Friday, September 2, 2011

Dogwood Knolls - A Former Local Farm with a Familiar Story

Pick a random home under 60 years-old in the Malverne/ West Hempstead area and chances are that it sits on what was once a typical piece of Central Nassau County farmland with a familiar ring to its history that at the same time offers its own unique story to tell. That history typically includes what started out at the turn of the 20th century as a 40 or 50 acre tract upon which its owner, more likely than not a German immigrant, grew produce that would be harvested and then transported every season by truck to markets in New York City. The owner likely lived in a quaint farmhouse with his immediate family, perhaps even some of his extended family, and enjoyed a quiet country life in a neighborhood where the pace of life moved slowly, where things remained relatively unchanged until just after WWII.

Then, after the war, a major transformation occurred in Nassau County. There was a serious shortage of houses in the New York metro area, where heavy demand was spurred on by returning GIs who were eager to settle down and start a family. As a result of this demand, most of these Long Island farmers took deals that were too good to pass up and sold to developers who platted and subdivided their former land into neatly arranged properties whereupon mass produced, pre-designed, cookie-cutter homes would soon be built. In a relatively short period, houses began sprouting up everywhere, leaving a dearth of existing open space that remains in the aging suburbs of Nassau County.

Such is the story of a 45-acre farm on the western side of Dogwood Ave. on the West Hempstead/ Franklin Square border and its owner, Peter Wenk. Wenk voyaged across the Atlantic from Germany in 1892 as a young, enterprising 24 year-old bachelor full of hopes and ambitions that were characteristic of so many immigrants of that time. Shortly after arriving, he quickly found employment with Herman Breyer, a well-known florist from Elmhurst. Two years later, he married and started a family and all the while carefully squirreled away his savings until he was able to branch out and establish his own business. In 1898, he moved to Ozone Park and set up a series of greenhouses on a newly purchased plot of land where he cultivated marketable house plants and flowers. His flower shop became so prosperous that in just twenty years time, Peter Wenk & Sons Florists became the largest and most successful of its kind in all of Queens, according to one report.

The rapid expansion of his business necessitated the acquisition of more farmland. He found what he was looking for in what was then the rural community of Munson, L.I., where in 1916 he purchased a fertile plot from John Lewis Childs, founder of Floral Park and owner of the world-famous JL Childs Seed Co. Thereupon, he moved out to Long Island with his wife and four children, where the family planted roots - literally and figuratively - in the community and continued to farm there until 1950. In that year, developer David Coleman, president of Rutgers Homes, Inc., purchased the property to erect 175 bungalow-type homes similar to the one in the  photo above, in a new $2.5 million colony to be called Dogwood Knolls. This photo appeared in the Sunday, November 19, 1950 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle together with a quarter-page advertisement heralding the first showing of this new development.

This three-bedroom ranch, located at the corner of Dogwood Ave. and Cornell Rd., also served as the development's model home and typified a popular architectural style of that era, featuring amenities that were considered cutting-edge at the time - scientific kitchens, dishwashers, washing machines, and automatic oil burners. In 1950, the Dogwood Avenue corridor was among the most rapidly expanding sections in Nassau County and Dogwood Knolls was but a small part of an overall development of more than 1,200 nearby homes that year, complete with a new, large 25-unit shopping center just down the road.

An added attraction touted by the Dogwood Knolls advertisments was that their homes were not subject to the imposition of a clause called "Regulation X". What was Regulation X? In September 1950, Congress passed the Defense Production Act in response to the start of the Korean War. Among various war powers enumerated in this bill, federal government was granted authority to regulate the terms of home mortgages to ensure that there would be no shortage of building materials that might hamper the war effort and also to curb economic factors in the housing market that might spur inflation. As a result, the Federal Reserve Board set minimums for the percentage of a down payment and interest rates on a home loan, a part of the Defense Production Act entitled Regulation X, which had the effect of cooling down a housing market that was red hot in 1950. Dogwood Knolls gleefully announced that their mortgage commitments were obtained before the passage of the DPA and therefore were not subject to its restrictions. That meant that a lucky veteran who purchased a $12,990 home could pay 10% down or $1,299, and at the going 4% interest rate that was offered back then, would pay just $72/ month on a 20-year mortgage. (Think about that next time your monthly mortgage is due.).

Over the next couple decades, area home development reached a saturation point and interest rates charted a path to a steady climb, never again to dip to those kinds of 1950s levels, until only recently.
The story of the Wenk Farm/Dogwood Knolls is a familiar and recurring one for properties of our neighborhood, and one that has shaped the local landscape of Malverne and West Hempstead into what it is today.

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