Monday, February 24, 2014

How West Hempstead almost Became the Seat of Nassau County

The following article originally appeared, with minor modifications, in the West Hempstead Patch in 2011.  Presented here with permission of the author.

From the 1906 E. Belcher-Hyde map of West Hempstead.  Area in red shows the proposed Nassau County seat, rejected in a county-wide referendum in November 1898. 

With the recent redevelopment of the old Courtesy Hotel property into luxury apartments, and some promising future plans for the surrounding area, we'd like to take the opportunity to dig into the history of a neighborhood that has had its share of ups and downs over the years.   Not many people are aware that, just over a century ago, a decision was made that would forever alter the landscape of West Hempstead's eastern corridor.
We begin the story in 1898, when the western half of Queens County was consolidated into greater New York City and the New York State Legislature approved the creation of Nassau County for all the remaining territory in the eastern portion of Queens. One of the first orders of business for the new county was to find a suitable location for its seat of government. In January, a committee tasked with making preparations for the new county passed a resolution laying out some requirements among which was that the new seat must be located within one mile of a train station. Once the proposed locations were advanced, the issue would be settled by a county-wide referendum in November of that year.
That spring, the county was presented with a terrific offer of property for its headquarters. On May 24, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that the estate of Austin Corbin, late president of the LIRR, owned “several hundred acres lying west of the West Hempstead station,” and was set to donate eight acres of land “located on Hempstead Avenue, within four hundred feet of the West Hempstead station.” (Back then, the West Hempstead train station was located just north of its current site, across Hempstead Avenue. As a frame of reference, the Corbin Estate's land grant "within four hundred feet" of the station would place the site at the property bounded by the LIRR right-of-way to the east and Westminster Rd to the west, and Hempstead Tpke and Hempstead Ave to the north and south, where National Wholesale Liquidators is currently located).  

(Left) Early photo of property west of the WH LIRR station, after the LI Traction Co built a trestle in 1904 over the LIRR right-of-way. (Right) Contemporary photo of property.

Residents of Hempstead, the region’s largest village, as well as those living to the south and west, received the idea with much enthusiasm.  
The proposal’s main obstacle, however, was the opposition of the powerful and wealthy residents of the North Shore and the eastern region, who were unsatisfied with the location at Hempstead. In response, two additional locations were proposed, one at Mineola and a second at Hicksville. The Mineola faction secured a four acre land grant from the Garden City Company on an unused parcel of the Hempstead Plains at Franklin Avenue within “a three minutes’ walk of the railroad station;" and then as if to highlight one of the perceived deficiencies of the Hempstead proposal, they added that it was "distant enough to prevent annoyance from passing trains”.
Knowing that their plan stood little chance for success, the Hicksville committee arranged a meeting in June wherein an invited representative of Mineola argued that “in a three cornered fight Hempstead would be sure to win, but with the assistance of Hicksville, Mineola would be selected as the county seat and that would be more convenient for the people of Hicksville.” The argument must have resonated, for by October, Hicksville officially withdrew its plan and threw its support to Mineola.  
In the end, it wasn’t close. In resounding numbers, voters cast their ballots for Mineola and rejected the West Hempstead site. However, not all the blame lied solely with the committeemen in Mineola and Hicksville who struck that crucial deal that helped seal their victory.  In a post-election analysis by the Brooklyn Eagle, the following revealing perspective was offered as to why such a peculiarly large percentage of Hempstead voters even soured to their own plan:  “People…who live in the place, because of its attractions (sic) as a residential locality, allege that they voted against bringing the county buildings to Hempstead, as they did not desire to bring a large crowd of criminals, jurors and witnesses to the place.…It would increase the business of the bar rooms and hotels, but would injure the village as a place of residence for…people who located here because of its respectability and quietness.”
 The loss of the county seat wasn't the only setback from which that section of West Hempstead would suffer. Two years later, the newly established Nassau Hospital, the county's first full service medical facility located until then, just east of the West Hempstead train station at the corner of Front and Fulton Streets, would relocate to Mineola.  The hospital was the forerunner to Winthrop University Hospital and together, with the new county courthouse, they would serve as a major boon to that area's economy. Buoyed by the establishment of numerous law practices and medical offices, Mineola would solidify its position as a regional center for both the medical and legal fields. In contrast, over the next 100 years, the void left in West Hempstead's business district would engender such colorful uses of property as a grazing area for horses of the Long Island Express Co, a golf driving range, an annual visit by a travelling amusement company, a series of discount big-box retailers, a car wash, and later, across Hempstead Ave., a modest four story hotel called the Hempstead Motor Inn.  The Motor Inn later became the Courtesy Hotel and, over time, devolved into a magnet for crime and a thorn in the side of area residents.
How differently might our neighborhood developed had voters chosen West Hempstead as the county seat, or had Nassau Hospital had remained in its original location? Such speculation is a fruitless exercise in counter-factual history and won't do anything to accelerate efforts to improve the area's current condition; but hey, it's still fun to think about.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

