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From the archives: Oak Beach Inn bites the dust

Start of the demolition of the Oak Beach

Start of the demolition of the Oak Beach Inn in Oak Beach, Town of Babylon. (Sept. 29, 2003) Photo Credit: Photo by Frank Koester

This article was originially published in Newsday on Sept. 30, 2003

For Florence Maggiore, 68, of Bay Shore, the Oak Beach Inn was where her daughter, Linda Goetz, won the Halloween costume contest in 1990, dressed as TV's Peg Bundy. Linda Oliveri, 38, of Deer Park, is nostalgic for the karaoke room where she was a star. Michael Lee, 34, of Babylon, has fond memories of the $1 beers and free buffets during the recession of the early 1990s. And Jimmy Cruz of West Islip remembers it as a place where he could hang out with his motorcyclist friends in the parking lot and still take his mother and aunt for dinner.

"My aunt got lost here once," Cruz, 49, recalled. "We couldn't find her, and she was singing with the band!"

But for Jed Meade, 53, of Oak Beach, the inn will forever be associated with "the late-night goings-on that got in the way of people enjoying their lives over here - late-night crowds, late-night noise ... late-night fornication, people relieving themselves. It was a nightmare that got in the middle of an otherwise peaceful community."

As the giant jaws of a demolition crane stood poised to take a bite out of the roof of the Oak Beach Inn yesterday morning, politicians, activists and neighbors beamed at the podium and welcomed the dawning of a bright, family-friendly future for the site of what used to be Long Island's hottest, and most controversial, nightclub.

But as Beach Boys songs blasted cheerfully from speakers and the steel machine crunched through the wooden structure, many in the crowd that gathered to watch the symbolic end of a 20-year battle between the Town of Babylon and the inn's former owner reached back into their own memories of good times at the inn, and mourned.

"I had my first drink in there when I was 18 years old," said Bob Rosicki, 52, of Hicksville. "It's somewhere I went winter, spring, summer and fall."

Looking around at the crowd of about 200, Rosicki added with a smile, "All these people that are walking around here, they all walked out of there at least once in their life, drunk."

Robert Matherson, who bought the inn right on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in 1969 and built it into a wildly successful nightspot before it closed in 1999, sounded defiant.

"They can destroy the building, but they can't destroy the power behind the place," he said, speaking from Key West, Fla., where he retired. "The OBI is not a bar. It's more like a landmark, an institution."

After 20 years of litigation between Matherson and the Town of Babylon, Suffolk County paid $7.95 million for the 8.2-acre waterfront property in 2001, as part of a deal where the town will spend $15 million to build a park, bed and breakfast, upscale restaurant, boardwalk, water-sport area and boat ramp.

Matherson's former wife, Carolyn Matherson, said the demolition of the inn, where she used to be general manager, was what the family wanted.

"We didn't want it to be used by the community, which was negative. We didn't want it to be used by the town and the county and the state, which was corrupt. We didn't want it to go to another owner, who could never make it what it was," she said. "So out of all those options, we'd rather it was destroyed."

Feelings were mixed for many in the audience yesterday - sad to see an institution bite the dust, but glad for an end to what some called "a civil war" over parking, late-night noise and land.

"It was a source of division for people here on the beach," said Eleanore Peterson, 82, of Oak Beach. "For that reason, I'm not sad that it's gone."

"I guess it's for the best," said Fred Rooke, 35, of Levittown. Though he has fond memories of riding down to the "OBI" on his motorcycle in his younger days, he's a father now, and admits to looking forward to taking his 16-month-old twins scuba-diving at the new facility when they're old enough.

"It's going to be a different crowd of people, that's for sure," Rooke said. "I guess it opens a new door. It certainly closes the old one, though."

A Controversial Neighbor

In the three decades since Oak Beach Inn opened, the popular nightspot has had regular run-ins with residents and town officials.

Developer Robert Matherson buys Oak Beach Inn, converting it from restaurant to nightclub.

Club draws ire of planner Robert Moses, a neighbor who wants to limit parking there.

Court orders Babylon to get state easements for more parking. Four years later, Matherson sues town for not living up to deal.

A frustrated Matherson launches "Move Out of New York State Before It's Too Late" campaign, using a hearse, banners, and TV spots.

Matherson follows own advice, closing his nightclub and moving to Florida.

Developer who agrees to buy the property unveils plans to build luxury condominiums there. Residents protest, and town puts brakes on project. Developer sues.

In a complex deal involving all litigants, county buys the land and town agrees to develop a park there.

After 20 years of litigation and controversy, Oak Beach Inn is razed.

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