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Apartments

One of the defining features of Great Neck Plaza’s architecture are the numerous apartments, dating from the early 1900s to the 1980s. Their history reflects the Village’s development from an upscale community patronized by entertainment celebrities to a destination for young couples and veterans who needed affordable housing. The Village was one of the earliest places on Long Island where architect designed hotel style residences and “garden apartments” appeared, beginning a trend in other suburban communities throughout the nation. Their styles are as varied as those found in residential and commercial structures, including Art Deco, Colonial Revival, vernacular and modern buildings. Today many of the Village’s apartments are condos or cooperatives, commanding substantial prices for those desiring convenience to downtown businesses and transportation. Many of these buildings are well preserved, due to the pride residents take in their homes. Yet their history tells a very complex story, beginning with the first occupants and owners of these handsome structures.

In the 1920s Great Neck was a bustling destination for the wealthy, the theatrical crowd, and sailors from the Merchant Marine Academy in nearby Kings Point. The Kensington School enrolled children of different ethnic backgrounds, reflecting Great Neck’s new cultural diversity. Testifying to its new found status, the Colony House Hotel, formerly on Grace Avenue and Bond Street, boasted 6-stories, a full-service restaurant and accommodations for several hundred people. It was popular among actors and theatre goers, along with local wheeler-dealers and speculators.

With the growth of downtown many developers started building elaborate apartment buildings designed for upper-class city dwellers. The residents included former estate owners, doctors and other professionals, along with wealthy businessmen. The first of these apartments was the Kenwood Apartments soon joined by the Wychwood, at 8 Barstow Road. The Wychwood was developed by businessman Walter W. Davis who envisioned a grand residence reminiscent of French and English Renaissance architecture. Designed by Schwartz and Gross of Manhattan, it would rise to an impressive 8 stories including luxury penthouse apartments with formal fireplaces and mantel pieces, hardwood floors, enclosed sun porches and landscaped gardens designed by Mann & MacNeille.

Shortly after the Wychwood was completed construction was finished on Westminster Hall at 4 Maple Avenue. The building was similar to the Wychwood, drawing upon English architecture and design for its expansive apartments. The 6-story building included Tudor-style exposed beams, brick and fieldstone ground floors, decorative half-timbering and stucco above. According to New York Times advertisements the Westminster included “automatic elevators with attendants, a completely equipped gymnasium with showers, a fine roof garden, General Electric refrigerators, maid service, servant’s quarters, and sound-proof walls”. Benefits touted included convenience to shopping and recreation and “polite and efficient service.” During WWII the Westminster served as a mini-hospital for war emergencies.

Other luxury buildings included 1 Hillside Avenue which had expansive lobbies, paneled walls and decorative interior woodwork. It also has English Tudor style details including a courtyard and patio accessible only to residents. The apartments were home to both frequent visitors and year round residents, who travelled either by automobile on the new Vanderbilt Motor Parkway or by train, conveniently located a short walk away. They were marketed towards upper class professionals and other wealthy individuals, who frequented the popular clubs and playhouses in the Village, or the parties at the nearby Gold Coast estates.

With the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s no more grand apartments were constructed. Instead the village became home to Long Island’s first garden apartments, based on an English concept found throughout its urban cities. The Plaza, located at 7 Bond Street, was constructed in 1931 by F. Albert Hunt & Edwin Kline architects. It is a handsome brick building sporting arched brick lintels, an “H”-plan with commercial space at the street level, and many decorative features including bronze letterboxes with push-button bells that rang in each kitchen. In addition, a bell at the “private hall entrance” of each apartment rang in each entry hall. Dumbwaiter bells in the kitchen of each apartment rang in the basement at the bottom of the dumbwaiter shaft.

By the late 1930s the Federal government began offering subsidized loans to developers to build garden apartments, hoping that new construction would “jump start” the economy. In 1939 the Dunstone Garden Apartments opened at 19 Barstow Road, designed by Wesley S. Bessell. These were the first of many garden apartments that would come to dominate the Village. The picturesque landscaped courtyard and modest 1 & 2-bedroom apartments included attached garages, recessed bookcases, fireplaces, cedar closets, modern gas stoves, oil heat and bedroom telephone outlets.

In the early 1940s the Federal Housing Administration asked developers to build affordable apartments for returning veterans and couples that also accommodated cars. The first major FHA sponsored buildings were the Village Gardens apartments. The buildings boast classic Colonial features such as gable roof pediments, oculus windows, entrance porches and curbside parking.

In the 1950s other modern style apartments appeared including the Town House apartments, built by the Callan brothers, and simple garden apartments along Welwyn Road and Schenck Avenue. The brick buildings, designed by Manoug Exerjian, featured winding walks, flower gardens, evergreens and flowering shrubs, fireproof construction, balconies and sundecks. The units included dining alcoves, television antennas, oversized closets, and washing and drying machines. The Townhouse apartments were restricted to white Christians, as were other buildings in the area. These restrictions were lifted in the 1960s. The most prolific developer in the 1950s and 1960s was Sol Atlas who worked with Exerjian. Atlas initially targeted returning World War II veterans for his buildings. Shortly after Atlas submitted his plans the United Nations requested the units for their workers in nearby Lake Success, its first headquarters. When the veterans groups learned of the deal they protested to Village authorities and local newspapers. On July 12, 1946 the Great Neck Record reported that the UN agreed to release 90 apartments to veterans. While many UN workers occupied these modest apartments, others lived above downtown stores.

Apartments continue to attract residents, along with townhouses and other types of multiple dwelling units. Their residents are people of many different social and economic backgrounds and occupations, as were the first tenants of the 1920s. In addition the styles are diverse, including “brutalist” concrete structures along with neo-classical modern buildings. While other neighboring villages also have grand and simple apartment buildings, the Village of Great Neck Plaza is unique in both quantity and stylistic diversity.

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