Robert L Smith, Early Real Estate Broker to WH and Cathedral Gardens

The following article appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of the West Hempstead Community Support Association newsletter.

Robert L Smith Realty office when it stood at 30 Hempstead Turnpike
Among the objectives of this blog is to shed light on some of the bygone members of our community and pay tribute to their efforts in shaping West Hempstead into what it is today.  One such resident was a man who ran one of West Hempstead’s most notable and successful real estate agencies, Robert L Smith.  (Parenthetically, Smith’s son Willard recently passed away this past fall at the age of 86.  A lifelong local resident himself, Bill ran a successful insurance agency and, among other civic functions, served as president of the WH Lions and the Nassau County Independent Insurance Agents Association, and as the first ever President of the Friends of the West Hempstead Library).

Robert Leroy Smith was born in Brooklyn in 1902 to a family that traced back its roots to John “Rock” Smith, one of the pioneer settlers of Hempstead who crossed over LI Sound in 1644.  (In an effort to distinguish the identities of the multiple John Smiths settling on LI at the time, each was provided a unique nickname to go along with his given name.  “Rock” Smith purportedly acquired his name after the plot of earth that the Stamford Colony elders assigned him to build his home, sat upon a giant, immovable rock, which he proceeded to hew into the structure of his home, part of which he formed as the backdrop to his fireplace).  As a young teen during WWI, Smith tried to enlist in the Army despite being well underage.  The Army discovered his true age and so rather than being shipped overseas, he served out the war as a farm cadet on LI attached to Troop C of the 101st Cavalry Squadron.  

After the War, he finished high school and enrolled in Columbia University, but quit after two years to pursue a career as a shoe salesman (imagine that!).  His ultimate calling, though, came a couple years later when he became an agent in a real estate brokerage which at the time was engaged in a rather extensive development in the nascent community of Babylon, LI.  Along the way, he married Miriam Fradenburgh, daughter of the Dean of Brooklyn College, Albert G. Fradenburgh.  Eventually, he staked out on his own in 1924, opening a realty office in Jamaica, Queens, from where he arranged sales of properties throughout western Long Island.  But the bulk of his business would eventually come a couple years later from a new, up-and-coming neighborhood in West Hempstead called Cathedral Gardens.  

The genesis of Cathedral Gardens came amidst the din of track work being done on the LIRR to convert the WH line from steam to electric, and news of a new controlled-access highway that would ferry cars from Brooklyn out to Hempstead and beyond, to be known as the Southern State Parkway.  These two factors alone had caused local land values to skyrocket. But nobody really realized just how high prices would go until February 4, 1926, when someone agreed to pay an unprecedented $8,000 per acre for the 70 acre estate of the late Hannah K. Van Vranken, heiress to the planner of Garden City, John Kellum.  This community was named Cathedral Gardens on account of being located under the shadow of the tall spire of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City.  (Edwin C. Duryea, a farmer who lived his entire adult life in West Hempstead, once remarked in the 1940s that he had lived to see the day when the same price paid for a square foot of WH land, had the purchase power for an entire acre only sixty years earlier).  Robert L Smith was so enamored by the young development that he was among its original buyers for his own family, a home built at 11 Andover Place, and soon thereafter he moved his office to 30 Hempstead Turnpike, at the entrance to Cathedral Gardens.

