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.

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