The Piries: Prosperity in the East

                        Long Island, Brooklyn and Florida



Craig Varra was the name given to the imposing Sea Cliff, Long Island house of founder John Thomas Pirie, and his wife, Sarah. The child running toward the house is a grandson, John Thomas Pirie II, father of today’s Alice Pirie Wirtz.





By Megan McKinney



After 1865, John Thomas Pirie was spending most of his time in New York, buying merchandise for various departments of the store, tending to financial affairs of the firm and enjoying his growing family. At 38, he was still a relatively young man who would have many years of his long life to enjoy prosperity at his substantial houses on Long Island and in Brooklyn.  

John Thomas and Sarah Pirie had been based in Amboy, Illinois, when their eldest son, Samuel Carson Pirie, was born March 11, 1864, and given a name reflecting his position as both son and nephew of the two founders.

Three other sons, John Taylor, Allan Hawkins and Gordon Lennox would follow. Of the couple’s three daughters, Sarah Isobel, Margaret Carson and Mary, only Mary wed. Her husband was Nelson Weir. Although “Aunt Margaret” would be the hands-on presence in raising Samuel’s children, she and her sister Sarah would remain with their parents. 


In this extraordinary family portrait, lent to Classic Chicago by Alice Pirie Wirtz, Sarah Carson Pirie and John Thomas Pirie, seated center, are surrounded by their seven children. They are, clockwise from Gordon Lennox Pirie, seated far left next to his mother: John Taylor Pirie, Mary Pirie Weir, Samuel Carson Pirie, Margaret Carson Pirie, Allan Hawkins Pirie and Sarah Isobel Pirie.


Craig Varra was a handsome Victorian house in Sea Cliff, where the greater part of the waterfront belonged to John. He and Sarah also kept a base at 181 Park Place in Brooklyn, a substantial town house, which continues to stand on the site today.


 181 Park Place, Brooklyn.


It was an idyllic life except for asthma plaguing Sarah in the two New York locations, which led John to investigate Florida as a refuge. He bought a large spread of Plymouth in the central part of the state, and named it Errol for his birthplace in Scotland. One thousand acres of the Pirie property is now within Errol Estate Country Club in the Orlando area.


The Hill House.


John’s purchase became a significant family compound/gentleman’s farm. The three-story main house, The Hill House, consisted of five bedrooms and four bathrooms on the second floor and three bedrooms with baths on the third, with an elevator connecting the stories. The Lodge was a 10-bedroom guest house, and, for additional guests, there were Jasman Cottage and Live Oak Cottage. In addition, there was Winonah Cottage, with a downstairs bedroom; this was used by an unmarried daughter, probably the younger Sarah.

In addition to orange groves and a large vegetable garden, John raised improved varieties of corn and other crops on the estate. His livestock included 600 head of range cattle, a number of Thoroughbred horses, Devon cattle, registered Shorthorn cattle and Bronze turkeys.

The second of John and Sarah’s children was Allan, born in 1878 and named for John’s Scottish father. The family black sheep, Allan would mature to enrage his father by opening a saloon across the street from the dignified family store.


This photograph shows black sheep Allan Pirie and Mrs. John Thomas Pirie II.  Alice Pirie Wirtz identified the image with, “Uncle Allan with my mother. He had a glass eye, and to my horror, he would take it out and show us.” 


According to grand-niece Alice Pirie Wirtz, “Allan didn’t want to be in the family business and knew my great-grandfather was incredibly strict. It was written in the employee handbook that workers needed to attend church service every Sunday, and they were not allowed to consume alcohol.”


 The Carson Pirie Scott Rules circa 1856.


When founder John Thomas Pirie died in 1913, leaving an estate of $12 million, his widow, Sarah, received all realty holdings, horses and boats, plus $5,000 “for her immediate use.” The residue of the estate was to be divided among six of their seven children, with black sheep Allan receiving a token $1,000. However, another son, John Taylor Pirie, an executor of the estate, announced to the newspapers, “When the estate is settled, it will be found Allan will have received his share.” 

The hardy Scottish founder’s death at 86 in Plymouth occurred after suffering a bout of acute indigestion for two hours. Sarah and their daughters had left for Sea Cliff and only Allan, active manager of the property, was still at Errol when his father died. John’s body was shipped to Washington, from where two other sons, John and Gordon, accompanied it to Brooklyn’s lovely Green-Wood Cemetery.


 Richard M. Upjohn‘s Gothic Revival Green-Wood Cemetery entrance, circa 1865.


John’s eldest son, Samuel, who was returning by ship from an African hunting trip, did not learn of his father’s death until his arrival home.


Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series, The Department Store Piries, will continue next week with The Pirie Heirs: The Samuel Carson Pirie Line.


Selected Photo Credit:

Alice Pirie Wirtz

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl