THE BLOG

Tearing Down Garden City

09/13/2010 11:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the past few months, I've been getting letters from readers about an abandoned school in Garden City, Long Island, called St. Paul's, on the verge of being demolished. Last Friday, I hopped on the train with my bike and camera to have a look for myself.

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It took less than five minutes to bike to St. Paul's from the Garden City train station. Located in the center of town, the beautiful High-Victorian Gothic-style 500-room structure was built in 1879 as an all boy's prep school and was in use until 1991 (more than a century!).

Today, despite being in fantastic shape, it is completely vacant.

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Taking pictures of this awesome building, I have to admit -- it was actually difficult to imagine so commanding a structure being subjected to a wrecking ball. And yet, a village-wide opinion poll was held in 2008, in which a majority of residents voted for its demolition, a course the town is actively pursuing.

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Except, here's the funny thing. On the ballot in 2008 were three options: 1) demolition (2,272 votes), 2) saving the exterior only (1,857 votes), and 3) converting the building into condos (873 votes) -- in other words, two proposals to save the building, and one to destroy it. I'm no genius, but it looks to me that a majority of the town (2,730 votes) definitely wants to keep St. Paul's alive.

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So strange, then, that they're moving ahead on the demolition proposal. A passionate public hearing regarding the matter was held on Aug. 19, and a final hearing will occur on Sept. 30. A town vote will then be taken, and St. Paul's fate will be decided.

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Suddenly, as I was taking pictures, it dawned on me: Maybe the reason Garden City is willing to demolish St. Paul's is because they've got similarly amazing buildings strewn all over town! Maybe clocktowers and gothic spires and beautiful brick work are commonplace in Garden City, to the point where one building won't be missed.

I decided to take a little tour on my bike in search of something -- anything! --- as grand and impressive as St. Paul's. My first stop was obvious: the incredible Garden City Hotel:

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Built in 1901, the Garden City Hotel was renowned as one of Long Island's premier hotels, located in the center of a golf course and host to such families as the Vanderbilts and the Morgans.

Only, I was a little late getting there. It was torn down in 1973, and replaced with this thing in the 80's.

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[Note: if this is a four star hotel, as it's website claims, it is by far the tackiest four star hotel I've ever been to.]

Oh well -- one gone, but surely there was much more to see. I decided to move on to another historic Garden City location: Roosevelt Field.

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A former military airfield and airport, Roosevelt Field served as the take-off point for one of the most famous flights in aviation history: Charle Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Here he is prior to departure in Garden City:

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A number of other famous pilots, including Amelia Earhart, used the field at some point, and I was looking forward to seeing some sort of historic remnant from a property with such an historic past.

Except it was turned into a mall in the 1950s.

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OK, don't get me wrong -- I'm not expecting a decommissioned airfield to remain vacant for 60+ years. But at the very least I was hoping for some sort of sign that the town had a respect for its history -- maybe a sign or something to commemorate the events that occurred here. I biked around for about 10 minutes, but didn't find anything. Apparently, I should have gone inside -- a small plaque is located in front of the Disney Store.

I decided to continue my search into town.

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After biking around town for a solid four hours, I must say that Garden City seems like a very pleasant place to live. For one thing, there's an endless abundance of trees. Trees trees trees. It seems like every street in town has about 20 or 30 trees to its name, and it really is very pleasant.

It's also one of those towns that has a lot of gazebos, though I didn't see anyone actually sitting in one.

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The main downtown area is also pleasant, with additional trees and a nice collection of shops and eateries.

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I had a nice sandwich in the 7th Street Deli.

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Another commercial area on the edge of town:

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The town library:

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A new apartment complex across the street from St. Paul's:

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I then ventured into Garden City's residential areas, where you find houses like this...

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...and this...

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...and this...

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... and this...

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... and this...

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... and these...

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... and these...

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... and this.

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I think it's fair to say that what you've seen above represents 99.99% of what Garden City consists of. It's nice and pleasant and pretty, and you could tear down any one of the above structures, and as long as you put up a decent-enough replacement, no one would ever notice the difference.

Again: what you've seen above is 99.99% of Garden City.

Now let's look at the other .01% of Garden City, the unique and historical gems that have managed to survive public shortsightedness and soulless developers.

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These beautiful Victorian houses are known as the Apostles, and date back to the late 1800s.

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Garden City was originally founded as a planned community by millionaire Alexander Turney Stewart, who purchased land from Hempstead Plains. The Apostles were the first homes built, the oldest nine dating to 1872.

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Thankfully, the demise of the Garden City Hotel was not totally in vain. Watching the wrecking ball slam into bricks, a small group of citizens vowed that such a tragedy would never happen again, and in 1975, the Garden City Historical Society was founded.

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Over time, 54 Stewart-era homes have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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A great example of stupidity:

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Garden City is also home to the beautiful gothic Church of the Incarnation...

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...which is covered with a dizzying number of spires and flying buttresses.

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Also on the property is the stunning parish house:

001 There are a few other buildings of note around town, including several schools and the town's post office. But with the possible exception of the church, I couldn't find a single one to match the grandeur and beauty of St. Paul's.

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Since the town purchased St. Paul's in 1993, its future has been a source of contention amongst Garden City residents, and the full history of debate is not worth recounting.

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Still, as evidenced by the last poll in 2008, a majority of residents want it to be preserved in one form or another, and the ultimate vote for demolition must still be passed by a voter referendum.

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Demolition itself is not cheap; it is estimated to cost nearly $6 million to get rid of St. Paul's once and for all. Meanwhile, the Committee to Save St. Paul's has presented a plan that would preserve the exterior and parts of the interior for the same cost. However, annual upkeep would cost taxpayers approximately $200,000.

One resident was quoted in the Garden City News as saying, "While I realize that St. Paul's is an iconic Stewart building, I feel that the history and character and intelligence of Garden City is not defined by any one structure... I believe... that there is a very large number of residents who are thoroughly sick of the ongoing situation and would like the saga of St. Paul's to end."

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This maybe the case, but I really, really hope St. Paul's isn't demolished simply due to frustration. Preservation is always a battle, but it is a battle worth fighting. If for no better reason, simply look at the gym addition built onto St. Paul's in 1962 as an example of what society has come to find acceptable in its standards for architecture:

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This is the world we live in today.

When the magnificent Pennsylvania Station was torn down in New York City, the following was written in a New York Times editorial:

"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves...We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

If you feel strongly about the preservation of St. Paul's, the public comment period is ongoing until Sept. 30, and your voice could make a difference! Send an email to mayor@gardencityny.net with your comments. I'll post information on the Sept. 30 town meeting later in the month.

-SCOUT

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PS - I wish I could have toured the inside, but it is currently off limits. Luckily, you can find a full look at the interior here.