Developed in 1905, Stearns Park is made up of grand, historic homes all tucked away. NewsdayTV's Rachel Weiss reports. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Gene and Carolyn Hecht’s grand pastel yellow home stands prominently in Freeport, adorned by branches of greenery and potted plants lining a long walkway leading to more than a century of history.

The couple have lived there since 1975, after buying the house for about $58,000, and are the keepers of its rich past. Since moving in, they have filled the home with memories of their own. 

They’ve decorated it lovingly with antiques and art. And whether from Wantagh or England, each piece has its own story.

The house, built in 1907, shares its neighborhood with other towering properties, built with brick and sharp roofs, sitting on streets named after states. But to find them and take a peek, you have to know exactly where to look.

One of the homes in historic Stearns Park in Freeport.

One of the homes in historic Stearns Park in Freeport. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Communities like Freeport, Malverne and Hempstead are sprinkled with homes that stand out within the areas, due to their notable architecture or deep histories. The homeowners hope to highlight their special homes, either through civic association efforts, walking tours or simply sharing their community’s hidden gems with inquiring minds.

‘Built better,’ with charm

Glenn and Mary Barnett at their West Hempstead home, with...

Glenn and Mary Barnett at their West Hempstead home, with son Matthew, 20. Credit: Danielle Silverman

There’s a community in Hempstead with some regal street titles: Buckingham, Marlborough and Trinity, to name a few.

And they have the houses to match. Characterized by their stucco builds, pointy peaks and facades straight out of a storybook, the homes lining these streets are part of the Cathedral Gardens neighborhood. 

The community is considered to be where the borders of Garden City, Hempstead and West Hempstead meet, according to its civic association website. There are many longtime residents here, said Regina Todd, vice president of the Cathedral Gardens Civic Association — but young families are starting to move in, too.

"Looking at the houses, I saw kids outside playing in the street," said Todd, 63, of Hempstead. "And we want kids to be a part of the neighborhood. It’s a really good mix of young and old."

Todd has five adult children, between the ages of 30 and 40. Her family moved in 33 years ago, purchasing their four-bedroom, 2½ bathroom house for $209,000. A big draw for her at the time was the streets, lined with trees boasting full canopies. The civic association aims to plant between 10 and 15 trees throughout the area starting this fall, Todd said.

"One street to the next had these canopy-laden trees, so I’m trying to get it back. I probably won’t live to see it, but we’re working on it," she said with a laugh.

Homes on Marlborough Road in West Hempstead.

Homes on Marlborough Road in West Hempstead. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Todd’s house was built in 1928. Many of the houses around her own have Spanish-style roofs made with clay tile. Some houses are painted bold colors: ivy green, sunflower yellow, cornflower blue and maroon, to name a few nearby.

"Many of the houses are Tudor-style homes with wood beams on the front of the house," Todd said. "They’re all stucco and inside have always been plaster walls. They’re very charming; that’s kind of what drew me to the neighborhood. And the community, which is so friendly and family-oriented."

Glenn Barnett, 61, moved to Cathedral Gardens with his wife, Mary Barnett, in 1992. She grew up in the area, and they had previously lived in Oceanside. Their house was built in 1928 as well, and the Barnetts bought it for $160,000.

Now, Glenn Barnett is a real estate agent with Four Seasons Realty Team, and recently sold a Spanish Tudor-style house in Cathedral Gardens for $819,000. He has a background in construction, so when he saw his own house for the first time, he was convinced to buy it because of the way it was built.

Regina Todd's home in the Cathedral Gardens neighborhood of Hempstead.

Regina Todd's home in the Cathedral Gardens neighborhood of Hempstead. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

"I always say to people, the wood that they used in these homes back in the day came from trees that were hundreds of years old, and the density of the wood is stronger than wood today," he said. "They’re built better, as far as strength."

Some of the finer features inside, like the plaster-coated ceilings, also sold the couple on their house. "Being in the business of construction and knowing what goes into these homes, to get those types of details, we just fell in love with it," he said.

Those stumbling upon this neighborhood for the first time, like Barnett had all those years ago, are often taken aback, Todd said.

"People will come out and say, 'Oh my God, this is like a hidden gem; I didn't know this was here,' " she said.

Haven for the arts

Rosanne Nalepinski's home in Malverne.

Rosanne Nalepinski's home in Malverne. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Throughout Malverne, you’ll find pockets of brick cottages and historic bungalows. These homes were once occupied by movie stars, vaudeville performers and Big Band Era musicians, said Don Pupke, who is on the board of directors of the Malverne Historical and Preservation Society. 

A lot of these houses are along Alnwick Road and Broadway in the village,  developed primarily between 1912 and 1920.

"The Alnwick area was developed by a company that was run by two or three people that had ties to Broadway or vaudeville," Pupke said. "They would go to vaudeville and try to sell properties to the vaudeville stars or people in the music industry in New York. Consequently, there were a bunch of people in that area who were performers, and some became movie stars."

Notable past residents include Ralph Flanagan, a Big Band leader and composer, and comedian Ole Olsen.

"Ole was a bit eccentric," Pupke said. "He had a pet bear, who he’d walk on a chain around his house."