From there, Smith’s business boomed as he became the primary realtor for buyers in Cathedral Gardens.  When Adelphi College opened in 1929, Smith marketed the “Gardens” as the choice residence for its professors and staff, in an effort to establish a “Faculty Row” for the college.  Already by its opening, it was reported that some 18 professors had moved out to the neighborhood, including nine from Adelphi alone.  Even his father-in-law was persuaded to leave Brooklyn College and relocate to join the Adelphi Faculty.  All told, of the 200+ homes built at Cathedral Gardens by 1941, Smith was reportedly responsible for arranging the sale of 80% of the properties. 

But it was Robert L Smith’s involvement in civic causes that left its indelible mark on West Hempstead.  Among other functions, he founded the West Hempstead Board of Trade, forerunner of the WH Chamber of Commerce (of which he was later a member), helped found the Hempstead Kiwanis Club, and served as President of the Cathedral Gardens Civic Association.

One of Smith’s greatest contributions came at the outbreak of WWII, when local residents were urged to contribute to the War Bond drive.  The first drive in Hempstead, with a quota of $600K, commenced on Dec. 7, 1942, on the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor.  Schools, businesses, banks, boy scouts, and movie theaters -especially theaters, since they enjoyed the benefit of some strong war bond appeals via newsreel, sprang into action to solicit buyers. (In December, moviegoers at the Rivoli in Hempstead went to see the comedy George Washington Slept Here starring Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan, while the State Theatre was showing Somewhere I’ll Find You featuring Clark Gable and Lana Turner.  It was Gable’s last feature film before enlisting in WWII.) A giant thermometer was erected on Fulton Ave to display its progress, and in just two weeks, that thermometer blew its top.  The monies raised from the drive were earmarked to purchase two B-17 “Flying Fortresses”, costing $300K each.  But when it was realized that such a large percentage of that total was generated in West Hempstead alone as a result of the efforts of a special committee chaired by Robert L Smith, the decision was made to christen the second bomber “Spirit of West Hempstead” in tribute to the unswerving patriotism of local residents at the time. 

B-17 Flying Fortress with the name "Spirit of West Hempstead" emblazoned on its fuselage, rolls off the assembly line at Boeing Field, Seattle Wa, during WWII

Thereafter, the WH committee spearheaded its own war bond drives in coordination with the Red Cross unit associated with St. Thomas the Apostle.  Its third bond drive targeted a quota of $100K. By its October 1943 deadline, WH doubled that number.  In early 1944, it commenced a fourth drive of the war, this time enlisting women of the neighborhood to go door-to-door to solicit small contributions from residents.  Aside from being a red-blooded American patriot, Robert L Smith had personal reasons for helping in the war effort – both his sons, Robert L Jr. and Willard had been serving in the US Navy.

After WWII, with Cathedral Gardens almost fully developed, Smith turned south toward another promising local neighborhood called the “Presidential Section”, after the presidential names of its streets.  In November 1947, Smith loaded his small office onto a flatbed truck and moved it to the corner of Hempstead Ave and Coolidge St., where it can still be seen today as the small, lime-green building on the NW corner at 417 Hempstead Ave.

The former R L Smith Realty office (same building as pictured above) after it moved to 417 Hempstead Ave in 1947
Robert L Smith continued his business and involvement in his community until his untimely death in 1961 at the young age of 59 after a long illness, but not before leaving his beloved West Hempstead with a legacy of civic duty and pride.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Early Aviation History – the Tales of Two Harrowing Plane Crashes in WH

The following article appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of the WHCSA News & Views newsletter

The “cradle of aviation” is a term ascribed to Long Island that highlights the important role that our island played in the history of early human flight. At the turn of the 20th century, the treeless, flat terrain of the Hempstead Plains, just a short distance from the country’s largest metropolis, made for an ideal location for the frenetic aviation activity that would take place in the region for the ensuing half-century. During those years, many triumphant and celebrated milestones in human flight would be marked on Long Island, most notably Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight from Roosevelt Field to Paris in 1927. As well, numerous but lesser known avionic tragedies and mishaps occurred in those early days. The following paragraphs recount the stories of two such plane crashes that occurred in the immediate West Hempstead vicinity.

