Written by Dagmar Fors Karppi Friday, 25 November 2011 00:00
Listeners at the Oyster Bay Town Board meeting for granting landmark status to the Maine Maid Inn in Jericho were surprised and delighted (shown by sudden applause) as Supervisor John Venditto proposed the town might purchase the historic building. The suggestion was made as Town Commisioner of Planning and Development Fredrick Ippolito talked about what happened a year ago with the Octagon Hotel in Oyster Bay. It was a building that was empty, old and dilapidated and in danger of demolition and now it has six apartments and retail space rented – a success story. He said a letter from Sienna bank said the Maine Maid Inn is in foreclosure and they don’t know what will happen with the building.
Mr. Venditto asked for the price and Mr. Ippolito said it was currently selling for $700,000 but the original price was $2.5 million. Mr. Venditto said if the town board acquired title to the property then the residents could determine its use. He asked Mr. Ippolito to see what the community wanted to happen on the property. Would it become a restaurant again with someone to manage it, or would it become a park district property?
Mr. Ippolito said he would contact Sienna and would get an architect’s estimate on how much it would take to get it into an appropriate condition. All during the meeting, while experts were giving testimony, Mr. Venditto had been saying that the board understood the Maine Maid Inn was appropriate for landmarking. He said it was in keeping with the community’s view of the importance of history and it was a quality of life issue.
After the meeting, Matthew Meng, president of the East Norwich Civic Association who took the lead in the landmarking request in an effort to save the Inn property from demolition and development said, “I’m delighted with what appears to be the board’s willingness to approve the landmarking, and even possibly purchasing the property. The community at large is looking forward to the board doing the right thing. Considering the importance of the site now, after all the research that has been done – it is really a great story for all of Long Island.”
Preservation Attorney Richard Handler represented the East Norwich Civic Association and the Citizens for History, as they petitioned the Oyster Bay Town Board to grant landmark status to the Maine Maid Inn, originally known as the Valentine Hicks House in Jericho.
Mr. Handler began by asking the board to include previous testimony on landmarking the Maine Maid Inn from the July 27 and August 24 hearings before the Town Landmarks Preservation Commission. Before Mr. Handler could present his expert witnesses, Mr. Venditto stated his concern, that the issue was “hot” but they wanted to hear all the needed information to be put into the record. He said he doubted seriously that there were any real issues with the historic significance of the site – but there were some economic considerations including the bankruptcy issue. He added, “My instinct is that it [landmarking] is something we should be doing.”
In actuality no one spoke against the landmarking. Neither the owner Rajiv Sharma, nor the White Plains attorney for Ciena Capital of Georgia has appeared at any of the landmark meetings for the Inn, located at 4 Old Jericho Turnpike, and which has begun foreclosure proceedings.
Tom Abbe, clerk of the Religious Society of Friends which meets at the Jericho meeting house near the Maine Maid Inn; and a member of Citizens for History, was the first speaker. He said the Valentine Hicks house was built somewhere between 1789 and 1800. He told the story of how Mr. Hicks helped a runaway slave working in his field along with freed slaves, when a slave hunter appeared. Valentine Hicks welcomed the slave into his home and hid him in the linen closet created by hinged shelves that hid a door leading to the attic.
Mr. Abbe said in 1688 the Quakers decided to work against slavery. In their belief, all people are created equal and slavery was intolerable with that concept. He said the Underground Railroad was a secret; it was against the law to hide and aide slaves, whom were considered property; and therefore it is only told in verbal history and not in a written record.
Mr. Abbe’s testimony was crucial as was that of Professor Kate Velsor which followed, explained Attorney Richard Handler who said that the Town Board had refused landmark status to the Maine Maid Inn a number of years ago. He said when the town accepted this new application it was important that their acceptance mention the difference between the two proposals: that this proposal included new information unearthed over the last 15 to 20 years.
In the first one, it appeared that having Phillip Munsen as the owner of the Maine Maid Inn insured that it would be properly maintained and preserved and so they had not given it landmark status.
The current proposal has new information. That included the testimony from Thomas Abbe on the abolitionist stand of the Quakers and of Valentine Hicks; as well as new information Professor Kate Velsor gave as she spoke about what she has discovered in the past 15 years studying the Underground Railroad here on Long Island.
