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Tiny Town homes are remnants of an 1800s religious revival

A longtime resident talks about life in North Merrick's Tiny Town, which started as a Methodist summer camp in the mid-1800s. (Credit: Johnny Milano)

Residents like Henry Kessin are used to visitors who show up in this quiet North Merrick neighborhood looking for “Tiny Town.” They are drawn by stories about its “Hansel and Gretel” homes supposedly occupied by minuscule people. Most are confused by the normal environment they see around them. Where, they ask, can they find this Lilliputian land?

“I tell them, you’re here,” says Kessin, a 70-year-old retired school administrator who has lived there with his wife, Janet, 68, for 37 years. “Then, I explain what happened.”

Finding Tiny Town these days requires a bit of a quest. An initial walk through the South Shore community reveals the typical dwellings you find anywhere on Long Island. But keep walking and chances are you will come across a remnant of this diminutive wonderland.

Like the one-story home of Susan Bright on Wesley Avenue, which, considering its doll-sized proportions, looks as if the outside should be clad in gingerbread rather than shingles.

“The area always intrigued me,” says Bright, 44, a clerk at a local college who grew up in nearby Bellmore and always heard stories about the area. She bought her house 13 years ago. “I wanted to be in the neighborhood for its uniqueness.”

At one point, there were 60 such structures here, a phenomenon that generated the mythology associated with it today. Residents say perhaps a half-dozen original ones remain, although they have been altered. The rest were torn down and replaced with larger residences.

“There was no concentrated effort to keep it intact,” says Kessin, who laments the community’s disappearance. “It’s a vestige of what it was.”

Actually, a more accurate designation for the area is “The Campgrounds,” says Andrea Michaels, a commercial insurance broker who has resided in a home known as “The Chapel” for 21 years. The abode still has its original shape in front and a low-level porch railing built by her father, Roland Michaels, which promotes its petite look. No, it’s not too small, Michaels says.

“It’s quaint. That’s the best part.”

All this dates back to a Protestant movement in America in the mid-1800s marked by religious fervor and social activism, according to Paul Van Wie, acting chairman of the Hempstead Town Landmarks Preservation Commission. Among them were Methodist officials who bought 60 acres of shady woods in North Merrick in 1869 and began holding summer camp meetings. As many as 10,000 worshippers showed up some years to listen to thundering sermons in a 25-foot-tall structure in the center known as the “tabernacle.”

Tents were laid out in two concentric circles facing it to accommodate the faithful — usually Brooklyn and Queens residents who came by train and often stayed a week or longer. Over the years, the tents were replaced by permanent structures, most no bigger than a modest garage since they still were regarded as minimal shelters. The religious movement cooled by the 1920s. The camp meetings ceased and the homes passed from the church into private ownership with many being replaced by conventional-sized structures.

Traces of that history remain. Most of the streets are named after preachers of the past, including Dow Avenue, the namesake of Lorenzo Dow who informed audiences he was bringing them “the latest news from Hell.” Many homes still have deed covenants that prohibit smoking, drinking, dancing and require residents to keep a bucket of water on the porch for fires.

At various times in the past it has been referred to as “Tinker Town” or “Midgetville,” an area said to be filled with shotgun-wielding little people ready to shoot trespassers on sight.

Van Wie winces at the Tiny Town moniker. As do the residents.

“It’s not a great name for the place,” he says. “This is one of those areas that makes Long Island what it is. It has a uniqueness we should value.”

The large oaks and dirt roads that once marked the area made it look “very country,” says Carol Ball, who moved there with her husband, John, 43 years ago. They occupy one of the neighborhood’s larger homes from the era known as the “Preacher’s cottage.” The community’s wagon-wheel street layout connected by eight spoke-like cut-throughs is so byzantine it drives delivery men crazy, she says. It even bewildered them at first.

“When we first moved in my mother-in-law took the dog out for a walk and got lost for an hour.”

The small-scale homes that replaced the rental tents usually contained anywhere from 500 to 1,100 square feet, according to James Pooley, an associate broker with Signature Premier Properties. He has both sold Tiny Town homes and lived in one himself for eight years.

“It’s a really cool area,” he says. “People there hate that name.”

Property taxes usually run around $9,000 for the smaller homes while residents in the larger dwellings in the area pay between $14,000 and $15,000, Pooley says.Two homes currently for sale in the area (not the historic church homes) are listed in the $500,000 range. Tiny Town homes that do come up for sale are a hot item, says the real estate agent.

“They don’t come on the market very often and they sell so quickly you don’t get a chance to see them,” he says.

Susan Bright is perfectly content in her dwelling and, although she added an office space in the rear, has no intention of making it larger.

“It looks like the rooms are tiny inside, but they’re not,” she says. “For one person, it’s just the right amount of space.”

She likes its intimate touches inside like the rounded-ceiling hallway and wooden swinging doors into the kitchen that form the symbol of a heart when closed. Then, there is the issue of security.

“You feel safe here because everyone can see what’s going on,” she says. “People look out for you. That’s comforting.”

Andrea Michaels’ home, which dates back to 1870, was indeed minuscule when she first moved in. In fact, the kitchen was so small you would hit the cabinet on the other side when turning around.

“There was no room for anything,” she says. “It was probably like 700-square-foot.”

That changed when she added on a kitchen and bathroom along with a partial basement. Both her home and the one owned by Henry Kessin are the only two in the neighborhood that have been given historical landmark status by the Town of Hempstead.

The area’s reputation used to draw mischievous kids who would knock on her door to see who was inside, she says. Not all were good-natured. One blew up her mailbox with a firecracker, she says. Those incidents have died down in recent years, but, perhaps because of its lingering notoriety, the area remains a popular Halloween destination.

“It’s great because the kids can hit a lot of homes since they are in a tight circle,” Michaels says. “It’s fun and safe.”

The growing presence of larger homes in the area remains a sore point for some, says Pooley. More, likely, will be coming what with the increased prices they bring, he says. Which means Tiny Town may only be a memory in the future.

“Areas like this need protection,” says van Wie. “They won’t remain frozen in time.”

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