The first incident involved a machine dubbed the “Christmas Bullet”, after its eccentric inventor, Dr. William W. Christmas. By 1918, in the aftermath of WWI, numerous enterprising manufacturers from across the country offered up radical designs for airplanes that they hoped would produce improved speed and efficiency and win lucrative government contracts to produce their planes for the US Army Air Service. Dr. Christmas theorized that the struts that supported the wings of the standard bi-plane design of that era generated a lot of wind resistance, and as a result, he pioneered a “strutless” design of the type pictured in the photograph above. Critics allegedly warned that without struts, the wings were liable to break apart during flight, and indeed, history proved these critics right; the Christmas Bullet was among the worst planes ever designed.
1918 photo of the Christmas Bullet.  (photo from  via Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, Christmas went ahead with his plans and got his prototype ready at his plant in Copiague, NY. A 27 year-old Army Air Service aviator named Cuthbert Mills was hired for the Bullet’s initial test flights and her maiden voyage to Hazelhurst (later Roosevelt) Field was indeed spectacular, with unofficial reports of her breaking the existing air speed records of the time. (Reports varied from anywhere between 160mph and 197mph). Shortly after the Christmas of 1918, Dr. Christmas announced that the Bullet would shortly give a demonstration by encircling the Woolworth Building in Manhattan (the tallest building in the world at the time) before returning to Long Island.

On a crisp and clear late afternoon on Monday, December 30th, Mills took off from Hazelhurst heading due south before turning west toward Manhattan. The plane reached about 3,000ft as it headed over the Hempstead reservoir when it encountered immediate problems. Reports conflict as to what exactly went wrong, but Lakeview resident E. J Jennings who was an eyewitness to the incident claimed that one of the plane’s wings had collapsed, causing her to spiral out of control. For an instant, Mills managed to stabilize the machine by bringing her down in small concentric circles, but the area surrounding Hempstead Lake was heavily wooded and offered no good place for a crash landing. The plane came down right around the present location of Exit 18 of the Southern State Parkway (before the parkway was built), into a chestnut tree while narrowly missing the home of a man named Quinn Porsert, before dropping to the ground. Porsert, his son Frank, and EJ Jennings were on a hunting excursion in the wooded property and were the first to respond to the scene, and they cheered wildly when for an instant, it had seemed that Mills had miraculously survived the crash. But as they raced toward the wreckage, they were greeted with a loud boom that lit up the purple dusk sky, as it became evident that the fuel tank had exploded and quickly consumed the wooden fuselage. Without a water supply, all the hopeless group could do was to futilely throw gravel upon the mangled aircraft and watch her unfortunate pilot burn beyond recognition. Incredibly, in the wake of this tragedy, the undaunted Dr. Christmas produced a second “Bullet” and three months later, her initial test flight similarly went awry and claimed the life of the pilot. Such were the risks and realities of early aviation.

About three-and-a-half years later, a second incident occurred that was not quite as tragic and produced a somewhat comical unplanned meeting between a Manhattan aristocrat and a hardened Long Island farmer.

Photo taken from the DH6 wiki page

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, June 10, 1922, a Madison Ave. socialite named Oscar Jay was soaring over central Long Island in his DeHavilland DH6 monoplane (after WWI, the Royal Air Force had decommissioned and sold off hundreds of these DH6s and many ended up in the hands of leisure pilots throughout the world) when he abruptly realized he had ran out of gas and frantically looked for the nearest clearing to bring the plane down. That clearing happened to be upon the potato field of John Jacob Rasweiler, a local farmer who owned a homestead along Dogwood Ave. (Today, the small side street off Dogwood that bears the original owner’s name along with his adjacent farmhouse is a surviving testament to this farm). Jay successfully glided his plane down upon the patch while leaving a divot of tens of dollars of torn-up potatoes in his wake. The pilot brushed himself off, nonchalantly walked over to the farmhouse, knocked on the door and introduced himself as a wealthy merchant. He asked the owner if he could borrow some gasoline and be on his way, all the while pledging that he would reimburse the farmer for his gas and for his ruined potatoes once he returned home. Rasweiler obliged and refueled the plane with some automotive gasoline he had siphoned from his car. Jay started up the machine, and after a 500ft taxi barely managed to get her off the ground before she sputtered and fell back to earth in a dive, dragging along another long divot of ruined potato crops. The apparent hard lesson learned was that automotive-grade gasoline was incompatible with the DeHavilland engine.

Shaken and exasperated but otherwise unhurt, Jay walked away from the wreckage and began looking for the closest train station to get back to Manhattan. Rasweiler caught up to Jay and yelled, “Hey, what about your plane!?!?”.

 “You can go ahead and keep it!”, was the response.

 “Well, what in tarnation will I have any use for a wrecked plane!?”, the old farmer quizzed, “And besides, how can I be so sure that you’re gonna repay me?”

Jay then gave the farmer his coat as a pledge along with his calling card, and headed off to the train station for Manhattan. Rasweiler went home, but then became suspicious of his uninvited visitor’s story, thinking instead that the plane might have been stolen, and he promptly called the local sheriff. The police made inquiries and found out that Jay’s story was completely legitimate. But the aftermath of this mangled heap of metal, with its nose firmly planted in the ground and its tail up in the air,made for a curious sight that Summer for passersby along Dogwood Ave before Rasweiler was finally able to extricate it from his farm.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Ode to the Courtesy Hotel - on Its 50th Anniversary

The ad above that appeared in Newsday in 1963 heralded the opening of the Hempstead Motor Hotel, later to become the infamous Courtesy Hotel, at 130 Hempstead Ave.  Believe it or not, at the time of its opening 50 years ago, the Hotel was actually a comfortable and classy option for visitors and tourists who wished to stay local.  Aside from offering a good central location in Western LI, the hotel was conveniently located adjacent to the WHH LIRR station, was across the street from some great shopping at S. Klein and within short walking distance to a number of good eateries including the West End Tavern.    The hotel featured well-appointed rooms (for 1960s standards), a spacious lobby, a steak pub called Winston's, a rooftop swimming pool and sun deck, and an underground bowling alley.  These photos below in full 1960s Technicolor appeared in some promotional postcards for the hotel, and give a sense of what the hotel looked like in those early days ---

A front view from Hempstead Ave

A view of the lobby

The rooftop pool and sun-deck

Interior of a room

In the 1960s and into the '70s the hotel played host to numerous conventions, job fairs and merchant shows.  In June 1964, that sunny rooftop sun deck pictured above was the site of the Miss Long Island beauty pageant, a contest that selected LI's representative for the Miss New York pageant later that year.

In 1971, Winston's reopened as the popular eatery Steak & Brew.  That decade was a period of transition for the hotel, and not in a good way.  By the end of the '70s the hotel's reputation started a long downhill slide that led to its ultimate demise a couple years ago.  In 1978, Nassau County DA Dennis Dillon, predecessor of current DA Kathleen Rice, ran his own version of Operation Flush the Johns with an undercover sting that nabbed a number of area motels, including the Hempstead Motor Hotel, for offering their guests pornographic films on pay-per-view.  Management began advertising "hourly rates" and thereafter the hotel became a magnet of crime with murders, rapes, drug busts, you name it.  The place caused a major strain on emergency resources for both the 5th Precinct and the WH Fire Dept.

In 1989 ownership changed hands and the place was renamed the Courtesy Hotel.  The community came out by the hundreds that year to oppose new owner Frank Zwelsky's plan to expand and enlarge his operation, and that episode galvanized the neighborhood's 20+ year long effort to shutter the hotel.  Indeed, one of the main issues at the forefront of the creation of the WH Civic Association in 1995 was to force the closing of the Courtesy. By the mid 2000s the owners of the hotel found a firm willing to buy the property and develop an apartment complex that won the approval of WH residents, but it took a few years and a number of Mother's Day rallies before the Town of Hempstead finally agreed to rezone the property into "transit-oriented" status in order to accommodate the developer's plans.  In May 2011, the wrecking ball dealt the final death-blow to the Courtesy and, roughly 16 months later, arose West 130, the luxury apartment building pictured below that took its place.

Front view of West 130

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Highlights of Early Horse History in West Hempstead

The following article appeared, with slight modifications, in the Summer 2013 edition of the WHCSA News & Views newsletter.

