A HISTORY OF THE GREAT NECK PARK DISTRICT
In honor of the Great Neck Park District’s 100 year Anniversary, here is a look at how it all began! The information was obtained by literature from the Great Neck Park District and the Great Neck Historical Society archives.
The Great Neck Park District, the oldest park system in Nassau County and one of the only park districts in New York State, was formed by long-time resident, Roswell Eldridge. Just months before it was established, a New York State law went into effect allowing towns to create park districts as special districts within their borders. It was on Monday, August 14, 1916, that Roswell Eldridge of Great Neck appeared before the Board of the Town of North Hempstead in Manhasset, N.Y. and filed a petition for the establishment of the Great Neck Park District.
Its founding mission was to obtain and preserve open space. The community association was to be outside any village or city and supported by taxes on district residents. Creation of the Great Neck Park District was widely supported; ninety percent of the people approached about the petition signed it. In addition, the petitioners collected $200,000 above the necessary one-half of the assessed value of the taxable real property in the proposed district. The petition for the establishment of the Great Neck Park District was then granted; it is comprised of the Village of Great Neck, Great Neck Plaza, Kensington, Thomaston, Kings Point and Russell Gardens. The district originally served 750 families, whereas today the Great Neck Park District serves more than 13,500 families living within its borders.
The first commissioners were appointed for one, two and three years consecutively, thus setting the pattern for the future of three-year elected officials. While the petition was presented by Roswell Eldridge, his wife Louise Eldridge was also committed to creating the Great Neck Park District, and both of them were loyal supporters. Louise was an early commissioner of the Park District; she was also instrumental in opening the first library in Great Neck and the first woman mayor in the state, serving in Saddle Rock. Louise and Roswell Eldridge led the first acquisition by the Park District. In 1916, the couple and their friends financed the purchase of Hayden’s Coal Yard at the western end of Steamboat Road (where the United Merchant Marine Academy stands today) and transformed the land into a public park and beach. This was the first park operated by the district.
Allenwood Park was obtained in the early 1920’s as was Memorial Field. Soon after, William Gould Brokaw, owner of the Nirvana estate in the present Strathmore area and beyond, sold a piece of his property, between Beach Road and Arrandale Avenue, to the Great Neck Park District. Three and one half more acres were added to the Park District by the Great Neck School District, and the combined property became the Village Green in the Old Village. Renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand planned the beautiful Rose Garden on that land. When Roswell passed away in 1927 at age 70, Louise had a bandstand erected in his memory which still stands today.
In 1938 the Village of Kings Point leased Kings Point Park, including 175 acres of land between Steamboat and Redbrook Roads, to the Park District. The Park District promised to improve the land and developed this former swamp area into a facility that can be enjoyed year round. This beautiful natural preserve was to become a garbage dump had it not been for the fight put up by the local government.
Since then, the 175-acre recreational facility and forest area is used year-round, a favorite destination for walkers, ball and soccer players, picnickers, tennis players, and families enjoying the playground.
By the 1940’s the Park District was busy obtaining land to create neighborhood parks. These included Cutter Mill Park, Firefighters’ Park (formerly Grace Avenue Park) and Wyngate, all of which enhanced the central part of the community that had spread southward from the Old Village to the Plaza area, where commuting to New York City changed from catching the steamboat to catching the train. The playground equipment purchased at the time cost less than a game you would buy in a box today. For instance, the original see-saw for Wyngate Park cost the Park District a meager $8.55!
In 1942, the bathing beach property at the end Steamboat Road was bought by the United States Merchant Marine Academy. This sale was offset by the purchase of the present Steppingstone Park and Marina from Walter Chrysler Jr. Shortly after 2000, Steppingstone Park was expanded to include land that had been part of the George M. Cohan estate.
After World War II, Great Neck prospered. Many new residents who worked and commuted to Manhattan, asked the town government for a parking facility near the railroad station. In lieu of starting a new agency, the town turned to the Park District to take on the task. The Board agreed and to this day operates 3 parking fields servicing commuters for a nominal fee.
Parks were added to the District in the early 1960’s and ‘70’s including Upland (1963), Lakeville (1966), Ravine (1968), Manor (1970) and Thomaston (1978). In 1964 the Parkwood Sports Complex was constructed with a pool and rink. Since then, several renovations have been made including enclosure of the rink (1970) and the expansion of the pool which is now called the Parkwood Family Aquatic Center. Parkwood Indoor Tennis Center was built in 1991. After the September 11, 2001, the ice-skating rink was renamed the Andrew Stergiopolous Ice Rink, in honor of Andrew Stergiopoulos, a Great Neck resident who grew up playing hockey at the rink, and who perished in the horrific attack.
Great Neck House is the Park District’s community center. It was acquired in 1973 and was the beginning of a new wave of expansion during the ‘70’s. The building is an English Tudor style structure which was built by Roswell Eldridge at the turn-of-the-century, as the original location of the Great Neck Library. He made sure to stipulate that if and when the library no longer housed the building, it must be used by the community and not sold for private use. Today, the programs and facilities at Great Neck House have become a vital and integral part of the Great Neck community.
The Peninsula Club property in Thomaston was acquired in the 1990’s and now contains a much-loved dog park. The Village Green was in the midst of a refurbishing with a new fountain being installed, when a microburst in June 2010 destroyed dozens of trees in the Village Green in less than five minutes. Incredibly, within just a few days the park was cleared of debris and declared safe, though the devastation was painful to see. However, soon after a program of replanting was well under way.. The revitalization of the Village Green included the addition of the all-abilities PlayGarden, a new Veteran’s Memorial and beautification of the Rose Garden.
The Park District continues to carry out the mission of Louise and Roswell Eldridge. Today the programs, events and facilities have become a vital and integral part of the Great Neck community.