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1958: The Year Huntington Became A Suburb

By: Claudia S. Fortunato

The 1950s marked the transition of Huntington from a small town to a bustling suburban center as “former GIs were out of college and married now—earning enough to buy a home.  Others, who had started in Levittown, wanted bigger homes for growing families.” (From Huntington in Our Time)    According to census figures, the 1950 population of Huntington was only 47,506 people, but by 1960 it had mushroomed to 126,595 people.  If this steady change can be pinpointed to one year, that would be 1958—the year Huntington became a suburb. 

The effects of the population change included the need for the expansion of the library, fire department and hospital; new high school buildings; Town Hall began to outgrow it’s space; homes were bulldozed for parking lots; and urban renewal plans were being drawn up. The Town’s new residents also found that they had a variety of new recreational activities to choose from, including shopping centers, a ski slope, swimming pools, and beaches.  It was in 1958 that Huntington grew in to the “Little Apple” we know it as today.

What better place to start accommodating this exploding population growth than the maternity ward of Huntington Hospital. In February, a new maternity ward was opened to combat the serious overcrowding problem and the increasing demand for service on this department.  According to the February 27, 1958 Long-Islander, “In 1957 there were 2,269 babies born at the hospital compared with only 1,334 just five years ago.”  New patient rooms, and new labor and delivery facilities were all added, as well as clearing space for expanding the nursery facilities.  The new ward was located on the second floor of the new five- floor East Wing the hospital opened in 1958 at a cost of $2,650,000.  The East Wing also housed 75 more patient rooms, an x-ray division, an emergency suite, a laboratory, and a central sterilization department.  Technological innovations such as an intercommunication system between patients and nurses and wall outlets for pumped in oxygen were added.  The Long-Islander noted on August 8, 1958 that though the plan had originally allowed for 9 private rooms, the increasing admissions meant that every room had to be semi-private.  Due to the ever-growing population of the Town, as soon as this wing was opened, the board of the Hospital was discussing the need for another wing to be built. 

            All of these babies would need places to learn, such as the public library.  The Huntington Public Library had been located in the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Building on Main Street since 1893.  At the time that planning commenced for a memorial to those who died in the Civil War, the Huntington Library Association was also looking for proper quarters.  The two efforts were combined and the memorial building opened as a Library in 1893.  The library collection expanded over the years, and in 1935 a mezzanine was added to create more space within the high-ceilinged building. But by 1958 the old building just could not handle the volume of business the booming population required. The library acquired the old New York Telephone building at the other end of Main Street and was ready to move. The first step of “Operation Bookshift” was the removal of 2000 duplicate copies and less used books from the fiction collection into the care of library patrons who stored the books until an extended due date in mid-June when they could be returned to the new location.  In addition, patrons were encouraged to take out two or three extra books per visit also on the extended due date system.  From June 16 to June 23, the library closed down to devote all efforts to moving the 27,000 books in the library’s collection. Anyone willing to volunteer to move books, or take some books home, were invited to the library that week.  It was a true community effort.  Besides the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the Huntington Junior Chamber of Commerce, over 500 library patrons volunteered to carry books in shopping bags and stacks of paper from 228 Main Street to 338 Main Street.  The new building was purchased for $295,000 and $65,000 was spent on renovations.  The new building featured an improved children’s section, black walnut shelves, cypress floors and furniture, a spacious reading room, an enlarged reference section, and a then innovative young adults section.  At the opening ceremony, held on July 6, 1958, the Town Supervisor Ernest Johnson said, “This is a progressive library for a progressive town.”  These words certainly captured the spirit of 1958.

             Similarly, the Huntington Fire Department was also feeling the pressure of servicing all of the Town’s residents.  The increased traffic in the village made it hard for the firefighters to get the equipment out of the fire house, located on Main Street diagonally across from the Soldiers & Sailors Building, quickly and efficiently.  Another significant issue was that during bad storms the siren that summoned the fireman would be rendered inoperable. Therefore, a vote by the residents of the fire district was taken on March 21, 1957 and $345,000 was authorized for the purchase of property and construction of a new, larger, more modern firehouse.  Land was acquired between Wall Street and New York Avenue, north of the village, and construction began one year later in March 1958.  Being set back from main roads, the building was able to operate without interference from local traffic.  The new building was also equipped with a generator so that electricity could be available at all times to insure that the firehouse could meet the needs of the Town regardless of the situation.  Construction took just over a year, and the dedication of the new and current firehouse was held on May 23, 1959. 

At the dedication ceremony, C.A. Griffith, the President of the Board of Fire Commissioners and Master of Ceremonies, made a speech that truly captured the spirit of 1958.

Laying a cornerstone is a symbolic event usually signifying the end of

one era and the beginning a of a new one.  We are in the midst of a new

era in Huntington, with more and more people seeking to plant firm family

roots in our community.  The growth of Huntington has often been termed

as “spectacular” and “spectacular” it is.  If this new fire house is representative of anything, it is tangible evidence that our community has an active awareness of the responsibilities that accompany growth.

 

The library, the hospital, and the fire department were not the only signs of Huntington’s changing population, the influx of students in the education system meant that the high schools changed as well.  Huntington School District found its half century old high school too small for the mid-century population and overcrowding made learning difficult.  A new, modern high school was built south of the village. Every corner, classroom, and corridor were designed to be ultra modern and as progressive as possible.  In November 1958 cheerleaders, the marching band, and 1500 Huntington High School students marched from their former home at Robert L. Simpson High School on Main Street to the new building at Oakwood and McKay Roads.  The student government officers in conjunction with a committee of students arranged the parade with the oversight of the chairman of the new building committee.  The ninth grade, which previously had been housed at Toaz Junior High School on Woodhull Road, would now attend the high school to solve the problem of overcrowding at the junior high.  The morning of the parade, students reported to their old school and officially closed the doors of the Simpson building after its 50 years of service.  They then marched to the new school and attended homeroom and received locker assignments before heading home for Thanksgiving recess. 

Likewise, Half Hollow Hills High School dedicated their new junior- senior high school building in 1958, the first one for the recently centralized district.  When it was opened it was considered an outstanding example of modern school architecture.  The contemporary building had everything that the students would need to receive a well-rounded education.  It had 24 classrooms, four specially equipped science rooms, two art rooms, two homemaking rooms, two shops, two music rooms, a library, a three station gymnasium, an auditorium that seats 550, and a cafeteria with a modern kitchen.  Today, the building is used as the campus of Five Towns College. 

Greenlawn and Centerport felt the affects of the surge of residents as well, and awarded contracts in 1958 for the building of Harborfields High School.  Prior to this the district had been using temporary locations for their upper classes.  The new school was designed to not only to house the present day students but also with a view at looking ahead to allow for a growth of 33 percent in enrollment.  The school would be comprised of four inter-connected wings: a shop wing, an academic wing, an auditorium-cafeteria wing, and a gymnasium wing.  The minimum use of columns and an emphasis on large open spaces was a prevailing theme in the design, intended to allow for the addition or movement of walls to accommodate the changing needs of the school.   These high schools still stand today as a testament to the new character of the Town and the vision of their designers to continue to teach all of the students who would cross through their halls.

            The students weren’t the only ones outgrowing their buildings.  The Chamber of Commerce was asked to do a study in 1958 of the Town’s facilities, law enforcement, and recreational lands.  At the time the departments of the Town were spread out all over the Town, as they no longer fit inside Town Hall, which was located on Main Street across from the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Building (the former library).  The Chamber was also asked to investigate the need for land for recreational facilities including a picnic area, swimming pool, lawn games, baseball, and golf.  They were charged with making recommendations for making such a park a reality.  Finally, the growth of the unpopulated areas of our Town and the influx of new peoples and homes plus the new increase in enforcement activities called for a larger police force.  Although, Town Hall wouldn’t be relocated until 1979 to it’s present location in the old Huntington High School, the need for something bigger was recognized as a necessity in as early as 1958.

After a hard week’s work in the city, Huntington’s new families needed options for a relaxing Saturday.  The Bella Hess Estate on New York Avenue in Huntington Station was purchased for the development of the Big H Shopping Center and a housing community.  The housing was planned as a buffer between the new high school and the new shopping area.  Sears Roebuck & Company was invited to be the anchor store for the shopping center with many other stores moving in around it.  Unfortunately, the millionaire’s mansion burned down in a fire that lasted for seven hours.  It was believed that the fire was started by two youths who set it on the second floor of the country house.  Perhaps their parents should have sent them to another millionaire’s country house.  The Eastern Military Academy was in its eleventh operating year at the former Otto Kahn Estate.  Luckily, the children of Huntington would not have idle hands much longer.  In addition to the Chamber’s study regarding locations for a new town park with recreational activities, there were other diversions springing up as well. 

            The Hi-Point Ski Club held it’s first meeting in 1958 at Lindbergh Lodge on Dix Hills Road, South Huntington.  The club committee chairman gave reports on the progress of the proposed ski area; made preparations for a membership drive; and outlined a plan for weekend work parties to erect ski lifts.  West Neck Beach was opened this year with a full staff of lifeguards.  The residents who didn’t want to swim the Long Island Sound need not worry; the YMCA broke ground on its indoor Olympic size swimming pool.  In addition, a boys and girls locker room were constructed and an exercise room.  There was something for the less active types to do too. WBAB radio station was the first hi-fi radio station transmitting from nearby Farmingdale Road.  Although, in 1958, at it’s first broadcast, it was an AM station.  Shopping, skiing, swimming, or just sitting & listening to the radio—there was something for everyone!

            All the new people in the town also meant that there were a lot more cars on the roads, and these cars would need a place to park.  The Town acquired several parcels of land between Main Street and Elm Street to construct a 139-stall parking lot.  The parking lot also required the purchase of some land from the Central Presbyterian Church and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Association.  In total, the Town acquired 27,391 square feet of land for use as a parking lot.  The village was not the only place that needed a new parking lot.  In September 1958 a new parking field was opened at the Huntington Train Station, on New York Avenue between School Street and Church Street, to accommodate the increased number of commuters. 

            The Town of Huntington, however, was about to lose something very important in 1958.  At the time, however, Huntingtonians did not realize what they were losing.  Plans for the Urban Renewal of the downtown Huntington Station area along New York Avenue, from Nassau Road to the railroad tracks, were prepared.  The goal of urban renewal was to revitalize the downtown shopping area of Huntington Station.  The plan was to tear down all the businesses in this commercial area and build new stores.  By the early 1960s businesses were displaced and the buildings began to be torn down.  The overall cost of the tearing down and rebuilding was $29 million dollars.  Halfway through, in other words after the old buildings and stores were torn down, the program ran out of money.  The result of course was the strip of New York Avenue we know today—empty lots and parking fields.  The 1958 urban renewal plan unequivocally altered the landscape and character of Huntington Station from a lively downtown to a vast asphalt dead zone.

Huntington Station was not the only community to undergo change in 1958.  In March, heavy rain melted the ice that had formed on the Cold Spring lakes during the winter.  The melted ice water and the rainwater filled the upper lake to a point where there was so much pressure the dam between the lakes burst.  The resulting deluge of water uncovered history that had been buried for three hundred years.  In 1682 a gristmill was built on Cold Spring River.  In order to form a reservoir of water for its operation a dam was built, obliterating the river.  A mill stood on that site until 1918 or 1919 when it fell during a heavy snow.  The bursting of the dam in 1958, brought to view the marble marker that denoted the boundary line of Oyster Bay and Huntington Townships, which had been established in 1684.  An old iron mill and millstones from the 17th century mill were also uncovered.  Most significantly, the break in the dam and bridge, reverted the man made twin lakes into the river that had originally flowed there.

The last considerable change to the Town of Huntington in 1958 was construction of the Long Island Expressway.  There was a public hearing to discuss the expressway’s proposed route through Melville and Half Hollow Hills.  The hearing was regarding a five and a half mile extension from the Nassau County border eastward.  The route was approved at the hearing and quickly land began to exchange hands along the route.  The property values increased along this stretch, as did plans for development. When the construction on this extension of the Long Island Expressway was being done in 1961, the State encountered an unexpected roadblock—a small nineteenth century cemetery.  Workers discovered the gravestone for a ten-month-old child who died in 1872, and eight unmarked graves, in the path of the eastbound lane of the expressway.  Unable to locate relatives of the child, the State secured a court order to re-inter the child’s remains, as well as those of four other children and four adults, who were in unmarked graves, to the Bethpage Cemetery. If the hearing had gone the other way and another route was chosen, the small cemetery might remain undisturbed.

In reaction to Huntington’s growth and modernizing, a group of residents stepped up efforts to preserve a corner of Town.  The Old Huntington Green, Inc. was chartered in 1936 as an organization with the mission of fighting development around the Huntington Village Green and to restore the area to its former acreage and beauty so it could be an open space for all to enjoy.  The triangle of land between Main Street, Park Avenue, and Sabbath Day Path that we see and enjoy today is a direct result of the efforts of this organization.  An acre and a half of land on the west side of the north half of the Green, (with a frontage of about 200 feet along East Main Street), was donated to the Town on Huntington on December 31, 1957. The Town Supervisor Joseph Cermack, on behalf of the Town Board, accepted the deed from Mrs. Raymond Ingersoll of Old Huntington Green, Inc. who purchased the land with the intention of donation to the town for park expansion.  The Old Huntington Green, Inc. organization still exists today and upholds the mission of preserving the area for future Huntingtonians and continuing to expand the land along the Village Green for the enjoyment of everyone.

The transformation that Huntington underwent in 1958 turned it into the remarkable town that we have today.  Huntingtonians embraced their new population growth, and adapted to the change with enthusiasm.  Fifty years later, Huntington still embodies the same philosophy it had in 1958.  New buildings, new projects, and new ideas are a part of daily life for the residents of the Town of Huntington, and the growth and change continues to be embraced with enthusiasm.  We are lucky enough to have also maintained our appreciation for the past and Huntington has many organizations that are dedicated to preserving its rich history.  The town attracts new people everyday as it is often heralded in publications, such as Newsday and the New York Times, as a town that has everything to offer.