The grand opening of the revamped New York Equestrian Center on Eagle Ave provides an opportunity to highlight some of the more illustrious moments in horse-riding history in West Hempstead.  That history dates back to time when the horse was still the preferred mode of travel to get around.  Some time around 1910, the first riding school in WH was started by famed equestrian circus star Josephine DeMott Robinson on her farm on Hempstead Avenue near Johnson’s Lane.   Robinson knew a little something about riding, as she was purportedly the first woman in the world to perform backwards somersaults on a moving horse.  Robinson continued this operation until 1917 when she sold her farm and moved to Hempstead Village.

In 1922, WWI veteran Paul C. Lienhard moved to WH and opened the Lake View Riding Academy at the corner of Oak(ford) St. and Woodfield Rd.  Lienhard was a captain in US Army cavalry division and after the War, he had been working as an instructor at the US Army’s cavalry school in Ft. Riley, KS before moving east.   In the 1920s, members of the military community had increasingly viewed the use of horses in the Army as outdated and questioned their usefulness in battle when tank divisions (“mechanized cavalry”, as it was called then) were the order of the day.  Ever the horseman, Lienhard sought to prove the usefulness and durability of the cavalry by embarking on a solo cross-country horseback ride, literally cross-country, from New York to Los Angeles.  

On a warmer than usual winter day on December 13, 1927, the 37-year old Lienhard mounted an Army mare named Black Bess and left the Malverne train station for a 3,700-mile ride to the West Coast.  Twenty five days into his trip, after averaging about 42 miles a day, he paused briefly in St. Louis to talk to a United Press reporter about his expedition and continued on his way.  After 102 days on the trail, while cantering through the Arizona desert outside Yuma, Black Bess was bitten by a huge rattlesnake.  The old mare wavered but within 20 minutes, she dropped dead, 180 miles short of Lienhard’s goal.

In 1931 Lienhard moved his riding school to Mill Road (Peninsula Blvd) in Hempstead to be closer to the bridle trails that were laid down in the new Hempstead Lake State Park.  His was but one of half a dozen riding academies and stables that sprouted up along Mill Rd. in those days.   Lienhard counted among his prize students Gen. Chen Cheng,  Chief-of-staff  to Chiang Kai Shek and his representative at the UN, and two-time Academy Award winning actress Luise Rainer. (Parenthetically, Luise is still alive today and at 103 years young, she is currently the oldest surviving Oscar-winning actor).

The current stables on Eagle Ave. dates back to 1926, according to County records, shortly after the deal was announced to develop Hempstead Lake as a state park. 
In that year John Wellbrock opened the Paramount Riding Academy.  In the 1930s, ownership was turned over to Charles Heinsohn who renamed it Lakeside Riding Academy, a name that survived until about six years ago, and ran it for the next number of decades.

Aerial photo of Lakeview Riding Stables on Eagle Ave, circa 1947.  The stable houses that flank the entrance at he upper left of the photo are all that remain of the original complex.  Eagle Ave. cuts horizontally along the photo and Park Ave. runs vertically at the right of the image.

Though by WWII, the use of horses in a military capacity was all but obsolete, the cavalry would have one more opportunity to prove their efficacy in the war effort, and Lakeside Stables played a central role at the time.   In June 1942, Americans were shocked to learn of a botched Nazi infiltration at Amagansett by four German saboteurs who had swam to shore from a U-boat, a plot that would later be known as Operation Pastorius.  The incident set the entire region on edge and highlighted the need for a civilian patrol along the hundreds of miles of Long Island coastline.  On August 3, in response to a call by the Coast Guard to set up regular patrols along LI’s shores, a group of 50 expert horsemen, many of whom were WWI cavalry veterans, met at the Lakeside Stables and set up a staging area there.  These patrols were an important component in defending the Homeland from any further enemy infiltrations.

Like a candle that flickers bright before it burns out, the beginning of 1943 brought conventional transportation-by-horse into major prominence one last time, after fuel-rationing during WWII was the cause of a pleasure driving ban in the East Coast region.  Long Islanders had to get creative to get around.  So, following the lead of the Hempstead High football team, many local schools hired out horses and wagons to transport their sports teams to their games.  Theaters, restaurants and bowling alleys built hitches out in their parking lots for their horseback-riding customers.  It would be the last time that horses would be used for conventional transportation to that extent in our area, before finally giving way to motorized vehicles, and the numerous stables on LI at the time played a major role in providing horse-transportation during the WWII fuel shortage.

