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A Steward For A.T. Stewart’s Legacy

Garden City historian John Ellis Kordes keeps the keys to the past

When millionaire Alexander Turney Stewart purchased a 10,000-acre swath of the Hempstead Plains in 1869, little did he know the rich history that would evolve out of what would eventually become the Incorporated Village of Garden City. It is a rich heritage that lifelong Garden City resident John Ellis Kordes has made a point of documenting and sharing via his career as a professional photographer. Since 1996, Kordes has been the official village historian, only the third after the late Mildred Smith and Vincent Seyfried. On Tuesday, July 10, the Oyster Bay Historical Society recognized Kordes’ efforts when they chose to honor him alongside a number of other historians during its inaugural awards program saluting, “Long Island’s Top Advocates for Historic Preservation & Education.” It was an event that Adelphi alum wound up getting more out of than he expected.

“What’s nice about it is that they brought together a collection of people that had passion about history and I was proud to represent Garden City,” he said. “I got to talk to a lot of interesting people that did a lot of the same things that I’ve done—documentary films, published books. It was nice to bring those kinds of people together in one room and there was a nice turnout.”

The son of John L. Kordes, the owner of Franklin Avenue fixture Arista Furs for over 50 years, the younger Kordes always had an interest in the past, going so far as to major in American history. But it wasn’t until he started working at St. Paul’s School for Boys in the late ’80s when he developed a passion for the narratives of his own hometown.

“St. Paul’s [was] what started the whole thing. When I began working there in ’89, it was still an all-boys school. I was just blown away. Having been born and raised in Garden City, I’d never stepped foot in that building,” Kordes recalled. “It really fascinated me. Then I wanted to learn more and more and more about Stewart and the founding of the village and one thing led to another.”

Before long, this ardor for the past and his skills as a photographer found Kordes finding different ways to share his knowledge with a larger audience that included a foray into becoming a documentary filmmaker. His initial project was The Long Island Motor Parkway, a 20-minute promotional film on its history and the restoration of the Garden City toll lodge, which is the present-day home of the Garden City Chamber of Commerce. His next project, A.T. Stewart’s Garden City, was inspired by Ken Burns’ wildly popular Civil War documentary series and as such, a larger challenge for Kordes.

“The Garden City documentary was on a much grander scale, being an hour and 40 minute full-length film. When you sit down to do a documentary film, you really have to be a storyteller,” he explained. “You have to be able to tell a story and not drift off on tangents too far to where you want to go in the film and make it coherent and entertaining at the same time. You don’t want to bore people. I try to make history fun and interesting so people enjoy it.”

Taking a year to shoot and edit, A.T. Stewart’s Garden City is one of Kordes’ prouder accomplishments as it continues to be used as a teaching tool in the schools with a new generation of village residents getting to see it every year. The film found him being asked to become the official village historian and also inspired Kordes to embark on a series of other projects. Alongside his duties of handling historical inquiries and maintaining the village archives, he’s created the Garden City Heritage Tour Maps for walking tours, created postcards, calendars and poster featuring the Village of Garden City and often gives historic tours of Garden City’s Cathedral of the Incarnation. For a number of years, he also taught an adult education course on Garden City history he developed and to this day, he conducts historic bus tours of Garden City whose popularity is spread through word-of-mouth.

“I’ve done over 300 of them. We usually do them for the schools but I do it for reunion groups coming back. I’ve got the Class of 1962 in October and every fall, it’s usually the 50th Anniversary Class,” he shared “I actually did one on the 75th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s flight. His daughter, Reeve Lindbergh came and I did her group and that was a lot of fun.”

One of Kordes’ more lasting contributions is Visions of Garden City, a gorgeous coffee table book chock-full of photos—both archival and taken by its author—and expertly annotated. Currently in its second edition, it is one of Kordes’ prouder achievements.

“Like [A.T. Stewart’s Garden City, it was] very well-planned and was done in seasons, starting with spring and going through winter in Garden City,” he pointed out. “It was a way of bringing everything together—my love of history, my love of photography and my love of this village. It brings it all together.”

There’s no mistaking that Kordes is a serious history junkie who can matter-of-factly go from explaining the nationwide attention Garden City received when it established its municipal parking fields in the late 1930s to the ongoing issues of St. Paul’s. While Kordes’ biggest challenges have to do with constantly correcting mistakes that are often assumed to be true, (such as the term apostle houses being an architectural term when in reality it was a nickname coined by St. Paul’s schoolboys), it’s a battle he’s willing to wage for the foreseeable future.

“I hope to continue to put out a very accurate account of our village’s history and help people with their inquiries, which I do every day,” Kordes resolved. “[I look forward] to continuing to embrace and celebrate Garden City’s history for future generations.”

Five Facts About Garden City The Average Person May Not Know

1. A.P. Stewart, the founder of Garden City, never lived in the village, having died seven years after purchasing the land.

2. The Nassau County seat is actually located within Garden City’s borders, but has a Mineola mailing address. Garden City has hosted the county seat for over 100 years and provides services with no compensation.

3. The Roosevelt Field shopping mall and all the commerce down Stewart Avenue is outside of Garden City and its tax space. The property taxes go to the Town of Hempstead and the school taxes go to Uniondale.

4. Garden City does not have its own zip code. It is shared with Stewart Manor, Garden City South and East Garden City. As a result, people often think that whole area to the east is part of the village and it’s not.

5. Although the pineapple is a ubiquitous emblem found in and around the Village of Garden City, the actual official symbol of the village is the lion.