2014-11-27 / Columnists

Babylon News & Muse

by Mary Gallagher

It’s Thanksgiving and I, for one, am very grateful. I am thankful for having a roof over my head, a warm house, a pantry with food in it, my family and friends close by, as well as a wonderful Village to live in. Although it’s human nature to want more, these things are all we really need. Everything else is extra, and we should recognize that fact.

I want to wish Bill Holmes a belated happy birthday. Bill, who has been active in the community for many years, turned 95 in early November. (Not that you’d ever know it by looking at him!) Also, belated birthday wishes to Rich Schaeffer, Town supervisor, who turned 29 again on Nov. 17! Happy birthday wishes are also sent to Don Middleton, Jr., who celebrated his birthday on Nov. 20!

Have you noticed that people who live near sites of interest often know little about the site? The Babylon Rotary recently heard Bob LaRosa (president) and Dave Griese (administrator) of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) give the history of the lighthouse and their organization, which was formed in 1982 in response to the threat of the demolition of this historic, and Long Island’s tallest, lighthouse. The lighthouse, originally commissioned in 1826, was returned to duty as an active navigation aid in 1986, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The original Fire Island Lighthouse, a 74-foot tall, cream-colored structure, with a beacon that reached only a few miles seaward, was eventually deemed ineffective and replaced with a new tower and light in 1857. This relatively new, 168-foot-tall structure, painted with the familiar black and white banding, is the lighthouse we see today – except for its location relative to the Fire Island Inlet.

Above, left, Don Middleton’s new office on George Street. Right, home of David Smith on Deer Park Avenue. Below, historical LaGrange Inn in the midst of being moved. 
(LaGrange photo by Flo of Pictures.) Above, left, Don Middleton’s new office on George Street. Right, home of David Smith on Deer Park Avenue. Below, historical LaGrange Inn in the midst of being moved. (LaGrange photo by Flo of Pictures.) When constructed in 1826, the lighthouse was located just 150 yards from the Fire Island Inlet. The lighthouse hasn’t moved; however, the relentless westward migration of sand over nearly 200 years has relocated the inlet about six miles west of the lighthouse! Fortunately for us, this group of people (FILPS) came together and saw that the lighthouse needed to be saved.

In what is now called West Islip, another building had been deteriorating over the years. At the time that Babylon was being established, this building was the hub of activity for the area. Although the exact date of construction has not been determined, La Grange was issued a license as far back as 1750. Up until the late 1880s the area was considered part of Babylon. For the past 15 years or so, La Grange has been caught in a downward spiral, changing from a charming restaurant to a singles bar and occasional catering hall. After 250 years, a drugstore chain proposed to raze the building and put up a new drugstore in its place. Again, a coalition of residents formed and stepped in to save the building, or at least the older parts of it. A new drugstore chain, CVS, purchased the property and will move the oldest parts of La Grange to the northeast corner, facing Higbie Lane. CVS and the coalition worked out an agreement to restore the La Grange, and plans can be seen on the Save the La Grange Inn page on Facebook.

The demolition of two of the 100-year-old “cottages” of the Argyle Hotel (to make room for new homes) in the recent past upset a number of villagers. Then it became known that a developer was planning to demolish the David Smith Homestead on Deer Park Avenue and Ketawamoke, to build three new homes.

A large number of people began to voice their opposition. A Facebook page used by current and former residents provided an outlet for people in Babylon and all over the world to express their objections. At a crowded Village Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, a petition containing the signatures of several hundred citizens was presented, objecting to the plan to tear down the Homestead. The Babylon Village Heritage Conservancy, which I call the Conservancy, was then formed in an effort to protect buildings that are part of the Village’s heritage. For the past two years we have been trying to find a way to save the building, and satisfy the developer. We would like the developer to move the original building closer to Deer Park Avenue and sell it to someone who would restore the homestead. The first new house has been built. By moving the Smith house, a second house could be built, with the developer still having a total of three homes for sale.

Who is David Smith, you ask? David Smith served in George Washington’s army during the American Revolution. Afterward, he came to Babylon and established his homestead. While the house has been moved twice, and had a couple of additions, the original home is still there. Smith’s property originally ran as far north as Foster Blvd. and south to Smith St., and west of Deer Park Ave. Babylon did not have many serve in the Revolution. The only other such veteran we know of was Joel Cook, for whom there is a monument in Argyle Park. Smith and his family stayed on in Babylon and he is buried in the Babylon Cemetery on Deer Park Avenue, at the foot of Simon Street, fittingly close to the land he settled.

But even as we work to save the Smith Homestead, the Conservancy is moving forward. We are establishing a non-profit group and want to do what we can to prevent the demolition of other buildings that are part of the Village’s heritage. I was recently elected president of the BVHC. On the last Sunday of each month, September through May, a general meeting is held in the Community Room at the Babylon Public Library.

The group’s mission statement explains our goals: Through advocacy, research and education, the mission of the Babylon Village Heritage Conservancy is to identify, protect and conserve the unique historical character and heritage of Babylon Village.

The Babylon Village Heritage Conservancy will have their next community meeting at the Babylon Public Library on Sun., Nov. 30, 3:00-4:30 p.m. in the community room. The guest speaker will be Tom Stock, retired science teacher, author, poet, essayist and storyteller. Tom will share his interest and research on the historic Sumpwams Creekalso known as East Creek.

I mentioned Don Middleton, Jr. earlier in the column. He and his wife have bought several older buildings in Babylon and fixed them up. Most recently he has been busy working on a building at 34 George Street that previously served as St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Prior to that, the building served as the Temple Beth Shalom.

My father, Frank Gallagher, had his office on the southeast corner of George and Cooper, with a large Victorian in between the two buildings. Until now it was the Victorian, recently restored so beautifully, that excited a lot of interest.

However, the wonderful changes to what will soon be Middleton’s office have now been attracting plenty of attention. I was fortunate enough to have a tour of the building last week.

The lower floor or basement will be used solely for storage. On the main floor, the brick walls have been left exposed, as has the ductwork just below the 14’ ceiling. This gives the space a Tribeca feel. This floor has been divided into offices, each of which has large windows. While the cornerstone says “1930,” we suspect that this building was moved here at that time, having previously been located further west, where the municipal parking lot is low located. If we are correct, this building was the first public school in Babylon.

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