In 1954, Peninsula Blvd. was laid out between Hempstead and Rockville Centre and thereafter, one by one, the old stables and riding academies on the eastern side of Hempstead Lake closed down, while Lakeside on the western side remains as the only riding stables left from that bygone era.

In later years, Suzanne Benedict and Brian McTigue partnered to run the Stables, until they sold it in 2006 to the current owners, Alex Jacobson and Benjamin Haghani.  The initial plan was to redevelop the 1.2 acre site into condominiums, but after recognizing the value of the stables to the community, Jacobson and Haghani opted instead to rebuild the riding academy into a world-class facility, as the newly minted NY Equestrian Center.

The WHCSA and the West Hempstead Now and Then blog wish Mr. Jacobson best of luck and continued success in preserving one of West Hempstead and Lakeview’s prized local treasures.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

100th Anniversary of School District 27 and the Chestnut Street School

The following article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of the WHCSA News & Views newsletter.

Early photo of Chestnut St School. (Courtesy of the WH Historical Society)

Last month, February 3rd, 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Chestnut Street School, West Hempstead’s first schoolhouse and purportedly the oldest school building still in use in Nassau County.  This edition of A Look Back in Time examines the beginnings of School District 27 and the Chestnut Street School.

The origins of public education in the West Hempstead area stretches back to the 1820s when district 17 was created to serve children who lived in an area covering a large swath of rural countryside west of Hempstead Village.  The first schoolhouse built for this district was a one-room affair crowned by a bell tower, erected at the southern corner of Dogwood Avenue and John Street (now Nassau Boulevard).  The building was known then as the Trimming Square School, taking the name of the tiny village centered at the intersection of John Street and the Hempstead & Jamaica Plank Road.  Perhaps the most significant historical tidbit about the Trimming Square School was the brief stint that a young 20 year-old Walt Whitman spent there as schoolmaster in 1840, right around the time that he introduced the world to the sublime poetry that would solidify his renown as “America’s Poet”.  (When Whitman penned the lines -

The noble trees, the sweet young flowers,
The birds that sing in forest bowers,
The rivers grand that murmuring roll,
And all which joys or calms the soul
Are made by gracious might

published in the May 1840 edition of the Long Island Democrat during his tenure at Trimming Square, could it be that he drew his inspiration from the idyllic scene across Nassau Blvd. where a crystal-clear Pine Brook once gently meandered south through the woods and emptied into a lily-blanketed Hall’s Pond?)

The schoolhouse continued to serve the needs of local children until 1894, when an addition of a second room was necessitated.  A decade-and-a-half later, a couple of neighborhood subdivisions, starting with the Fairlawn Park section in 1906, brought numerous new residents to West Hempstead, and once again, SD17 faced a shortage of space at its aging schoolhouse.  By April 1911, the 29 families of SD17 from West Hempstead openly discussed forming a new school district to commence in the Fall of 1912, and thereafter they arranged a series of meetings to work out details including boundary lines, location of the new school, and the election of a new board.   On Wednesday, August 9, 1911, a vote was held in Norwood Chapel (WH’s first church located at the corner of Hempstead Ave and Oak[ford] St.) where residents of West Hempstead passed a resolution to authorize the establishment of a Union Free School District.  Later that Fall, on October 7, voters gave almost unanimous approval to Proposition 3, to raise $3,000 to purchase a centrally located school site at Chestnut Street.  That vote, however, was declared illegal due to its short and inadequate notice, and another vote was scheduled for November when once again, Prop. 3 was carried.  Hempstead architect I.B. Baylis was then promptly chosen to design a four-room school building.

The first ever school taxes for SD27 were scheduled to be paid in December 1911 and a paltry rate of 44 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation was set.  (To give you an idea of how different a world we live in and how far our school taxes have come since then, consider the case of Robert Wilcox, who at the time was about to begin construction of a new home at 555 Cedar Street.  Using his actual purchase price of his lot at $1,600 and his actual construction cost of $3,200, Wilcox’s annual tax bill would have come to $21.12.   Factoring for inflation, in today’s dollars that would have been like paying $462.  And this, mind you, was before the implementation of a Federal income tax, which would not come until the following year!)

