Back to nature: The house in the park at the end of Bayswater
There is a little-noticed $500,000 dollar request in the city's executive capital budget this year for "Bayswater State Park Restoration." The restoration project in question concerns an abandoned house once known as Sunset Lodge, and the land it currently sits on.
The last time anyone paid attention to the eastern section of Bayswater Point State Park, where the house is located, it was because of a controversy over the victimization of a wealthy, nature-loving eccentric who lived there.
Now the house, and the park, is a forgotten attraction in a largely forgotten neighborhood.
When that last owner of the Sunset Lodge died three decades ago, the property was turned over to the Audubon Society, and then later to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Then it was more or less left alone.
Over the last 15 years invasive species of vines have strangled the trees, and within that web of vegetation, there are abandoned cars and yellowing beer cans. The house has been vandalized and stripped of everything valuable.
It's hard, in this parks-loving city of the $200 tennis permit, to imagine a perfectly beautiful public amenity left to return to a not-particularly enlightened state of nature, even in a corner of the city as remote as this one.
Bayswater is in the far southeast of Queens, right on the Nassau County Line, in Far Rockaway, on its own peninsula.
A long time ago it was a very fashionable neighborhood, where some of the most genteel New Yorkers had their summer homes, frequented hotels and attended regattas, long before the arrival of an international airport that would span most of the horizon across the bay. There were two newspapers: The Rockaway Journal and The Rockaway News both carried advertisments for dozens of hotels, restaurants, a bowling alley, and both published front-page gossip colums. In 1907, Louis A. Heinscheimer, a partner at the investment banking firm Kuhn, Loeb & Co., built an enormous, architecturally elaborate mansion he called "Breezy Point" in what is now the park. (It was badly damaged in a fire and torn down in 1987.) Other notable citizens erected Victorian-style mansions in Bayswater and all along Far Rockaway’s beaches.
Now, the Bayswater area can best be described as tidy, if somewhat isolated, hemmed in by the less fortunate neighborhood of Far Rockaway.
At the end of the peninsula, where Mott Avenue dead-ends, is Bayswater Point State Park. The closest subway stop (Mott Avenue-Far Rockaway at the end of the A) is a little more than a mile away, so not a lot of people go there. It is also the only state park in the New York City region that does not have full-time, year-round staff attached to it.
In theory, it is a lovely spot. It affords access to recreational fishing and is a seasonal home for a significant variety of birds; the state park web site recommends it for “passive recreation.” It covers 12 acres, unless you count the tidal bed, in which case it is 14 acres.
What a visitor actually sees, these days, is the wreck of what was once a very nice estate.
Closed off behind a chain-link fence, across the street from a row of working homes in varying states of repair, is an enormous house that has clearly not been lived in for a long time. On either side of what looks like it was once the driveway are two brick pillars, one of which has a small cement plaque with the words “Sunset Lodge” carved into it. There’s a spacious yard to the right of the house, whose windows are covered by thick plywood, although they have been painted roughly the same pale-yellow color as the house.
Behind the big house, down where the woods start, is a smaller house that the vines have nearly brought down. This is the other side of Bayswater Point State Park, which is almost entirely inaccessible, and technically out of bounds anyway. (Visitors are not supposed to jump the fence, approach the house, or try to navigate the woods behind it. If one were to do that, one would find a network of trees struck together by thorny ropes of creepers.)
VICTORIA AND JOE GREENIDGE, THE LAST TENANTS of what would later become a part of Bayswater Point State Park, were somewhat eccentric, by most accounts. They did not live in the actual Sunset Lodge, the big house; they made a home in the now-collapsed former stable behind it.
Joe Greenidge was a journalist who worked for Reuters, and the more conventional of the two, which is to say only that he went to work every and came home from work every day, when he wasn't traveling.
Victoria Greenidge had long white hair she wore down most of the time, transclucent skin, pale blue eyes one of her former neighbors described as "angelic," and, late in life, only a few teeth. She was a former ballet dancer, born outside Boston in 1901 as Victoria Josephson.
