Compiled from Great Neck Park District and Great Neck Historical Society archives
The Great Neck Park District, the oldest park system in Nassau County and one of the only park districts in New York State, was formed by longtime resident Roswell Eldridge. Just months before it was established, a New York State law went into effect allowing towns to create park districts as special districts within their borders.
On Monday, Aug. 14, 1916, Eldridge appeared before the Board of the Town of North Hempstead in Manhasset and filed a petition for the establishment of the Great Neck Park District. Its founding mission was to obtain and preserve open space. The community association was to be outside any village or city, and supported by taxes of district residents. Creation of the Great Neck Park District was widely supported; 90 percent of the people approached about the petition signed it. In addition, the petitioners collected $200,000 more than the necessary one half of the assessed value of the taxable real property in the proposed district. The petition for the establishment of the Great Neck Park District was then granted. It is comprised of the Village of Great Neck, Great Neck Plaza, Kensington, Thomaston, Kings Point and Russell Gardens. The district originally served 750 families; today it serves more than 13,500 families living within its borders.
The first commissioners were appointed for one, two and three years consecutively, setting the pattern for the future of three-year elected officials. While the petition was presented by Eldridge, his wife, Louise, was also committed to creating the Great Neck Park District, and both of them were loyal supporters. Louise was an early commissioner of the Park District; she was also instrumental in opening the first library in Great Neck, and was the first woman mayor in the state, serving in Saddle Rock. The couple led the first acquisition by the Park District. In 1916, the Eldridges and their friends financed the purchase of Hayden’s Coal Yard at the western end of Steamboat Road, where the United States Merchant Marine Academy stands today, and transformed the land into a public park and beach. This was the first park operated by the district.
Allenwood Park was obtained in the early 1920s, as was Memorial Field. Soon after, William Gould Brokaw, owner of the Nirvana estate in the present Strathmore area and beyond, sold a piece of his property, between Beach Road and Arrandale Avenue, to the Great Neck Park District. Three-and-a-half acres were then added to the Park District by the Great Neck School District, and the combined property became the Village Green in the Old Village. Renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand planned the beautiful Rose Garden on that land. When Roswell passed away in 1927 at age 70, Louise had a bandstand erected in his memory, which still stands today.
In 1938, the Village of Kings Point leased Kings Point Park, including the 175 acres between Steamboat and Redbrook Roads, to the Park District. The Park District promised to improve the land and developed this former swamp into a facility that could be enjoyed year-round. This beautiful natural preserve would have become a garbage dump had it not been for the fight by the local government.
Since then, the 175-acre recreational facility and forest area have been used year-round as a favorite destination for walkers, ball and soccer players, picnickers, tennis players and families enjoying the playground.
By the 1940s, the Park District was busy obtaining land to create neighborhood parks. These included Cutter Mill Park, Firefighters’ Park (formerly Grace Avenue Park) and Wyngate, all of which enhanced the central portion of the community that spread southward from the Old Village to the Plaza area, where commuting to New York City changed from riding the steamboat to catching the train. The playground equipment purchased at the time cost less than a game you would buy in a box today. The original seesaw in Wyngate Park cost a meager $8.55.
In 1942, the bathing beach property at the end Steamboat Road was bought by the Merchant Marine Academy. This sale was offset by the purchase of the present Steppingstone Park and Marina from Walter Chrysler Jr. Just after 2000, Steppingstone Park was expanded to include land that had been part of the George M. Cohan estate.
After World War II, Great Neck prospered. Many new residents, who worked and commuted to Manhattan, asked the town government for a parking facility near the railroad station. Instead of launching a new agency, the town turned to the Park District to manage the task. The board agreed and, to this day, still operates three parking fields servicing commuters for a nominal fee.
Parks were added to the district in the early 1960s and ’70s including Upland in 1963, Lakeville in 1966, Ravine in 1968, Manor in 1970 and Thomaston in 1978.
In 1964, the Parkwood Sports Complex was constructed with a pool and rink. Since then, several renovations have been made, including enclosing the rink in 1970 and the expanding the pool, which is now called the Parkwood Family Aquatic Center. Parkwood Indoor Tennis Center was built in 1991. After Sept. 11, 2001, the ice skating rink was renamed the Andrew Stergiopolous Ice Rink, in honor of a Great Neck resident who grew up playing hockey there, and perished in the horrific attack.
Great Neck House is the Park District’s community center. It was acquired in 1973 and was the beginning of a new wave of expansion during the ’70s. The English Tudor–style structure was built by Roswell Eldridge at the turn-of-the-century as the original Great Neck Library. He made sure to stipulate that if and when the library was no longer housed in the building, it must be used by the community and not sold for private use. Today, the programs and facilities at Great Neck House have become a vital and integral part of the Great Neck community.
The Peninsula Club property in Thomaston was acquired in the 1990s, and now contains a much-loved dog park. The Village Green was in the midst of a refurbishing with a new fountain when a microburst in June 2010 destroyed dozens of trees in the Village Green in less than five minutes. Incredibly, within just a few days, the park was cleared of debris and declared safe, though the devastation was painful to see. Soon after, a program of replanting was underway. The revitalization of the Village Green included the addition of the all-abilities PlayGarden, a new Veteran’s Memorial and beautification of the Rose Garden.
The Park District continues to carry out the mission of Louise and Roswell Eldridge. Today the programs, events and facilities have become a vital and integral part of the Great Neck community.