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West Meadow Beach Case Study

Nancy Solomon
Executive Director, Long Island Traditions

 

Executive Summary

In the fall of 1993 the Long Island field representative from the NY State Historic Preservation Office asked me to evaluate the potential for a national register nomination of West Meadow Beach, a summer bungalow community located near Stony Brook, NY on Long Island’s north shore. They recognized that this summer bungalow community had characteristics relevant to the study of vernacular architecture, but were unsure what criteria could be used to determine its eligibility for the National Register. After a preliminary site visit it was agreed that the best way to proceed would be to apply for a grant from the Preservation League of New York to prepare a cultural resource report to be submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in 2005. The key parties in the development of the nomination, a process that culminated in the community’s listing in the fall of 2004, were the West Meadow Beach Cottage Owners Association, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Town of Brookhaven, Long Island Traditions, and my employer. Key parties involved that protested the nomination were the local state assemblyman and a dedicated group of opponents not affiliated with any organization. The successful listing of the community on the National Register was the first nomination for a summer bungalow community in the state. Ultimately the nomination was not successful in preserving the bungalows and the community was removed in winter 2004-05 under state law.


View of West Meadow Beach. Photo by Martha Cooper, 2003, courtesy of Nancy Solomon.

 

Background

Long Island Traditions was founded to document, present and preserve local cultural traditions and its vernacular architecture. Its first initiative was to help preserve the historic bay houses which were originally built by fishermen and baymen on the south shore. After a successful effort culminating with the Town of Hempstead’s decision to preserve the historic structures, LI Traditions agreed to help document the cottages of West Meadow Beach, because they were uniform in design, held several basic design principals common in vernacular bungalows, and were used for their original purpose, as summer bungalows. Based on reconnaissance surveys conducted by LI Traditions, the community appeared to be one of the last remaining and best preserved summer bungalow communities in the region. The study was funded through a grant from the Preservation League of New York, and by modest contributions from the owners of the cottages to LI Traditions. The houses were fairly uniform in design and construction, with several original families from the 1920s still present in the community. However the cottages had been the subject of extensive litigation, because they were privately owned on public land; a court had held that the cottages must be removed, a finding that was enacted in state law which declared that the cottages must be removed by 2005. None of the local historical societies or preservation groups, local or regional, rose to defend the cottages. As a result LI Traditions pursued the issue.

 

A Folklore Perspective

There were several avenues used to document and advocate for the cottages preservation that are cross disciplinary in nature. The first was to examine the design and construction of the cottages, most of which dated to the late 1910s. Each house was surveyed by graduate students from Columbia University’s preservation program and by folklorist/LI Traditions director Nancy Solomon. The architectural descriptions were done by a template developed by Long Island Traditions, using SHPO inventory forms as a model with modifications. Features documented included the types of windows, sheathing material, foundations, roof types, porches, and other material characteristics. In addition the floor plans were examined, including how the same room could be used for different purposes, unlike more established residential bungalows. Exterior photographs were compiled for all the structures (approximately 94 cottages) along with selected interiors based on the original features that remained intact. The resulting survey forms were then submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office.


Cottage #81. Photo by Martha Cooper 1996.

 


Cottage #3 c. 1920. Photo courtesy John Hamilton.

The second project phase focused on oral interviews with past and present cottage owners, conducted by folklorist Nancy Solomon and graduate intern Mary Lee of Western Kentucky University. The interviews focused on a number of topics including architectural changes, storms and hurricanes, recreational activities, wildlife observed, maintenance required, historic persons associated with the cottages, owner’s family occupational and social history, and family recipes. Of particular interest, from a folklore perspective, were how the rooms were used, changes to the structure that made life easier, such as installing running water, insulating the house, erecting walls and memories from older residents. In addition we copied family photographs from different events, such as rebuilding after the hurricane of 1944, porpoises that used to frequent the area, clam bakes on the beach, and recreational activities such as tubing, clamming, sailing and making beach plum jelly. Approximately 30 interviews were conducted during a four year period.

As a result of this two pronged approach of examining both the architectural features and the social cultural traditions common to the community over time, we were able to make the case that this was a traditional summer bungalow community according to the national register criteria, a key point necessary for the nomination. The state historic preservation office staff supported the nomination as a result under its standard criteria for both Criteria A: "Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history” and Criteria C: "embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type of architecture.” [insert link for West Meadow Beach National Register nomination]

In 1985, when new lease rates increased from $500 to $6,000 annually, many of the original families gave up their leases. Those remaining were considered part of the powerful Republican party that had governed the town for over 100 years. As a result there was a perception that the cottages belonged to politically connected individuals, despite the turnover caused by the new lease rates. A movement began to remove the cottage owners along with their cottages. A key person who joined the "remove the cottages” movement was Steve Englebright, who would ultimately become a state assemblyman and play the major role in the fate of the cottages. Englebright spent formative years swimming and boating at West Meadow Beach, observing the close ties among the cottage leaseholders.

