The Port Washington Public Library's $4.1 milion 1998-99 budget passed by a ratio of three to one, with twice as many people voting this year versus last. It passed despite a televised demonstration on the former Baker property next door, urging people to vote "no." A record number of voters, 839 versus last year's 476, filed into the library all day long, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The vote was 609 for the budget and 230 against. The two unopposed Library Board of Trustees candidates were also voted in, with newcomer Tom Donoghue receiving 691 votes, and incumbent Joseph Burden receiving 639.
Meanwhile, in front of the house next door that is called the "Mackey-Baker house" by people who want it preserved, and the "former Baker Funeral Home" by people who want it torn down - approximately six to ten people were carrying placards and urging people to vote against the budget. They said a vote against the budget would block the library's plan to demolish the house, which was built in 1878 and is the only remaining house of its vintage on Main Street. According to Assistant Library Director, Corinne Camarate, however, the $113,000 demolition funds were appropriated several years ago; therefore defeating the budget would have had no economic effect on plans for demolition. Bonnie Baker Soldano, who lived in the house with her parents from 1948 to 1952 and who has been actively trying to save the house for several years, later apologized for the misrepresentation of facts. She also clarified that protesters such as herself still supported the budget. She nevertheless hoped the demonstration would persuade the new board to cancel demolition.
When a police officer approached the protestors to ask the name of the organizer and the purpose of the demonstration, this reporter personally witnessed one of the male demonstrators make antagonistic remarks to the policeman and taunt him with snide remarks. The officer, however, calmly avoided both physical and verbal responses.
As the same male demonstrator admitted later, "There were probably more media people there than demonstrators." The media had been urged to come to follow three historical preservationists who had been invited to tour the inside of the house and analyze its potential for preservation, as well as its historical and architectural significance. Reporters and photographers therefore came from TV News Channel 12, Newsday, the Port Washington News and the Port Washington Sentinel
Beth Callaway said that Library Trustee Jerry Morea would come to authorize everyone's inspection of the house. The library's public relations director Sheldon Tarakan, however, said that the library's liability insurance policy would only permit members of the news media inside because they have their own liability insurance. For this reason, few people on either side of the controversy have actually seen the inside of the building. Accordingly, only newspaper reporters and photographers entered the house. Even the one historical preservationist, who finally came later, was not allowed inside. Mr. Morea never came, nor did two of the three preservation experts.
Nevertheless, the TV cameraman and reporter stayed outside the building for several hours and interviewed both demonstrators and library representatives. The resulting news byte that appeared that night, however, incorrectly stated that the Town had to first approve funds before the house could be torn down.
Library Trustee President Fred Kramer said, "It is unfortunate that the demonstrators picked the day of the budget vote to protest. The budget has been strongly endorsed by the public, the entire board, including Jerry Morea, and the local newspaper. It would be a shame to have the budget for operating the library defeated by people objecting to replacing the house with a parking lot." Mr. Kramer explained publicly once again that the public approved the purchase of the Baker property for a parking lot years ago - after several public forums on the topic. Even the funds for demolishing the house were approved in prior years. In response to claims that the public didn't realize that the house would be torn down, Mr. Kramer insisted, "We didn't sneak this through."
Friends of the Library Secretary/Treasurer Stanley Spielman reiterated that community polls listed additional parking as their top priority for improving the library. Spielman also said that even if the house could satisfy the library's space needs, the renovation costs and yearly maintenance would be prohibitive.
Although two of the historical preservationists never came, Joel Snodgrass, project coordinator for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), finally arrived around 11 a.m. SPLIA is a not-for-profit preservation society that helps groups find ways to preserve significant buildings. Because he wasn't allowed inside, Snodgrass based his comments and analysis on inspection of the exterior and views of the inside through windows. He told reporters that he thought the house had both architectural and historical significance and should therefore be preserved. Although he admitted that the house had undergone changes and didn't represent any one particular architectural style, he said it nevertheless represented an era and is the only house of its kind on Main Street. He stressed the beauty of the exterior Italianate design brackets and the homestead landscaping, plus the apropriateness of preserving a house that is next to a library and across the street from a landmark. He cited the importance of the Mackey and Baker families in Port Washington history as another reason to preserve the house. Snodgrass stressed several times that he hoped the board would reconsider its decision.
The following Monday, Library Director Nancy Curtin commented that the library had offered the house to SPLIA several years ago, but that SPLIA representatives had said they weren't interested. "There are no fine architectural treasures inside. The building was a funeral parlor for 32 years."
The demonstration was organized by Beth Callaway, whose mother lives in town and who has campaigned to save the house with letters, petitions and appearances before the library board ever since she met Bonnie Soldano over a year ago. Karl Maier, who has supported preservation with letters and board appearances, helped Beth alert the media. Other demonstrators included Chris McMorris, a local graduate student studying historical preservation, who said, "The Baker house is a classic example of a public entity tearing down a historical building to blight the neighborhood with a surface parking lot." Several people said that the gain of 35 parking spaces wasn't worth the price of tearing down three houses. Also there were Bonnie Baker Soldano, mentioned above, who has been working closely with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to get the house listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, and Floyd and June Mackey, who have written letters urging the preservation of the house but who have no connection to Albert H. Mackey, the builder of the house.
Mr. Maier, who lives next door to Library Trustee Jerry Morea, said that he was spurred into joining the demonstration when Beth Callaway called to say someone had been seen removing two oak doors from the Baker house the previous week. He was outraged that someone removed valuable doors from public property and that other examples of the house's architectural significance might have also been removed. Sheldon Tarakan said he knew nothing about the doors but that because the library owns the house, it has the right to authorize people to remove property. Ms. Curtin, who had been out of town that Tuesday, later said that the library has been trying to remove as much as possible from the house for the past several years so as to reduce demolition and carting costs. The Friends of the Library sold much of the contents at a garage sale. She tried to interest US Housewreckers from Connecticut to purchase the rest of the contents but their representatives weren't interested.
The demonstrators claimed that over 500 signatures have been collected from local townspeople who want the library to reverse its decision to demolish the house. Assistant Library Director Camarate, however, claims that the library has only received 307 signatures. Bonnie Soldano said later that the discrepancy stems from the fact that she hadn't yet submitted the additional names to the library but that she intended to do so at the next library board meeting, Wednesday, April 15.
Meanwhile, back inside the main library building, poll watchers not only reported seeing twice as many voters as usual, they also saw many older voters who reputedly vote against budgets to keep taxes down. When trying to figure out why more people voted for the budget this year, one library devotee surmised that all the anti-library publicity generated by protestors may have just increased awareness of the vote and the need to support the library.
Now that voters have demonstrted such strong support for the library budget, which many interpret to also indicate strong support for the library trustees' decisions, including the one to demolish the house, the board can prepare for its next challenge: persuading the same community to support its expansion plans for the library and to vote for a bond that would finance such an expansion. Its first task is still to figure out what to do about the controversial house, however.