the estate) was planted with a carpet of violets, a bridle path, a pond made in the woodland, and a dogwood allee surrounding the outdoor tennis court. In spring, a brilliant display of Darwin tulips, edged with tiarella, creeping white and lavender phlox, viola, candytuft, and forget-me-nots filled the beds. In early summer views of the perennial beds along the path show delphiniums, phlox, Japanese iris, and Oriental poppies are blooming.
The Ingalls' remained at Sunken Orchard until 1922. Fed up with the greed and corruption of Manhattan, Fay quit his job and removed to The Yard in Virginia where he ran The Homestead, a luxury hotel resort previously acquired by his late father in 1911. They sold the estate to another lawyer, Charles Edward Francis McCann (1877-1941), and his wife Helena Maud Woolworth (1878-1938). In 1925, the McCanns added another Long Island gem to their portfolio, Winfield Hall, the spectacular - and slightly scary - home built by Helena's eccentric father.

The Woolworth-McCanns

Charles and Lena McCann preferred their home at Oyster Bay and they were said to have spent $3.5 million on the initial purchase and the improvements they made to it over the years that included expanding its land holdings to 192-acres. In 1927, they employed architect James W. O'Connor to make some minor alterations to the main house while adding "The Playhouse".

"The Playhouse" was a separate outbuilding that consisted of a skylit indoor clay tennis court with adjoining bath and changing rooms. Next to it was the Tudor-style 33 by 70 foot music room/ballroom with obligatory pipe organ, minstrel's gallery and Elizabethan stained glass windows beneath a high-arched timber frame ceiling. In addition to a caretaker's apartment, kitchens and a wine cellar, it also contained its own bar in the style of an English Tudor inn (known as "The Tap Room") with a comfortable lounge, carved panelled walls and a fireplace.

Many of the music room's features have since been removed to Post University and the room itself is today open to the public and in use as the St. Pius V Chapel. It had its own terrace surrounded by French gardens that led down to the outside tennis court and the 25 by 60 foot swimming pool overlooked by a summer house. These French gardens consisted of twelve interconnecting ones that were laid out in 1932 by Annette Hoyt Flanders (1887-1946) who received the Gold Medal of the Architectural League of New York for her work.

The McCanns devoted much of their time to charitable causes. In stark comparison to her Woolworth relations, Lena McCann's life was calm and composed. She was an enthusiastic gardener and her interest in European art led to her building a highly-regarded collection of antique porcelain. In 1934, the youngest of their three children, Helena Woolworth McCann (1913-1965), was married at Sunken Orchard in a prominent society wedding to Winston Frederick Churchill Guest (1906-1982). The following year, the McCanns purchased Beauport, an historic house in New England. At around this time, they subdivided the 192-acre estate, maintaining 46-acres around the main house but carving up much of the land into 3-acre parcels for development.

As the McCanns started to spend more time at Beauport, from 1935 it was not always entirely clear who was occupying Sunken Orchard. It certainly remained in the hands of the McCann family and certainly their children benefitted from the subdivision of the land as each of them had substantial houses built for them on the estate as wedding presents, eg.,  Beau PrĂ©. Members of the family, including their grandson, Winston Alexander Guest, continued to be resident in the area until the 1980s. At some stage, the McCann family started to lease Sunken Orchard and circa 1950 William Woodward, Jr. (1920-1955) was resident there before purchasing it outright.

The Woodwards

Billy Woodward was a well-known horse-breeder (among others he owned the celebrated thoroughbred Nashua), polo player and, owner of the famous stud at Belair Mansion. He shocked his blue-blood family in 1943 when he married Ann Eden Crowell (1915-1975), a former actress and showgirl from rural Kansas who re-invented herself on coming to New York.

After acquiring Sunken Orchard, the Woodwards divided "The Playhouse" into two separate buildings and for tax reasons leased the music room to the Cinerama Corporation for $1,500 a month, where they recorded soundtracks for movies including Around the World in 80 Days (1956). At this time, the Woodwards relationship was already in a precarious state. Billy had asked for a divorce in 1947, but Ann refused to relinquish the position in society that the marriage afforded her.

The Shooting

In 1955 - with strong overtones of the recent Oscar Pistorius case - Mrs Woodward shot her husband dead by the indoor tennis court, claiming to have mistaken him for a prowler. Though acquitted by a jury, it was widely believed that she had murdered him and she was dropped like a hot rock from the society she was so eager to remain a part of.

In 1975, Truman Capote (1924-1984) revealed his intentions to write a thinly-disguised version of the events that led to Woodward's death - Unanswered Prayers (1987) - and on reading an excerpt in Esquire, Ann took her own life. Emphasizing on the strained relationship between Ann and Billy's mother, Elsie Ogden Cryder (1882-1981), Dominick John Dunne (1925-2009) published The Two Mrs Grenvilles (1986).


After Woodward's death, Ann left New York for Europe. Sunken Orchard was sold in 1957 to the Oyster Bay Town Golf Club and the west wing of the house was subsequently knocked down. In about 1983, it was sold to the newly-formed Catholic Society of St. Pius V, but today it is once again a private residence.


Contributed by Mark Meredith on 10/10/2018 and last updated on 11/08/2019.


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