O'Reilly: Swiss Benevolent Society Home, RIP
My youngest daughter did her first B&E at the age of 2½. That's "breaking and entering" for anyone not in the business.
By the time we moved into the Captain Merritt's Hill neighborhood in December 2007, the main house of the 19th century facility was abandoned and decrepit. The adjacent infirmary, marked with a painted Swiss flag, was in worse shape: broken windows, doors ajar, scattered beer cans and graffitied walls -- telltale signs that teenagers had taken residency of the place on many a night since its doors formally shut two decades ago.
The main house and its three derelict outbuildings had come to look like quintessential haunted structures demanding to be explored, and the long, gradual slope leading up to them -- decorated with signs reading, "No Sledding" -- had been ridden down to mud at the first speck of snow by children on Flexible Fliers and the like since the 1880s, according to local records.
I wanted my daughter not to be afraid of the facility; I wanted her to appreciate things that came before her. But most of all, I just had to see what was inside the forsaken place and she was the perfect cover.
That day marked the beginning of many delightful father-daughter walks around the once grand Swiss Home grounds, where we gorged on wild raspberries and wove intricate stories about imaginary people who had lived and died in the buildings since the turn of the last century.
The infirmary had a massive stone hearth and a disintegrating grand piano, without a trace of lacquer, that must have gleamed when it was young. Around it we conjured suffragettes and aged civil war veterans, with broken limbs elevated, singing gay, patriotic tunes on winter nights. We gave them each names.
On a bench at the top of the hill, a widow and widower surely met and fell in love. There they sat, every day at sunset, holdings hands.
The dances in the main house, which we never entered, had been the fanciest affairs we could conjure. The women wore broaches and ballgowns. The gentlemen came in white tie and tail.
In reality, the main house had been an old hotel in 1923 when the Swiss Benevolent Society bought it and turned it into the Swiss Home for the Aged. It housed two or three dozen seniors at a time, and by all accounts it was a wonderful place to live. A summer camp for Swiss children was later opened nearby, where Swiss culture and wholesome enterprises like drama and gardening were taught to visiting city kids.
Those children came with names and stories, too, and my daughter and I are convinced -- pretty convinced -- that we found rock solid evidence of those gardens in the nearby woods.
It was government regulations that eventually did in the Swiss Home. Those same regulations shuttered dozens of small nursing facilities around New York State. The homes lacked the extensive medical facilities now required to be on site. The only way the Swiss Home could have survived would have been if it had drastically expanded, to a couple of hundred residents, but the local community did not allow it.
And so, on a December night in 1992, the final 26 inhabitants of the Swiss Home were called in for a special meeting. One 89-year-old resident, according to a New York Times story at the time, thought it was to be a surprise Christmas party, but it wasn't. The meeting was very much a suprise, but not at all a party.
For a short time afterward, another nursing home tried to make it there, but it, too, succumbed to the new regulatory realities.
About six weeks ago, an older daughter went for a walk up the hill with a friend and returned with a faded black and white photo of a handsome young marine that had somehow been left behind.
Was it someone's husband? A son or brother? Did he go to war and make it back, or was that photo all that was left for someone who once loved him?
We were still asking those questions a week later when the demolition trucks came. It took them no time at all to erase any evidence that the Swiss Home ever existed.
My now 6-year-old and I ventured up the hill Thanksgiving morning. Straw and grass seed are what's there now, to cover the tracks of the machines that dragged the place away, room by room. Even the raspberry bushes are gone.
All that's left is a photo, which we're going to hang onto should anyone come looking for it.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.