For a while she had 13 dogs that she would walk around the property—she had a habit of wearing her husband’s overalls—all of them unleashed except one, the most vicious, one that looked like it might be part coyote, which she kept on a thick leash.
Every night Joe would arrive, in his Renault Dolphin, at the gate that shielded the driveway and stop and honk his horn—sometimes for as long as 15 minutes—until Victoria came up from the small house and unlocked it, as though he was warning her that he was home. After Victoria opened the gate, Joe would park in front of the big house, take a stack of the day’s newspapers out of the car, and take them inside.
“Every once in a while I could get a glimpse through that open door in the house,” said Mickey Cohen, a former assistant principal at Beach Channel High School who has lived in his house by the park, with his wife, for 50 years. “It was just loaded with newspapers. Ceiling-high newspapers. And I learned later on that there were channels, you know, in the hallways, that he would follow—little pathways—because the place was compacted with this collection of newspapers.”
Another of their former neighbors, Deborah Smith-Ashby, said that her parents bought their house across the street from Sunset Lodge on Point Breeze Place in 1962, when she was 12 years old, and that the Greenidges were already established as major characters in the neighborhood.
“She just—she loved nature,” Smith-Ashby said. “That was her thing. She loved nature. I remember when I first moved here, the kids used to say. ‘Oh that lady, she’s crazy. You go over there and she’ll give you a dollar to pick up sticks.'”
Joe Greenidge died in 1972, most likely of a heart attack. When a mortician arrived at the house the gate was locked, and he had to go to the Cohens’ across the street to call Victoria before she came up and opened it.
“Now, he was a sort of a TV-type mortician,” Cohen said. “Very formal, very stereotypical. Spoke very, very well and I guess it was supercilious—he looked down on us as he was speaking with us.”
A few minutes after he had left the Cohens, he returned.
“He was now trembling and stuttering and he said, ‘Oh, oh my god, if I could impose upon you, I have to use your telephone, once again, to call in a number of assistants. I thought I could handle this myself, but there’s no way that I can get up to see that body. It’s on the second floor, and I can’t gain access to the second floor because it’s approachable only through a narrow stairway and newspapers are piled high and I have to squirm through it.’
"And he was a rather corpulent fellow,” Cohen continued. “He could not make it up the stairs. And he called for assistance, but before he and the assistants could get up they had to take those papers off the stairway and stack them down on the ground floor of that stable-like area. And then they went up and they brought Joe downstairs in a body bag, and the body was cremated.”
The trouble started soon after Joe's death.
It started with her dogs. One day, when Victoria was out walking with them, one of them pulled hard enough on the leash that she fell, and broke her hip. After months in the hospital she returned to the stable, now with a woman, someone named Evelyn Winters, who Edith Bull brough in to take care of her.
“They got some nurse,” Smith-Ashby said. “Some woman to come in and take care of her. She sure took care of her.”
By the time Victoria Greenidge got back to the house, it had been damaged by vandals. Winters hired family and friends to fix up the big house, but charged Greenidge a fortune to do it, according to the neighbors, who had watched the developments with dismay.
“It was no nurse,” said Edith Bull, who was an acquaintance of Victoria Greenidge, and whose late husband John wrote what is still considered one of the definitive book on birds in New York State. “It was some woman by the name of Evelyn Winters, I happen to remember."
It's not surprising that Edith Bull would remember Evelyn Winters' name, given the fact that Winters was to figure prominently in a court fight in which it was alleged, according to a 1980 New York Times article, that the widowed Greenidge was subject to an "allegedly criminal pattern of undue influence by a succession of lawyers, workmen, housekeepers, advisers and helpers.''
Winters “really, really took over her life,” Cohen said. “Took over her identity. Got Victoria to sign checks; got Victoria to change the will that she had, leaving the property to Evelyn and the church that she belonged to. And it was just an astounding thing. Somehow she gave Evelyn permission for her family—her son and, I think, a nephew and a friend—to come into the big house and refurbish it. Tear down the old vandalized walls, and put it new walls, take out the gas lines and put in new electric wiring.”