Friday, October 20, 2017

Ode to the Last Great Estate in West Hempstead

The following essay appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of  the WHCSA News & Views newsletter

Last year’s demolition of the large estate at 764 Hempstead Avenue and subsequent subdivision provides an opportunity to reflect upon the development of West Hempstead as a residential community.  At 1.66 acres, the parcel represented the last remaining large residential tract in West Hempstead, and has given way to the erection of eight homes in its place.  Over the past three years, the process took on a certain inevitability ever since the place was sold to a developer in 2014, knowing that it was only a matter of time before proper permits were obtained to tear the structure down.  As a historian, I view this event with the sad realization that the transformation of West Hempstead from a once sprawling rural suburb into an overdeveloped neighborhood, is now complete.  This transformation began at the start of the 20th century with the development of the Fairlawn Park subdivision in 1906, and continued steadily with two notable growth spurts; one, after the West Hempstead LIRR line was electrified and the Southern Parkway was completed in 1926 and 1927, respectively; and the other, after WWII and the coming of the baby boomer generation. 

To me, the moment a suburb has been denuded of its great residential landmarks and replaced with neatly packed in 60x100 cookie cutter homes reminiscent of the green and red properties of a Monopoly board, it has lost a large part of its unique identity, and in many ways becomes indistinguishable from its neighboring megalopolis to the west. In this, I am reminded of what Allen Ginsberg once referred to as the “invisible suburbs”, having fallen prey to Molloch, the pagan god of industrialized overdevelopment.  

In my mind, the lovely home was emblematic of West Hempstead’s working class roots, a domicile that seemed roomy and comfortable but not overly ostentatious like the grand estates of Garden City; one that seemed to place greater value upon its expansive surrounding open spaces than its living quarters per se.  The style of the house, with its stucco exterior and Mediterranean roof, perhaps reflected the tastes of the two families that occupied it over the years, both of which were of Italian extraction.

The origin of the home follows the story of American upward mobility in the 1920s, when an Italian immigrant named Joseph Cavallaro and his wife Annie moved out from Brooklyn, after Joseph built up a successful business importing fruit and other goods.  He died in 1939, and Annie continued to live in the home until her passing in 1947.  The following year the home was sold to Theodore Gaeta and his wife Rose.  Gaeta was a well known restaurateur on Long Island who owned and managed a number of popular upscale eating spots across the Island. Early on, he managed the Cas-Albi Lounge and Restaurant, located inside the Mineola Hotel on 2nd street in Mineola.  In 1966, the Mineola Hotel became victim of a terrible fire and never reopened.  Thereafter Gaeta embarked upon a prolific food service career, running eateries that were well known jaunts on both the North and South shores: the Swan Bay Inn in Centerport, the Gaetway Harbour Restaurant, the West Wind Yacht Club and the Schooner Restaurant, all in Freeport, the Vernon Valley Inn in East Northport, the Gaetway North Steakhouse in Huntington, and the Gaetway South in Bay Shore.  In the mid 1960s, after being inspired by a trip to Hawaii, he opened the Polynesian themed Bali Hai Restaurant in Northport.  Ted Gaeta was reportedly a ubiquitous presence at all his establishments, and would often know and greet his regular patrons by name.  He was an active member of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce and received numerous accolades for improving the business character of the Village and was involved in numerous toy and food drives over the years.  He was well acquainted with celebrities and politicians, like Alfonse D’amato, who would frequent his restaurants.  Gaeta died in 1989 at age 92, and Rose passed away in 2000. 

There was a time, recently enough for people who are still alive to remember, when travelers could drive along Hempstead Ave. from Nassau Blvd. to Locust Street and spot perhaps a mere half dozen homes that lined the avenue.  As they would travel north, to the left was the picturesque watering hole that was Halls Pond, and on their right, they would pass the stately home of interior designer Edith Hebron at the northeast corner of Eagle Ave, which was eventually turned into the Maison Pepi/ Gum Ying restaurant before it was knocked down and replaced by a CVS.  (In that instance, the words of the Joni Mitchell song seem all too appropriate: “Don't it always seem to go That you don't know what you've got til its gone, They paved paradise And put up a parking lot”).  Further up on the right was they would pass the Cavallaro/ Gaeta home and then the large Norwood Villa Hotel at the corner of Oak(ford) St.  Another 200 yards and they would see the Alexander Nelson estate at Elm st, and across the street from there they would find the Collins estate.   With the demise of 764 Hempstead Ave, an irreplaceable piece of old West Hempstead has died along with it, and signaled the close an era when our neighborhood was once characterized by country homes and open spaces.


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