Old Westbury College Professor Kate Velsor gave a slide presentation on her research into the Long Island Underground Railroad. She said the name Underground Railroad was created in 1840 but said there was a long history of slavery on Long Island starting in 1626 when the Dutch settled in what is now New York City. In 1664, the British defeated the Dutch and increased the number of Africans who came here. There were one or two slaves for every white person living on Long Island with all the cruelties forced upon them as families were separated; children were separated and lived with different families. She showed a picture of an advertisement in the New York Gazzette from Jan. 30, 1778 looking for a runaway slave named Alex, 15. He was branded with an “RW,” his owner was Richard Wright of Georgetown. “Slaves were considered property,” she said. “Quakers believed if you sit quietly, God speaks to us.” That was true whether the person was black, white, male or female and through that - the concept of equality rose among them.
She said that in 1773 the Quakers made a decision that they should not have slaves. Elias Hicks was asked to manumit the slaves of Westbury – give them their freedom. He did 154 manumissions.
It was an act not without responsibility, as freeing slaves meant educating them, giving them homes and providing for them – it wasn’t an easy thing to do.
Ms. Velsor had another part of the concept of hiding the slaves using a linen closet. She said Valentine Hicks made his livelihood growing flax out of which they created linen. They hid the linen to avoid taxes – therefore the linen closet was a hiding place – ready when a place was needed to hide a slave. A Quaker, Ms. Velsor said she had interviewed a woman who remembered seeing stacks of boxes on the shelves hiding the stairway to the attic - where the slave was hidden.
Ms. Velsor said she saw a picture of a wagon from North Carolina that had a false bottom that was used to hide slaves. She said Valentine Hicks had one of those wagons.
She traced what she sees as the Underground Railroad that went from Jericho up to Red Ground Road to the Roslyn Grist Mill which was owned by Quakers, and on to Sands Point which provided the shortest distance across Long Island Sound to Connecticut.
As she concluded, Mr. Handler said, this is recent scholarly information has been gleaned over the last 15 years.
Betsey Murphy, Jericho Historic Librarian, presented a slide show of her book on the history of Jericho that she has compiled over 10 to 15 years. The book is available at the library for a donation. She gave the history of the area that is now the Jericho Preserve starting with Robert Williams who bought the land in that area, and settled at the Spring Pond where his family would have a good source of water. In the 1950s the NYS DOT decided it was important to create a highway interchange at Jericho Corners. They demolished all the buildings and Ms. Murphy showed a photograph of smoke from the fire of the building debris being burned.
She said Nassau County Supervisor Ralph Caso bought what is now the Jericho Preserve for $250,000 for 20 plus acres with six houses on the site. It was to be a museum, and is where the Maine Maid Inn is located.
She said Percy and Lucille Roberts, Quakers from Sea Cliff created the Maine Maid Inn (around 1950) in a house opposite the Inn, and after operating it for 10 years wanted to buy the property. It was not for sale and so they moved to the Valentine Hicks house. Ten years later they sold it to David Huschle, who sold it to Phillip Munsen; and then to corporate owners.
Ms. Murphy ended her presentation reading excerpts from letters written by second-graders on saving the Maine Maid Inn – to preserve their history.
Jennifer Sappell, LINSHA executive director’s presentation was inspired by her work with the Long Island North Shore Heritage Area, the 18th Heritage Area in New York State. She said the story of the Maine Maid Inn and the Underground Railroad showed “The impact of ordinary people for an extraordinary purpose.” She said over 2 million people live in this heritage area which is rich in culture, history and has a marine environment. “Long Island is unique,” she said.
And as for the Maine Maid Inn, she added, “When places disappear memories die. Let’s not let that happen here.”
Howard Kroplick, co-author of the book The Long Island Motor Parkway that gives the history of the Vanderbilt Cup Races, said that Jericho had been at the center of the Vanderbilt Cup races. In 2008 he published the book with 20,000 photos of the Long Island motor car race.
From 1904 to 1910, the race brought out 50,000 to 200,000 people to watch it. At the time there were only 50,000 people living in Nassau County.
Alexandra Parsons Wolfe, director of preservation services of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities talked of the condition of the Maine Maid Inn, saying it can easily be repaired. The damage is reversible, especially in the older parts of the house. She said the Maine Maid Inn completes the understanding of the other houses in the Jericho Preserve. She said, “Once you lose this building you lose the larger history of this intersection that had ties to African-American and Quaker history.”
In a philosophical side comment Supervisor Venditto said, “We don’t realize history is being made today.” He said preserving history is important. Ms. Wolf added that in preserving a building one can “move the building back to that piece of history you want to preserve.”
Both the Hicks house and the Quaker meeting house are on the National Registry of Historic Places and the Valentine Hicks House is an integral part of their story, said Ms. Wolfe.
