A tale of triumph and taxes

07/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Once upon a time in Southold, there was an estate of more than 40 acres with a grand mansion that was the envy of all who saw it. Then, on orders from the same man who had it built 25 years earlier, it was demolished.

The tale of the Cosden estate, Eastward, on Mount Beulah Avenue has intrigued many locals for years, according to Geoffrey Fleming, who wrote “Ever Eastward: Alfred H. Cosden and His Estate at Southold.” Mr. Fleming, director of the Southold Historical Society, is also curator of an exhibit about the fabled estate at the Mayne Memorial Gallery in the society’s Ann Curry-Bell House.

“It’s long overdue because there’s so much interest,” Mr. Fleming said of the exhibit and accompanying book. For the past five or six years, whenever he has given lectures about Southold history, he has been peppered with questions about the Cosden estate.

“It was quite the showplace,” Mr. Fleming said.

So, for this year’s celebration of the Southold Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, he thought it appropriate to respond to the groundswell of interest and focus on the estate.

Alfred Cosden was a self-made millionaire who started life as the son of a rural farmer in West Dover, Del. He developed an interest in pharmaceuticals and rose from an apprentice job at Clarke and McDaniel in Delaware to president of a large retail drug corporation in the northeast. When the company was taken over in 1913, Mr. Cosden opted to retire at the age of 42 and devote the rest of his life to his other great passion, horses.

Friends and colleagues Edward Daley Cahoon and Dr. Joseph Marshall, who had long vacationed in Southold, had already introduced Mr. Cosden to the rural town, much like the one where he had spent his childhood. The Cosden family initially rented a house on Maple Lane in Southold as Mr. Cosden began purchasing land overlooking Long Island Sound and planning his estate.

It would come to include a large Georgian residence for the family; two stunning brick cottages — one for Mr. Cosden’s brother, William, who functioned as superintendent of the estate, and the other for the gardener and other employees; a stable-garage complex; a chicken house; and a barn and sheds. The surrounding landscaping included a nine-hole golf course, formal gardens and informal plantings.

The price tag was $250,000, considered a tidy sum back in 1915, Mr. Fleming said.

For 25 years, the Cosden family thrived on the land as Alfred Cosden also achieved success with his horses. He went from raising and racing trotters to raising runners. In 1928, his thoroughbred colt, Vito, a 20-to-1 underdog, won the Belmont Stakes, the third leg in the Triple Crown that includes The Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

In 1940, the Southold Town Board threatened a tax increase that would have hit wealthy homeowners the hardest, according to Mr. Fleming. Mr. Cosden was incensed, believing that he already paid enough in taxes. He threatened not only to leave Southold if board members raised taxes, but to have his house demolished.

They did — and he did.

“He did it out of spite,” Mr. Fleming said.

The contents of the house were removed and Mr. Cosden ordered the demolition. On the day of their departure from Southold, Elizabeth Easton Cosden, who had married Alfred’s son Edward, “watched from the back of the car as the family car pulled away, shedding tears for the house that had been a home,” Mr. Fleming wrote in his book.

Alfred and Loraine Cosden moved their family back to New York City. The only Cosden presence on the North Fork these days is a family mausoleum at the Southold Presbyterian Church cemetery, built for the Cosdens’ son Norton, who died here at age 4. Because the family mausoleum was here — and despite the absence of any other remaining connection to the area — Alfred Cosden’s remains and those of other family members were interred there, his in 1962 and his wife’s in 1950.

After the deaths of Alfred and Loraine Cosden, many pieces from their art and antiques collection were sold at auction. Son Curtis, who had moved to New Mexico, left his estate, containing many of his parents’ furnishings, to a trust that sold the items. That means much Cosden memorabilia is scattered around the southwest, Mr. Fleming said.

But Carol Cosden Price, Alfred and Loraine’s daughter, now in her 90s, lives in Washington, D.C., where Mr. Fleming has visited her annually for the past seven years, compiling an oral history of her memories. She has also lent the historical society items including pictures, a scrapbook of Alfred Cosden’s horse racing achievements and pieces of art that Alfred and Loraine collected.

Films of the family at Eastward are also part of the exhibit.

Still standing on the original estate land are the two brick cottages, now in private hands; the stable-garage complex; and some outbuildings. The land where the mansion stood belongs to Peconic Land Trust, and the golf course, so coveted by Alfred, is now totally overgrown with woods, Mr. Fleming said. While the foundation is gone, a driveway leading from the gates to where the mansion stood still exists and the perimeter of the mansion can still be discerned from aerial photos, he said.

Southold Historical Society

Cosden Estate exhibition

Mayne Memorial Gallery in the Ann Currie-Bell House

Route 25 and Maple Lane

Through Sept. 19, 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays