Keeping up with the elegance and luxury of the Gilded Age that now may be assigned to the Great Gatsby, Mill Neck Manor is one of the remaining historic estates on the North Shore of Long Island. Once known as Sefton Manor, this granite Tudor Revival mansion overlooks the water of the Long Island Sound on eighty-six acres. The majestic estate was the home of the cosmetic heiress, Lillian Sefton Thomas Dodge, and her second husband Robert Leftwich Dodge.
In 1949, Mrs. Dodge sold her property to the Lutheran Friends of the Deaf, the founding organization for Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf. The Manor House became a residential school for the Deaf and then a day elementary school. In 2001, the new completed Deaf Education Center left the Manor House vacant. Currently, events like designer showcases and monthly tours take place in the home.
Since re-reading the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in anticipation of the May 2013 release of the new movie based on the novel, I had embarked on a Gold Coast tour and was thrilled when I secured tickets for the once a month tour of Mill Neck Manor. I enjoyed visiting the Mansion that cost two million dollars back in 1923 and was impressed by many of the unique features and the formal gardens. I was equally impressed with the life of Lillian Sefton Thomas Dodge upon learning that it was her success as the company president of the Harriet Hubbard Ayer Corporation that financed Sefton Manor. Below is a synopsis of my delightful afternoon at Mill Neck Manor.
The Manor House and Formal Gardens
Upon entering the home, I walk through one of the most remarkable features; the solid oak doors studded with iron detail that is over 400 years old. After passing through the grand entrance, the tour group convened in the Great Hall and learned about the history of the three-story residence. The mansion did not have any original furniture of the Dodge family, and many rooms were empty. The vacant rooms allowed visitors to focus on the beauty of the engraved wood walls, ornate ceilings, and the leaded stain glass windows, depicting scenes from five Shakespearean plays overlooking the main stair landing.
The mansion consists of 34 rooms, 16 bathrooms, and two elevators. The Great Hall is on the main floor with a parlor to the right and the kitchen to the left. Also on the first floor were fireplaces imported from Europe from the 16th and 17th century. On the second floor was the bedroom of the Dodge’s only child, Mary. This room served as an exhibit for the Harriet Hubbard Ayer Cosmetic Company and had several original advertising pieces displayed on the walls. The third-floor rooms were for the servants.
After checking out a room that featured a two-way mirror and two vaults hidden in the paneling walls made from the last wood of the Sherwood Forest, I ventured out to the formal gardens. The entrance to sunken gardens is through a pair of bronze gates that were designed in Paris and are named the Gate of Sun and the Gate of Moon. Three Limestone Temples framed the gardens and are centrally located and arranged as sundial radiating from the Venetian fountain. Small water pools give the gardens tranquility.
Lillian Sefton Thomas Dodge
Lillian Sefton was from Washington, D.C. and was a singer and actress before marrying her first husband, Vincent Benjamin Thomas. Miss Sefton had appeared in a production with the daughter of Harriet Hubbard Ayer. Harriet Hubbard Ayer had started a cosmetic company in 1886 to sell her cosmetic cream. Ayer ended up losing control of her company to her business partner but regained control through the courts. Unfortunately, the bad publicity caused sales to crash. Four years after Ayer’s death Benjamin Thomas purchased the company in 1907 for his wife when the beauty business was taking off. Although Mr. Thomas was the president, it was Lillian that ran the company. She became president after his death in 1918 making her the highest paid female executive in America earning $100,000 per year in 1937. Lillian remarried in 1925 to American Artist, Robert Leftwich Dodge whose works appear on the walls of the Library of Congress. Mr. Dodge died in 1940, and Lillian sold the company in 1947 to Lever Brothers for $5,500,000, a small price considering the business had been grossing between six and eight million dollars annually.
What you need to know to tour the Mansion
Tours are once a month and booked on-line. Each tour consist of a group of twenty-five and the admission fee is $25 for adults. The tour is approximately an hour and a half. Upon the conclusion of the visit, the guest receives tea and scones are served. If you enjoy visiting historical homes, I highly recommend making a visit to Mill Neck Manor but do so in the spring or fall because the house, of course, does not have to air-condition, and it is hot during July and August.