James Foote spoke representing his position as president of the Sea Cliff Preservation Society; and the Sea Cliff Landmarks Commission and urged that the house be preserved. “I wish you will do the right thing,” he said.
Matthew Meng, president of the East Norwich Civic Association spoke about the broad reach of support he has received from neighboring groups. They include: the ENCA; the Oakwood Princeton Park Civic Association; the East Birchwood Civic Association; the Birchwood Civic Association; the Cedar Swamp Historic Society; the United Civics of Oyster Bay which he said included many Jericho groups; the North Shore Promotional Alliance; the Glenwood-Glen Head Civic Association.
Mr. Meng added that recently, while he was in a Suffolk County car wash, the owner presented him with one of the largest checks he had received in support of the landmarking of the Maine Maid Inn. He said, “If I had more time to ask people – the funding will be there.”
“The car wash is small but the donation speaks loudly,” said Mr. Venditto.
Mr. Meng said there were also letters of support from the Underhill Society and the Northside Civic Association of Bethpage. He said he received verbal support from the Hicksville Civic Association and the Hicksville Chamber of Commerce. He added that the Old Bethpage Village Restoration has several buildings taken from East Norwich including the Layton store which is the centerpiece of a re-created colonial village.
He explained part of the disconnect of the town not giving landmark status to the Maine Maid Inn 30 years ago. Mr. Meng said Phil Munsen, one of the owners was the NYS Restaurant Association president; and president of the Kiwanis Club that met there for years. At the time, Mr. Munsen was considered a very strong caretaker for the Inn, therefore the board did not see a need to landmark the building but he added, “It should be landmarked for future generations to see and learn about.”
Nancy Solomon, the executive director of Long Island Traditions said the Inn had many stories to tell. She said when Robert Moses was planning Jones Beach and the access roads to it, he wanted to create scenic passages. “The Hicks family furnished the plants for the road system,” she said. “Joshua Hicks signed all of the contracts for azaleas, forsythias and different species so that there was always something in bloom during the seasons.” It was the beginning of the landscape by-ways movement, she said. It is a legacy of the Hicks family. “Homes have stories that are continually unfolding,” she said.
Mr. Venditto said, “I think you will be satisfied on how this building’s story will be told, as he asked Mr. Handler to call Commissioner of Planning and Development Fredrick Ippolito to testify. In his position as commissioner of P&D, he or an associate he recommends is part of the Town Landmarks Preservation Commission. He said in 1982 he recommended the Maine Maid Inn for landmarking. He said in 1950 the business was called the Maine Maid Tea Room. He said presently it was empty but not dilapidated. He reminded the board that one year ago the Octagon Hotel reopened with six apartments and retail space in an historic building that was facing demolition and it is now a success story for Oyster Bay.
Mr. Ippolito explained the landmarking only effects the outside of a building, where the area residents can walk by and see it. The inside of the building can be changed. An owner can add and extension; even demolish the building if they can prove hardship. He said he recommends landmarking the structure to protect it. As to the letter from Sienna Capital saying that the building is in foreclosure, he said, “They don’t know what will happen to the building”
Supervisor asked how inexpensively it could be purchased for. Mr. Ippolito said the current price was $700,000 - down from $2.5 million. Mr. Ippolito said he would contact Sienna to see what they say, and would get an architectural firm to estimate how much it would take to get it into good condition.”
Plainview civic activist and owner of a Jericho property, and a member of the United Civics, Carol Meshkow agreed and said, “I love the thought of acquiring the property.” She said growing up in Jericho, from sixth to 12th grade she walked passed in Inn, through the historic corridor in rain and snow and looked fondly at the history of Jericho. Her mother’s retirement dinner from the Water District; her PTA retirement dinner; and her father’s IRS retirement dinner were all celebrated at the Maine Maid Inn.
Patrice Van Horton, vice president of the Glen Head Civic council, said there is great interest in local history. She has been working with the Gold Coast Library history project, a website called LI Memories.com. There are many participating libraries. She said, “I added a postcard for Cedar Swamp Road, now known as Route 107.” The route connects to Jericho Turnpike at the intersection created by the destruction of Jericho Corners.
Larry Sklar said he spoke to students in the Syosset High School Interact Club and asked the members about Elias Hicks. Although he said they are the brightest of the bright, “They didn’t know anything about him. I don’t know how Jericho and Syosset kids are not learning about local history.”
Mr. Sklar, an activist for veterans and a builder of housing for them, suggested a Veterans Park; or a monument park for veterans who have fought in 10 wars. He said, “I see no reason why it should be a restaurant.” He said the location was hard to find unless you knew where it was. “Let private developers do whatever they want.”
