The history of Great Neck is well-documented, such as the creation of the Village Green and the history behind many of the street names.
A lot of these records have been collected and preserved by the Great Neck Historical Society, which has had many iterations over the last century. The current society was formed about 10 to 15 years ago.
“It is local citizens dedicated to preserving the history of the community, serving as a resource for people who want to find out about things in the community and presenting programs that relate to the history of the community,” Marc Katz, a board member of the historical society, said. “The historical society has taken on two major projects on an ongoing basis.”
One of them is protecting the Stepping Stones Lighthouse, which is located in the middle of Long Island Sound between the Great Neck peninsula and City Island in the Bronx. The lighthouse stands about one-and-a-half stories high and can be seen in the distance while crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge. Built in 1877, it was initially owned by the federal government before it was offered to local municipalities when it was no longer needed. The Town of North Hempstead took ownership of the lighthouse in 2008.
“It sat for quite a number of years with nothing happening to it,” Katz said. “The Great Neck Historical Society began a campaign to save the lighthouse because it is badly decaying and falling apart. Together with the town, the historical society raised a significant amount of money to preserve the lighthouse but no work has been done yet.”
Spearheaded by Great Neck Park District Commissioner Robert Lincoln, the historical society has continued to raise funds and has been urging the town to get started on revitalizing the lighthouse. The town, in response, has begun a bidding process for a construction company to build a dock on the island so that boats can easily go there and bring materials to preserve the building. As of now, the historical society is hoping the lighthouse will get fixed before it gets deteriorated beyond repair.
Another project that the organization has worked to conquer is restoring the Saddle Rock Grist Mill. It was initially used by farmers in the 18th and 19th century when the Great Neck area was mostly farmland. The mill was built to grind grain for farmers to send to Manhattan and was sold on the market. The mill is owned by Nassau County.
“The mill is in disrepair,” Katz said. “The society have pressured Legislator Ellen Birnbaum and the county parks department to restore the grist mill. They have presented their plans to the historical society on getting it fixed. These are the types of projects that the historical society has been involved in to preserve landmarks of the community.”
Unfortunately, not every project has been a success for the society. The First Playhouse of Great Neck, which later became a movie theater, has been closed for a few decades and stands boarded up on Middle Neck Road. As of now, ownership of the theater has a proposal in that would tear down the theater and build an apartment building.
“The historical society would’ve liked to have seen it preserved,” Katz said. “The Village of Great Neck Estates has been rejecting these proposals and the building has sat for many years. The society has been working to either get this building preserved as a theater or at least the facade of it preserved. If it had to be an apartment building, at least it could be decorated with posters of the building’s historic past. All of this is up in the air.”
In addition to all the projects the historical society works on, they also present programs to help educate people about all the great history Great Neck has at no charge to the community. Just this month, the society presented a program teaching people about the various performers and entertainers that lived in the area. Most of them had jobs in Manhattan but lived in Great Neck. The First Playhouse of Great Neck actually showcased Off-Broadway productions before they made it into the city.
“Many performers have lived in the community as recently as comedian Alan King,” Katz said. “One of the most famous to live in Great Neck was Groucho Marx. But there were many others. It’s the society’s mission to present these programs to let people know about the history of their community.”
The organization continues to work on many projects to keep the historical aspect of Great Neck alive, as well as give people an education in what has built the city we know today. For more information on the Great Neck Historical Society, visit www.greatneckhistorical.org.