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.  

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