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A shopping giant arrives: Developer's idea produces a mighty mall at Roosevelt Field

An aerial view of the R.H. Macy's store

An aerial view of the R.H. Macy's store under construction at Roosevelt Field on Aug. 25, 1955.  Credit: Newsday/Cliff De Bear

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

On a chilly day in late April 1955, five men, handsomely garbed in topcoats and felt hats, dug shovels into a deserted airfield on the vast Hempstead Plains. They were about to change Long Island's style of living and shopping. They were breaking ground for the mammoth Roosevelt Field Shopping Center.

The men, all big shots, were Nassau County Executive A. Holly Patterson, Hempstead Town Supervisor Harold Herman, Roosevelt Field president Herbert I. Silverson, Macy's president Wheelock H. Bingham and, most imposing of all, developer-tycoon William Zeckendorf.

The site chosen for the first such project on Long Island was billed as the place from which Charles A. Lindbergh began his landmark flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Actually, it wasn't. Lindbergh took off from a field in Westbury where Fortunoff now stands.

The shopping center was sited in an area that had once been Curtiss Field. Curtiss and Roosevelt Fields were united in 1929 as one big Roosevelt Field. It had been "the largest, the premier aviation field in the world," according to Joshua Stoff, curator of Nassau County's Cradle of Aviation Museum. As many as 10,000 spectators would jam the roads to Roosevelt Field, to watch the aerial antics of the early fliers.

A half century later, 50,000 shoppers would jam the Roosevelt Field Shopping Center for the opening of Macy's largest suburban store in the East.

In the '30s, the airfield was already pressed by development. The eastern portion was given over to auto racing, later Roosevelt Raceway. World War II curtailed civilian aviation and the field was increasingly hemmed in by housing developments.

Webb & Knapp, the then-powerful real estate firm headed by Zeckendorf, took controlling interest in the floundering airfield in 1950, and Herbert I. Silverson, a company director, became president of Roosevelt Field Inc.

Silverson, now 87 and a California real estate consultant, recalled the debate over how to develop the huge space. "Some of our people wanted to build a lot of housing. I knew that growing suburbs need jobs, and they need shopping." After the flying ended in '51, the firm replaced the old hangars with industrial plants in the northeast corner, fronting Old Country Road.

The public was making other uses of the obsolete airport. "There were drag meets on weekends. One man was using a runway to teach his wife how to drive," Silverson recalled.

In 1954, when the Jones Beach State Parkway Authority was planning to extend Meadowbrook Parkway to connect Northern and Southern State Parkways, Webb & Knapp donated 48 acres so that the extension would cut through the airfield. "When they gave us a cloverleaf in the middle of it, we had our shopping center," Silverson said, "the largest in the country."

The center, which some have called Long Island's premier shrine to consumerism, was built at a cost of $35 million. It began in 1956 as an open-air mall, with space for 11,000 cars.

Designed by architect I. M. Pei, it was to be more than a shopping center. "We put in an ice skating rink, the first for a shopping center," Silverson said. There was also a 400-seat community theater, an art gallery, space for auto and boat shows. By the end of '56, Webb & Knapp had developed more than 300 acres, including the shopping and industrial areas, restaurants, bowling alleys, a hotel, a medical building.

Silverson left Webb & Knapp in 1958, convinced that the firm was overextended with nationwide projects. His last act as president was to sign on a Gimbel's store.

Not everyone welcomed the commercial development. The upscale-planned village of Garden City, which would have preferred one-family houses, agreed to a 55-acre office building complex west of the shopping center. Villagers were assuaged with a 72-foot wide buffer along Clinton Road, called Hazelhurst Park.

But they still resent the "gigantic commercial development" sharing their Garden City mailing address, according to local historian-photographer John Ellis Kordes. "The Roosevelt Field Mall has no relationship to Garden City and pays no taxes to the village," he said.

Roosevelt Field also was blamed for the decline of neighborhood retail areas, especially Hempstead Village, once the shopping hub of Long Island. Families could now drive to one-stop shopping at Roosevelt Field.

The mall did not take off in the early '60s. In fact, it lost nearly $8 million total over '62 and '63. The turnaround came in 1968 when the shopping center was enclosed. But Zeckendorf's empire had collapsed, and the property was sold to a combine for $35 million.

Corporate Property Investors of Manhattan, owners since 1973, expanded the center over two decades. In 1993, a second story was introduced. In 1996, the upper level was completed and 70 more stores added, including a food court. Now with 260 stores and increasingly upscale, it's the seventh largest mall in the country and the third most successful in sales per square foot.

In a deal to be completed in July, Roosevelt Field, along with the Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington, will become part of the Simon DeBartolo Group of Indianapolis. "We consider Roosevelt Field a crown jewel," said spokeswoman Billie Scott.

Silverson, who moved to California in 1966 as consultant to another real estate tycoon, Harry Helmsley, revisited his "field of dreams" last year. Though Webb & Knapp went down the drain, he reflected, "Roosevelt Field got better and better over the years."

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