Great Neck history: From mansions to middle-class

The shopping district was bustling in the 1920s The shopping district was bustling in the 1920s on Great Neck Road in what is now called Great Neck Plaza. (Handout) Photo Credit: Handout

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In the early 1900s, grand homes and luxury hotels filled Steamboat Road in Kings Point, serving as a summer resort for those coming by boat from Manhattan. About 70 years later, homes with such grand architecture were replaced by more modernize homes and temples.

Kings Point is one of the nine incorporated villages that make up the Great Neck peninsula. The other villages include Great Neck Village, Saddle Rock, Kensington, Great Neck Plaza, Thomaston, Russell Gardens, Lake Success and Great Neck Estates.

"This used to be the way you'd get to the steamboats in the early 1900s and there were luxury hotels and other services for travelers," said Alice Kasten, president of the Great Neck Historical Society. "People came to picnic for the day and stay the weekend to get away from the city."

It all began in the 1700s when pilgrims landed in Saddle Rock, which they called “Mad Nan’s Neck,” to take the northern part of the peninsula away from the Mattinecock Native Americans.

Through 1910, Saddle Rock was home to large estates owned by the Allen, Hubb, Udall, Treadwell, Skidmore and Eldridge families. Saddle Rock was the first to be incorporated in 1911 and Thomaston was incorporated last in 1931.

The area has become increasingly suburbanized over the last century, with a thriving business district with stores, ethnic foods and apartment buildings in the heart of the Great Neck peninsula.

Kasten, who has lived in Great Neck since 1978, said there's now an influx of religious development and brand-new houses scattered throughout the neighborhoods.

Temple Beth-El, the oldest synagogue in Great Neck, was founded in 1928. She said there was an influx of Persian Jews from Iran in the 1970s and many Orthodox Jews have been moving in from Queens in recent years.

Jonathan Aubrey, a librarian at Great Neck Library who has lived in the area all his life, said growing up, he saw the area as diverse ethnically and economically, but now, that has changed.

Great Neck Plaza has an apartment, commuter and business culture,” said Aubrey, 47, of Great Neck. “[In the late 1980s] there was a boom of building co-ops and condos in the plaza near the train station. It was desirable [to live near the train station]."

Kasten said the plaza is the part of the peninsula where there has been the most development.

"New apartments have gone up and assisted living facilities," she said. "Certainly, you can eat any cuisine you want in Great Neck. There's Asian restaurants and Middle Eastern restaurants, anything you want."

Aubrey said many families also moved to Great Neck for the school system.

In the late 1700s, Quakers Adam and Anne Mott built a small two-story school on their 400-acre land bordering Manhasset Bay, which became the first school built on the Great Neck peninsula.

Great Neck opened its first high school in 1914 and today the Great Neck School District includes two high schools, two middle schools, five elementary schools and a private school.

"We have a lot of unique parks," Kasten said. "You can tromp through a forest, you can go boating and you can play ball in these parks. In general, the quality of life in Great Neck is quite high."

Kasten said that the area has become more diversified as the years go by.

“You'll see that if you look at the stores, the churches, temples, restaurants, you'll understand the diversity,” she said. “It's really cool that I can go into one store and buy Asian stuff and go into another and buy the very best in dried fruits and nuts. You have the wealth of all of these different nationalities to choose from.”

Kasten plans to stay in the area because she wouldn’t want to miss out on the services it provides and the rich historic background waiting to be dug up.

“To me, it has a very homey feel,” she said. “Even though it has a large diverse community, you find your niche and where you belong. It becomes your little world.”

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