ost people in Freeport probably have passed by the 128-year-old Queen Anne Victorian known as “Woodbine” that sits on a quiet village street. They may have marveled at its elegant Byzantine dome and fish-scale shingles or heard of the burnished paneling and intricate woodwork inside. It’s likely they know it belonged to John J. Randall, the mutton-chopped magnate who pretty much developed the community.
What they probably don’t know is that what they see is only half the story. Literally, just half.
The startling fact that researchers rediscovered years ago is that the home, built by Randall in 1890, actually was cut in two just 30 years later. Right down the middle of the grand central staircase. Passers-by might never guess just how spectacular the home once was, as the missing half was moved to a nearby area, where it later burned down.
🏠The urban legend: 'A nice story, but it's not true'
The reason for this dramatic cleavage is the stuff of urban legend. Namely, that the home was divided because of a divorce between Randall and his wife.
“It’s a nice story, but it’s not true,” says Cynthia Krieg, who, along with Regina Feeney, wrote a history of Freeport filled with pictures from its heyday.
That surprises even the home’s current owner, Marilyn Monroe (no relation to the movie star). “It’s the story I was told and I believed it as well,” she says.
🏠The history: 'The Hamptons before there was a Hamptons'
The tale is indeed linked to the village patriarch, John J. Randall, who arrived in the area in the 1880s and started buying up land, including an 80-acre development he dubbed Randall Park. Later, when he ran out of terra firma to sell, he created more with dirt that was dredged out to build canals. His financing produced many of the village’s waterways, which access the Great South Bay.
Flush with success, he and his businessmen friends constructed mansions in the area, creating something of a Gold Coast on the South Shore. The village later became a resort hot spot and an actors’ mecca that drew showbiz celebs such as Will Rogers, Flo Ziegfeld and Irving Berlin.
“Freeport was the Hamptons before there was a Hamptons,” Feeney says.
Many of the grand homes from that era are gone now — torn down, abandoned or converted to apartments, says Krieg, who was a librarian at the Freeport Memorial Library when she wrote the book about the village with Feeney, who is librarian/archivist there. “This home is unique because it’s still here,” she says. “Well, half of it, anyway.”
Randall’s original jewel was a 27-room masterpiece that included paneled pocket doors separating a formal living room and dining area, back stairways to make the staff less obtrusive and red-and-yellow stained glass windows.
Most of the interior wood is chestnut, a rarity nowadays, since much of the species vanished during a blight, says Mary Westring, a Brooklyn artist who, with her then-husband, offered to buy the house from Randall’s grandson in 1970.
It had been on the market before with no takers, and the grandson was ready to tear it down, she says. The reason soon became clear. The empty house had been vandalized, its copper pipes ripped out, windows smashed. A fire set in the living room was put out by a neighbor in the nick of time.
“It was a wreck,” she says.
Westring and her husband bought it anyway and, over the years, replaced and painted the home’s 5,500 fish-scale shingles and added colorful trim to accent the Victorian lines. The stairway was replicated and the rotting porch restored. Westring, who had first spotted the house while riding her bicycle years earlier, says she knew from the beginning it was only half of the original — mainly because she noticed its twin a block away. “It looked like all you had to do was slide them together,” she says.
She also believed the hearsay that it was divided because of a divorce. But the Randall grandson didn’t offer any information about it, she says.
🏠The real story: 'It might have been too big'
So, what is the real reason it was bisected?
Krieg, now the village historian and president of the Freeport Historical Society, interviewed the grandson 10 years ago, and he at last was ready to talk. What he told her was that the elder Randall didn’t want the home — which was huge for the area — to ever be turned into a boardinghouse. Apparently, he figured that by reducing its size he might save it from that fate.
Certainly, the expense of keeping up a home that size probably was on his mind, said the great-great grandson of the patriarch, John Randall IV, who lives in Locust Valley. “That was a monstrous home, and it might have been too big to maintain,” he says. “So, maybe he thought, ‘I’m either going to sell the whole thing or cut it in two.’ “
The carved-off half was moved in 1920, according to the grandson, but it did, indeed, become a boardinghouse, Feeney says. It was destroyed by fire in 1970.
🏠The mansion today: 'Every day ... I feel happy'
The elder Randall’s dream of preserving Woodbine finally came to fruition through its modern-day owners, Westring and, later, Monroe. Monroe entered the picture in 1997 while searching for a home with lots of interior wood. A real estate agent showed her the Westring home to see if she liked the style. It was exactly what she wanted, but it was not for sale. Three years later, Monroe’s father, a well-known figure in Freeport, was contacted by Westring. She and her husband were living apart and decided to sell the house. Was his daughter still interested? Some legal wrangling delayed the purchase for a while, but eventually Monroe got her dream home.
“I think I was meant to get this house,” she says. “I feel so warm here.”
Monroe, the longtime director of the Center for Excellence & Innovation at Nassau Community College, has added her own touches over the years. For example, she converted the attic — Westring’s former paint-mixing area — into a retreat/meditation room.
The house has been a perfect palette for her talents (she is the founder of Marilyn Monroe Designs) and is decorated with finds collected from her travels throughout the world.
As far as the divorce tale everyone believed all these years? Couldn’t be more wrong. The fact is Randall had three wives, outlived two of them, died before the last one and never divorced any of them. Myth busted.
Divided or not, for Monroe, the house feels whole.
“Every day when I come home from work,” she says, “I feel happy.”
🏠The tour: 'I was meant to get this house'
Marilyn Monroe bought the house in 2000, filling it with finds from her travels around the world. Monroe, who went to design school, says she is “always renovating and making changes” to the home. Here’s a tour through her the house she says she “was meant to get.”