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Long IslandHistory

Home on the plains

An early sketch of the planned community on

An early sketch of the planned community on the Hempstead Plains showing a view from its north side. Credit: Collection of Vincent F. Seyfried

This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.

In 1823, Alexander Turney Stewart was a 22-year-old immigrant sleeping in a room behind his dry goods store to save money. By 1848 he was a millionaire with a large marble store in Manhattan. In 1869 he founded a city.

It was a time when great fortunes could be amassed. It was also an Age of Idealism, when a perfect planned Eden also seemed achievable. Stewart bought what was left of the vast Hempstead Plains and created Garden City. He was one of the earliest developers to envision a model city on the open fields of Long Island.
To the west, Cord Meyer Jr., heir to his father's sugar-refining fortune, was visualizing a model community along Queens Boulevard that he would call Forest Hills. Twenty years later - but still a half century ahead of Levittown (and Betty Friedan, too) - developer Helen Marsh was creating a model village in western Nassau that she would call Belle Rose.

In the 1860s, on the Hempstead Plains where cattle still roamed, anything seemed possible. The plains, common pasturage for more than a century, were finally offered for sale in 1867. Charles T. Harvey of upstate Tarrytown, a backer of the New York City "El," put in a bid of $42 an acre, but no one knew what Harvey had in mind - an enormous cemetery or a jail?

Out of the blue came New York merchant Alexander T. Stewart with a dazzling offer of $55 an acre and a plan for a settlement with roads, buildings and homes. Harvey tried to outbid him, but Hempstead Town was sold on Stewart. For $395,328.35 cash he got 7,170 acres extending from Floral Park to Bethpage. The money was used to build a town poorhouse, purchase a town hall and to support the public schools.

The man with the vast fortune and the fire in the belly to build his own town was not an imposing figure. He was a small man with thin red hair and beard and a mild unassuming manner that belied his hard-driving business acumen.

He was born of Scotch Protestant parents in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, in 1801, a few weeks after his farmer father died of tuberculosis. His mother remarried two years later and emigrated to America with her new husband, leaving her young son to be raised by his grandfather, John Torney. Torney sent the boy to a small English academy, hoping to prepare him for the ministry, but Stewart had other ideas. In 1818, two years after his grandfather died, he sailed for America.

He tried school teaching for a couple years, then made a quick round trip to Belfast in 1822 to claim a $10,000 inheritance and make his first business purchase: a package of Irish lace trimmings and muslin. He married Cornelia Clinch, daughter of a wealthy New York ship chandler, and began his merchandising career.

The schoolteacher quickly learned the tricks of his new trade and reportedly invented the "remnant sale." He would buy up the stock of competitors ruined by fire, add his own leftovers and hold a sidewalk sale. By the time he was ready to buy part of the Hempstead Plains, Stewart had built the world's largest retail establishment - his six-story Great Iron Store (later Wanamaker's). He had worldwide purchasing outposts and was said to own more New York City real estate than any man except William Astor. He also amassed a large art collection that he displayed in his Fifth Avenue mansion. A staunch supporter of the Union during the Civil War, he was tapped for secretary of the Treasury by the Grant administration in 1868, but not confirmed because of his great business interests.

Long Island historian Vincent F. Seyfried notes that Stewart was not a philanthropist on the scale of an Andrew Carnegie - perhaps he was not as burdened with guilt as the robber barons of his day. During the Irish potato famine of 1848, Stewart sent a shipload of provisions to his native Lisburn, and invited young people to take passage free on the returning vessel - 139 came and Stewart found jobs for them all. He sent a similar shipload to the textile workers of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and $50,000 to the victims of the great Chicago fire.

But his whole heart was in his municipal plan, and he was adept at promoting it. Harper's Weekly predicted that the "Hempstead Plain, hitherto a desert, will be made to bloom like a rose . . ." Only The World in 1870 cautioned against Stewart's being a one-man "landlord, mayor and alderman, in fact the whole municipality."

Stewart and his architect, John Kellum, laid out the town and graded 16 miles of streets and avenues. It included a central park bordered by a railroad station, stores, homes and a hotel. He built a railroad connecting his town with the city and with his brickyards in Farmingdale. He built a waterworks. He bought out the stock of the historic Prince Nurseries in Flushing and hauled 30,000 trees to his town.

Home-building was temporarily slowed by Kellum's death in 1871, but Stewart pushed on. The first 12 "fine villa residences" cost $17,000 each and rented for $1,200 annually. He also built $5,000 cottages to rent to his workmen at $300 a year.

Nothing was sold; all stores and homes were leased. Stewart was determined to keep control of his community. The village was slow to fill up, possibly because Stewart's insistence on retaining ownership of everything went against the American ethos of individual home ownership.

He died in 1876, his dream village uncompleted. Almost 100 houses had been built but half were vacant. The undeveloped areas would become Levittown and Bethpage. Stewart had no children. His widow endowed the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation as a memorial to her husband, making Garden City a cathedral town. Then a strange thing happened: Stewart's body was kidnaped before it could be moved to a crypt of the cathedral. A century later the body snatching remains a mystery.

One story holds that Judge Henry Hilton, Stewart's executor, declined to pay the $200,000 ransom demanded by the ghouls but deluded Cornelia Stewart into believing the body had been recovered. Another unconfirmed account had the widow negotiating on her own and recovering the body for $20,000.

After Cornelia Stewart's death in 1886, a bitter court battle between her heirs and Hilton resulted in the formation of the Garden City Corp. in 1893, with her heirs as directors. They voted to sell rather than rent the houses and stores, and Garden City boomed. Famed architect Stanford White redesigned the Garden CityHotel and it became a center of Long Island society.

Whether or not Stewart's body lies in its crypt, the handsome well-planned community that he created remains his enduring monument.

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