Since it is Halloween Month, and this is a sad tale of opulence, suicide and hauntings, I thought I’d share my experience with Pepperidge Hall. I grew up in the neighborhood known as Idle Hour in Oakdale, New York. It was called that as the homes were built on the grounds of William K. Vanderbilt’s “Idle Hour” estate.
Living in this neighborhood was magical. Just down Montauk Highway, across the street from my parent’s dry cleaning business in Oakdale, there also stood LaSalle Academy, the former Bourne (Singer Sewing Machine heir) estate. My sister had her wedding photos taken there. My experiences with these two wonderful estates, however, are another story. This is about Pepperidge Hall.
As a kid in Idle Hour, there were so many amazing places to discover – the Connetquot River, the small canals Vanderbilt had built throughout his estate, the quaint bridges that dotted the area, the Artist Colony, the Clock Tower, the Carriage House, the giant decorative vases that popped up along Shore Drive….
But what my friend Lydia and I found during a bike ride down a wooded path one summer is what has intrigued me for decades. The little-traveled path started at the end of Lincoln Drive and went all the way down to the Great South Bay. It was a great place for a picnic and beach glass collecting, a past-time both Lydia and I were into during high school. On one beach glass excursion, we happened to see to the left of the path what looked like the outline of a circular driveway. Sure enough, there in the middle of the brush was a drive, the remains of a cement pond, crumbling brick walls and a few broken pieces of colorful clay tiles. We could tell by the footprint of the drive and foundation walls that this had once been a grand estate. We returned to visit it often, but no one could tell us anything about our discovery.
Forty-five years later, I finally connected the dots and realized it was the remains of Pepperidge Hall. An eccentric sugar magnate, millionaire and descendent of William the Conqueror, Christopher Robert II, built the spectacular Jacobean style mansion in 1888 in a race with Vanderbilt and Bourne to see who could build the biggest and best mansion.
Following the death of his first wife, Robert travelled Europe amassing a fine collection of furniture and art. After marriage to his second wife, a well-to-do woman with whom he had a rocky relationship, Robert purchased 1,000 acres on the Great South Bay.
The 1,000-acre estate bordered Vanderbilt’s to the east, but, although the two men socialized together, it appeared to be more of a competitive rivalry at times, even resulting in an argument over hunting dogs. In 1882, Robert commissioned Edward Ficken to build his Queen Anne lodge. After it burned down seven years later, Fickens designed and built the massive, rectangular Pepperidge Hall. A large inner courtyard with a 30′ by 50′ pool and fountain dominated the plan, and a 109-foot glass conversancy stood on the west side of the rectangle. Stepped gables, turrets, bay windows, numerous chimneys, stables, a dairy and carriage house were showcased.
Unfortunately, Robert didn’t live there long before he made the questionable trade of his opulent Long Island estate for a Wall Street complex in 1896. Then in 1898, Robert was found shot to death. The circumstances were suspicious at best, but the coroner deemed it a suicide.
Over the years, the mansion went through a number of owners attempting to develop it into a hotel or retreat, even a silkworm farm but with no success. Several silent films utilized the mansion as a backdrop, including Lady Slippers, To Hell With the Kaiser, and Dead Men Tell No Tales, and later a group of metaphysicians purchased the property.
Tales of the ghost of a moody Christopher Robert roaming the halls began to circulate. Eventually, however, the costly furnishings were sold off and the property subdivided. The estate, which had cost Robert $1,500,000, was now worth only $20,000. Nature had taken over. Walls had cracked. Mold and vines had invaded the 18 bedrooms as Robert still roamed the halls lamenting his failure. Neglected and vandalized, Pepperidge Hall, once considered one of the three most opulent estates on the South Shore’s Gold Coast, was razed in 1940.