Mr. Venditto commented, “If the students don’t know their local history maybe it is time they learned about the preserve.” The audience applauded his comment.
The next speaker, David Husing, an historian, asked that there be no cost to taxpayers in the purchase. A resident suggested that maybe SEA Fund money could be used. [A town spokesperson is looking to see if there is some funding from previous environmental bonds still available.]
John Collins, a longtime member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the longest serving member with 40 years of commitment said, “This application is one of the strongest we have seen.” He called the Maine Maid Inn “The missing link of the Jericho Preserve. It is an ideal opportunity to complete the preserve.” He said the Inn with its many chimneys is an example of buildings before there was central heating.
The Reverend Kenneth Nelson, for 32 years the pastor of the Hood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; spoke on behalf of landmark status. He is also an Oyster Bay Historical Society board member.
Mr. Nelson said Harriet Tubman was a member of the AME Zion Curch in Auburn, New York. She willed her home to the church and he said, “We maintain it.” Rev. Nelson said, “I visited it and hope to put a marker there so you can see it’s her burial spot. She traveled all over Long Island, including to the Sag Harbor Zion Church that he went to as a child.” At 77, he said, “I’ve traveled up and down Long Island for many years, watching landmark buildings from Riverhead to here seem to disappear and great big buildings spring up. It hurts to see so much of our cultural Long Island lost.”
The Rev. Nelson is also chief of the Montauket Indian Tribe, now headquartered in Oyster Bay, since he lives here. He said he has supported keeping the Native American burial ground next to the Methodist Church in Woodbury safe. “Indian artifacts may be there and a company wants to construct an office building there,” he said.
Mr. Nelson also attended Kiwanis dinners when they were held at the Maine Maid Inn and he said Phil Munsen was a Kiwanis Lieutenant Governor. “When my son married, his reception was held there. When I retired from the NYS Department of Labor, I had my retirement party there. The Maine Maid Inn is part of my heritage,” he said.
Joel Snodgrass, preservation expert formerly with SPLIA said the value of preservation is not understood by the public and that losing history is a terrible thing. He said there are economic options available for landmark buildings.
Mr. Venditto said, “The residents of this town are sophisticated and informed and know that landmarking enhances property values and that history is a quality of life issue here. Residents do understand when you do these things.”
Mr. Meng returned to the microphone and added that Citizens for History has been looking at other uses of the building, and there were a lot of creative reuses of the site.
He added to a comment made by Larry Sklar that there were few residents of Jericho attending, and that the United Civics represents a majority, if not all, of the civic associations in Jericho. He added, “Had this been an evening meeting, people and buses of school children might have come.”
Supervisor Venditto responded, “You have great credibility with me and we have seen the correspondence.”
Richard Handler summed up the presentation suggesting that their memorandum of support needed information about the previous application that was denied. He said the new material about the Quakers and the Hicks family’s abolitionist work, as well as the Underground Railroad now come to light made for a different application.
He said there is a misconception about landmarking and said, “It is an extra set of eyes and ears for guidance.” He suggested Town Receiver of Taxes Jim Stefanich might be able to document the Landmark Preservation Commission rebate for landmark property. “In a 2011 tax bill there would be a $4,833 rebate for the Maine Maid Inn.” The concept is that the money be saved for maintenance on the building, to help preserve it over the years.
He added there was correspondence from David Huschle, the owner from 1963 to 1980 who said he shut the doors of the Inn for a defense department conference with Grumann over the Lunar Module. “It was top secret with men in gold military braids attending,” wrote Mr. Huschle.
Adding local history, he said that the Inn’s proximity to the Westbury Music Fair had headliners like the Supremes and an opera star go there. Frank Sinatra ate in a second floor private room.
Mr. Venditto said, “Rest assured the board will do the right thing. We have sweeping powers but can’t change history but we can learn from history. Perhaps, today is a reaffirmation of our history.” He said they would keep the record open on the hearing for people to add comments.
ENCA board member Rosemary Colvin said, “Matt did a great job. It’s a given.”
Jennifer Sappell said, “It’s most exciting and encouraging. The case was well received. Everyone was passionate and was backed up by facts. I’m grateful to Richard Handler for his expertise. I learned a lot from him.”
Mr. Meng found Mr. Handler and hired him for his expertise. The attorney met with the supporters of the landmarking designation to plan their strategy. He had a yellow pad at the hearing with each speaker named and their testimony purpose. It was well planned and as John Collins said, one of the strongest applications to date.