Title of the Chestnut property was acquired by the district on June 1 and shortly thereafter notices requesting sealed bids were sent out for the construction of the schoolhouse.  A vote at the Chapel on the 21st elected the district’s first trustees, whereupon a local real estate man named Paul Ohrtman was chosen as President of the Board of Education.  (Ohrtman went on to have a prolific local civic career where, in addition to SD27 Board President, he served as Fire Commissioner, Sanitation Dist. 6 Commissioner, and TOH Receiver of Taxes.  He died in 1967 at age 91).  An Irish teacher from Upstate New York named Mary Davern, a veteran of 32 years who had previously taught the upper grades at Trimming Square, was chosen as Principal of the new school.

In August, the winning bid for the building of the school went to a local contractor named Carl Mirschel, whose yard was located in WH on the Turnpike and who had built extensively throughout the area.  Construction hastily commenced, but in the interim a home on Woodfield Road was leased from Franklin Duryea to be used as a temporary school until the Chestnut building was ready.   This home hosted the first ever day of classes for the nascent district on Monday, September 9th.  Meanwhile that Fall, contractor Mirschel was working at a fever pitch and by November, he had enclosed the outer structure of the Chestnut building. 

Monday, February 3, 1913 was chosen as the move-in date despite the fact that the interior of the school was not quite finished, and on that date, without much fanfare, the Chestnut Street School was inaugurated.

Over the years, Chestnut underwent two significant expansions to meet the needs of the growing district: the first when a south wing was added in 1925 and a second when a north wing 1947.  However, the original building with its distinctive bell-tower remains intact and is a testament to its sturdy construction, over 100 years ago.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A&P - Western Beef

The photo above (courtesy of Dave over at the Pleasant Family Shopping Blog) shows the A&P supermarket that was built at 103 Woodfield Rd, shortly after it opened in 1968.  In 1965, the owners of the home and flower shop on that property, Emil and Sophie Baumgartner, began proceedings to have their lot rezoned from residential to business to develop a supermarket and mini-strip mall at the location.  Despite some opposition from neighbors, given the fact that the property was flanked on either side by commercial businesses (on the north by the Hempstead Seed Co. and on the south by the Nassau County Mental Health Assn. rehabilitation center), the TOH granted the request and shortly thereafter ground was broken on the development.  At the same time, the Baumgartners had their home moved further south so that it would front Cedar Street while they continued to run their flower shop for a while in the new strip mall.  

Throughout the '60s, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (a.k.a. A&P) embarked on a strategy to stem the tide of its slow decline as a supermarket chain.  The company faced stiff competition from newer and bigger stores that left most of the existing A&P chains feeling small and dated.  Part of this strategy was a blitz of new "centennial stores" to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company, where the buildings would be designed in the "early American style".  The West Hempstead A&P was opened in 1968 (photo depicted above.  The photo shows a checkout attendant helping a lady load her bags into what looks like a new '67 or '68 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon, the way they used to do it in the "old days").

Sometime in the mid '90s, A&P vacated the location and it was taken over by Western Beef.  Below is a "now" shot, taken roughly at the same angle as the photo above, showing the monstrous Western Beef sign that just about obscures any vestige of the building's original architectural features. (Note the iron fence along the roof is still there).

Over the years, the adjacent mini-strip mall has seen many tenants come and go. However, one of them, Fel's Hair Creations, has been in business at that location for forty years, since almost the beginning of the mall's inception. 

Comparing the then and now shots below, the old triangular pediment from the original design still peeks out above the new sign, as well as the original cupola and weather vane.

To me, shopping today at this Western Beef has kind of a retro feel to it, since very little changes have been made to modernize the interior, and I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, but they always seem to pipe through what sounds like Greatest Hits of the 70s over the store loudspeakers.  I almost feel like I'm in a time warp over there, bargain hunting for food deals with my mom, pushing a half-broken shopping cart with wheels that never seem to all roll in the same direction.  Western Beef also plays host to the "Pickle People", an old West Hempstead business held over from the old Shoppers Village days back in the 80s.