But these stars fell into the residential lifestyle the village provided and were just treated as neighbors around town, he added. 

Rosanne Nalepinski, 59, has been living in the village since 2001. Her English-style Tudor was built in 1929 and still contains some of its original features, including windows and the front door.

"It's a beautiful neighborhood," said Nalepinski, who works in fabric design. "All of the homes are meticulously cared for."

She and her husband, Richard Nalepinski, 66, raised two kids here. They've recently welcomed new neighbors to their block, who have children under the age of 3.

"I see people walking around all the time, pushing strollers," she said. "So I do think new families are coming to Malverne."

There’s an interest among Malverne’s current residents about the village’s beginnings. The historical and preservation society’s Facebook page has garnered more than 2,000 followers, and Pupke has been sharing posts on it.

"People absolutely love seeing old pictures of Malverne," he said. "So that’s been a very successful venture for me, and a labor of love."

'A diverse suburban community'

Gene and Carolyn Hecht bought their Freeport home in 1975. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Stearns Park is a neighborhood in Freeport named after Hugo Stearns. The Hechts live in his former home.

"We’re very book-oriented people, so we did a lot of research online about him," said retired nurse Carolyn Hecht, 83. "We found documents, a book of poems he wrote and portraits. I have photographs of him and his wife in my folders and files, and I spent a couple of years trying to get official documents from when the house was built, and it was not a straightforward effort." That’s because she learned that some parts of Freeport used to be considered within the hamlet of Roosevelt.

In 1905, Stearns sought to create "one of the finest and most exclusive residential parks on Long Island," according to the Freeport Memorial Library’s online archives. It consisted of eight farms, but Stearns made sure not to uproot any existing greenery, per the library's findings.

By 1925, the neighborhood consisted of 35 homes, denoted by their stylish design and long driveways. Although the neighborhood remains in Freeport today, it is served by the Baldwin Union Free School District because it used to be a part of Roosevelt.

As far as the Stearns Park official boundaries, "it expanded over time," said Regina Feeney, who is a librarian and historian of Freeport. "So it’s really hard to say where it begins and where it ends."

An ornate staircause in the Hecht's home is adorned with photos and artwork. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Linda Silva Thompson is president of the Stearns Park Civic Association, and has been living here since 2010. She and her next-door neighbor have similar — but not identical — homes, products of the same architect and builders. They have matching long driveways, large lots and two-car garages, and were both built in 1940.

"The houses are not close together," said Silva Thompson, a dean at Molloy University. "That’s one of the things that has attracted a lot of people to Stearns Park."

The community itself was another selling point for Silva Thompson and her family, and she said it’s gotten even more inclusive since the pandemic.

Homeowners Linda and Rev. Dr. Walter Thompson Silva Jr. at...

Homeowners Linda and Rev. Dr. Walter Thompson Silva Jr. at the entry to historic Stearns Park in Freeport. Credit: Jeff Bachner

"We were looking for a diverse suburban community, and Long Island tends to not have as many as sometimes you would think," she said. "One of the greatest attractions to Stearns Park is we’re extremely ethnically, economically, and, in terms of age, diverse."

History of their own

The primary bedroom at Gene and Carolyn Hecht's home in...

The primary bedroom at Gene and Carolyn Hecht's home in the Stearns Park neighborhood of Freeport. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Eventually, Hecht found photos of what her house looked like in the early 1900s — at the time, it was the only house on the block.

The Hechts have filled their home with artifacts to match the stories within their walls. Hecht would categorize the aesthetic as Victorian — chandeliers plus lace and velvet are highlighted throughout their furniture (including a burgundy bench dripping with beads sitting in front of a player piano) — and there are stained glass windows galore.

"Some of the stained glass had been boarded up and when we asked the sellers why did they board it up, they said it was too old-fashioned," Hecht said. "So of course one of the first things we did was take those boards down, and were so delightfully surprised by what we found."

Gene Hecht, 84, looked around the living room, remembering the condition the house was in when they first moved in 48 years ago. Many walls were cracked and ceilings were falling, the couple recalled.

The Hechts got to work quickly, adding tin ceilings in the kitchen and primary bathroom and putting their own touches on the space. Gene painted the floral border that surrounds the upper walls of the kitchen.

The sun room in the Hechts' home.

The sun room in the Hechts' home. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

"We tried as hard as we could to bring it back to the condition that it was in when Hugo Stearns lived here," said Gene Hecht, a retired professor of physics at Adelphi University in Garden City.

Of course, the couple has incorporated their history into the home. One wall is covered in framed photos of their family, including children, grandchildren and the couple's  parents.

The house has hosted noisy band rehearsals in the basement, built under 6 inches of concrete, thus making it soundproof, Carolyn  said. They’ve held sleepovers in the sunroom and watermelon fights outside when their children were young. And every year, the garden explodes with vegetables.

Standing in the foyer in front of a grand staircase, Carolyn  reflected.

"My grandmother rolled cigars for a nickel a week, and to think I’m standing here growing tomatoes to such a quantity I had to go out and buy a freezer," she said. 

"This is a place where neighbors or strangers walk by and stop and stare. If they stand there staring for more than three minutes, I’ll run out and bring them inside for a tour."

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