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Dec 7, 2009 4:26 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Grand love story behind crumbling Gin Lane wall

Editor's Note: This article was published in The Southampton Press-Eastern Edition on Thursday, December 3, 2009.
Dec 7, 2009 4:26 PM

Jessie May Woolworth was an heiress to a tremendous fortune, but her husband was a poor clerk in a five-and-dime store her father founded. Despite their differences, the pair fell in love, married and summered in Southampton Village—but they were not permitted to join the exclusive Southampton Bathing Corporation.

As the story goes, to scorn the posh club, Ms. Woolworth built a tall red brick wall at the western edge of her Gin Lane property, which is located just east of the Bathing Corporation’s land, and installed her own in-ground pool.

“She put a wall in so she wouldn’t have to see them from her yard,” Village Building Inspector Jon Foster said, relating the tale.

Now, Ms. Woolworth’s wall—which has become something of a village landmark—is crumbling into the dunes from age and is in need of repair, according to Southampton attorney Gil Flanagan, who presented plans for reinforcing the wall to the Southampton Village Board at a meeting earlier in the fall.

At the meeting, Mr. Flanagan explained that the current property owner, Vincent Camuto of Manhattan, was hoping to build a concrete buttress called a knee wall that would run the length of the current wall. The concrete knee wall will be coated in stucco and topped with brick, to help it blend in with the existing one, he said.

Ms. Woolworth’s wall now borders a village beach parking lot, and Mr. Camuto needs the Village Board’s permission to build a buttress for the wall, explained Manhattan architect Andre Tchelistcheff. He will also need a 
complete survey and approval from the Southampton Village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review.

Mr. Tchelistcheff explained Monday that “deadmen”—steel soil anchors—will secure the concrete wall to the brick one, which is buckling and sagging under its own weight. He also said that rosa rugosa, a rose plant that does well in a maritime climate, would be planted in front of the wall to conceal the concrete bolster.

The knee wall will cost about $159,000 to construct, Mr. Flanagan said at the Village Board meeting. Mr. Camuto, who helped found the shoe company Nine West, explored building a replacement wall, but looked to other options when he discovered that the replacement cost would be upward of $250,000, Mr. Flanagan said. Patching the wall would cost approximately $200,000, making the buttress the least expensive option, he added.

The Village Board granted permission for the concrete wall, but Village Trustee Nancy McGann wondered whether the stucco would look appropriate flush against the historic red brick 
wall. “It may look strange to have a beautiful wall with stucco in front of it,” she said, explaining that village residents and visitors have been accustomed to seeing the wall as is for more than 50 years.

Mr. Foster said Monday that the wall has been a visible fixture for more than 70 years. Ms. Woolworth married James Paul Donahue in 1912, according to a New York Times wedding announcement. They bought the Gin Lane estate in 1928 and constructed the wall in 1930, Mr. Foster said.

Ms. Woolworth bought the property as a way to make a grand entrance into elite Southampton society, according to an article in VOX Hamptons by Press News Group architectural 
columnist Anne Surchin. The estate’s name, “Wooldon,” is a combination of the couple’s last names, her article points out.

Despite her mansion neighboring the Bathing Corporation, as well as her vast wealth, the club denied Ms. Woolworth membership. Ms. Surchin, in a telephone interview, said that Ms. Woolworth was not allowed into the corporation because she was considered “new money,” foiling her plans to become a fabulous socialite.

“They had more money than anyone else, but they weren’t allowed in,” Ms. Surchin said.

Mr. Foster said Ms. Woolworth was not permitted to join the club because her husband did not have the requisite blue blood pumping through his veins—he was only an uneducated floorwalker, or store greeter, at Woolworth’s in Manhattan.

It was only after Ms. Woolworth found that her marriage was not socially acceptable to the Bathing Corporation that she built the wall and installed her own pool, Mr. Foster said: “She said, “To hell with you people!”

A member of the Bathing Corporation, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published, said he was not sure of the Bathing Corporation’s early rules for membership. Today, potential members of the corporation must be nominated by a current member, and the nomination must be seconded by another, among other official procedures. “It’s regular election procedure,” he said about today’s rules. “There’s nothing that stands out as to offend someone to build a wall.”

The exact reason why Ms. Woolworth was forbidden to join the storied club—and whether or not she would be allowed in today—will never be known. But, with the new concrete buttress proposed by Mr. Camuto, her legacy will live on for the next 70 years, in the form of a red brick wall.

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I love that wall... all of us who watch the waves, get a little blockage from the wind
on a cold day of surf or on a cool summer morning with nice offshore winds., yeah.. I love that wall.

By ride the truth wave (125), southampton on Dec 2, 09 7:29 PM
That's nice ... who's paying for it ?
By AndersEn (152), Southampton on Dec 3, 09 10:11 PM
Would of liked anther photo or two.
By icecreamman (363), Southampton on Dec 5, 09 8:50 AM
that wall was put there before I was born so that's all of 75 years. I always thought it belonged to the estate. You know when the first wave of summer residents came to Southampton, back in the late 1800's, they donated a lot to the community. And of course they kept up the maintenance on their properties.
So now why is it the villages responsibility? If the wall is falling into disrepair the village authorities should be citing the estate owner. Shame them into keeping up their wall.
By summertime (589), summerfield fl on Dec 6, 09 12:27 PM
The homeowner has applied for permission to repair the wall at his expense. The article is on p. 3 of the 12/3 edition of the Press. Now that the hard copy is on the news stands, hopefully they will post the full article here.
By PBR (4869), Southampton on Dec 7, 09 10:22 AM
who cares---knock it down.
By it never ends... (25), SMITHTOWN on Dec 9, 09 11:52 AM
The wall's beautiful. I hope the curent owner does restore it as it is an asset to the village. But, the Press's story of its origin is not entirely accurate.

The wall did go up because the original owners were not allowed to join the club next door and their feelings were hurt. However, it was not simply because he was poor and married a rich woman or that they were new money. They weren't allowed in because they were considered to be Irish "bog trotters", as were a number of other Irish ...more
By goldenrod (505), southampton on Dec 15, 09 3:11 PM
Drive in movies, Coopers Beach Southampton Village Monday nights