Unlike the south shore of Long Island, which has plentiful oceanfront public beaches, Long Island Sound is characterized by extensive private ownership with few public beaches. Beginning in the 1980s local and national environmental groups began lobbying to create more access to the Sound, focusing on West Meadow Beach. Various government task forces including the Long Island Sound Study and local residents demanded that the cottages be removed from the beach. These sentiments were echoed in various legal challenges, and codified into state law in 1996, under legislation authored by newly elected Assemblyman Englebright. The new law required that all cottages be removed in fall 2004. Over the next 8 years the cottage owners tried to organize local citizens into a protest movement, an attempt that intensified as the 2004 deadline drew closer. However they faced significant opposition from Assemblyman Englebright and town councilman Steven Fiore-Rosenfeld, along with a small group of activists organized under the West Meadow Beach Conservancy. These political discussions would eventually persuade local historic societies to remain silent as cottage owners pushed for landmark status and architectural preservation, a common reluctance for many historical societies regarding preservation issues.

The opposing camps ultimately clashed over a 10-month period. In February 2003 a national register nomination was submitted to the NY State Board for Historic Preservation for consideration by Long Island Traditions. On June 6, 2003 the board, which oversees landmark designation for state and national registers, voted to recommend the cottages as a historic district by a vote of 7-2. However a technicality made the vote non-binding. A new vote was scheduled for March 2004. In the intervening months the groups opposing landmark designation lobbied the board, while publicizing their case in the local media. A series of editorials decrying the recommendation for preservation appeared throughout the region. In addition numerous letters were sent to local elected officials and cottage owner sympathizers, including the author, comparing the owners to wealthy aristocrats, and accusing proponents of deliberately misleading the general public about the history of the community and the significance of the architecture.

Following this media effort and political movement, the board voted again, with the result a tie vote. This ambivalence closely reflected a serious debate within the preservation movement over what deserves landmark status. As a result of different views in the historic preservation movement of what is considered architecturally and culturally significant, many states have struggled in their reviews of nominations dealing with vernacular architecture. In some states a priority is placed on listing rare examples, while other states focus on resources associated with specific overlooked groups. In the case of the cottages, while some members of the board were passionate in their arguments that the cottages represented an excellent example of vernacular and traditional summer bungalow architecture, other members suggested that a statewide study of summer bungalows be conducted, in order to gauge the cottages’ architectural significance. Similar thematic studies on other types of cultural resources are conducted at the board’s request, particularly in cases where little is known about the type of site being reviewed or other similar nominations are expected. Such requests are sometimes used as a delaying tactic when the board is divided and further examination is seen as fruitless.

Following this impasse, the national register nomination was sent to the National Park Service, with a request by the state historic preservation officer for a determination of eligibility. On September 10, 2004 the National Park Service determined that the cottages were eligible for listing on the register, but legally required an additional 45 days for public comment before the district could be listed.

The state law required that all cottages be removed beginning on November 1. Permits for the cottages’ demolition had been issued by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, fully aware that the cottages had been declared eligible for listing, without consulting the State Historic Preservation Office. Although the cottages were ultimately listed as a National Register Historic District, the state law took precedent. A series of court challenges during November & December 2004 to stop the demolition was filed by the cottage leaseholders, claiming that the Town and State had violated SEQRA by not consulting with the NY State Historic Preservation Office. These arguments were denied. All but 3 of the 100 cottages were demolished by spring 2005.

 

Lessons Learned

There are several important lessons to be learned from this example. They include:

  • It is critical to understand the environmental and historic preservation regulations in the particular state and town, as they govern the actions of the regulatory agencies as specified in the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Protection Act. Had the owners and this author known that the state environmental regulatory agency issued its demolition permit before the 30 day challenge period ended, we may have been able to stop the demolition.

  • Recognize that most preservation commissions are not familiar and may not support the designation of traditional and vernacular properties. As independent activists it is important to raise their awareness. It is also important to recognize that state preservation office staff is generally more sympathetic to vernacular architecture designations than their governor appointed boards.

  • Conduct thorough studies that include both architectural descriptions and the style’s origins, and ethnographic interviews that illuminate their use and changes over time. Provide all the documentation necessary for a successful nomination, as outlined in the various National Register bulletins. You can also use this documentation for independent publications that may educate local residents. In this case the author’s publication persuaded thousands of town residents to sign petitions protesting the demolition called for by the state legislation.

  • Create archival materials including architectural drawings, photographs and interview recordings because they may be the only record left if the preservation effort fails.

  • Engage media at all levels. Decision makers, whether elected or appointed, often adopt their positions based on media coverage and the potential response by the media to their actions. It is important to establish good working relationships with the reporters, who often have different opinions than the publishers and may help educate local residents about the site(s) in question.

  • Understand that within local governments and state agencies, environmental reviews often ignore the impact a proposed action can have on cultural resources, especially actions affecting ordinary structures and cultural traditions. It is critical to identify and educate this professional cadre about the importance of documenting and preserving the fabric of everyday life. Consultants and government analysts overlooked the cottages, in large part because the communities at large did not understand the cultural values these traditional sites represent.


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American Folklore Society
Mershon Center, The Ohio State University, 1501 Neil Avenue, Columbus OH 43201-2602 USA
614/292-4715; fax: 614/292-2199; www.afsnet.org


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