In Great Neck Plaza, giraffes are a sacred cow.
The village’s spirit animal is in residence most anywhere you look: statues and sketches inside Village Hall, murals on buildings, likenesses stretching up the sides of garbage cans, on the Chamber of Commerce logo.
The first giraffe appeared in the Great Neck peninsula, a cluster of villages and hamlets, around the 1970s when Great Neck resident Nat Epstein began sculpting a giant giraffe. He died in 1976 before he could finish. The nearby Village of Kensington installed Epstein’s unfinished piece in November 1980 on its village green, where it still stands, though it is headless.
Great Neck Plaza caught wind of the giraffe craze in the next decade.
In 1990, the Great Neck Plaza Business Improvement District chose the animal to grace its logo.
“We adopted it really because it had a great neck,” said Jay Corn, vice president of the district’s board.
After that, the animal began popping up in different ways across the village and “slowly evolved from there,” Corn said.
Two public benches — one on South Middle Neck Road and the other on Cutter Mill Road — have giraffe depictions. And occasionally, the Great Neck Chamber of Commerce bestows a Giraffe Award on someone “who sticks their neck out” for the community, said Elliot Rosenblatt, who was chamber president from 2000 to 2003.
“The giraffe is a popular animal in general,” he said, adding that parents buy the Sophie La Girafe teething toys for their infants. “It’s a friendly type of animal.”
Despite its symbolism, the animal can stir debate.
Last fall, Mayor Jean Celender commissioned a $6,000 public art installation for the exterior back wall of 50 Middle Neck Rd., a building that houses Santander Bank and a Chinese restaurant. An artist submitted a draft of the mural and Celender presented it to the board on July 5. Approval was not unanimous.
“I think it’s a little too busy,” said Trustee Gerald Schneiderman. “I like the concept of working the giraffe in there somewhere, but I think that the mural is way, way too busy.”
Schneiderman suggested the artist draw inspiration from the public benches. Celender didn’t like that idea.
“Gerry, I don’t want to demean an artist,” she told Schneiderman. “We can just tell him what our issues are.”
Celender then laid out the artist’s credentials, noting that he is New York City-based and runs an arts magazine.
The discord mounted.
“I don’t like it,” Deputy Mayor Ted Rosen told Celender. “It’s too busy. The colors are too loud.”
Celender relented and is working with the artist to make adjustments to the draft. She hopes the giraffes don’t get short shrift.
“Besides the giraffe’s most telling feature of its long neck, which is akin to Great Neck’s name, the symbolism of this animal works for a mascot — its beauty . . . balance and grace,” she said.
Village Hall | 2 Gussack Plaza
There are two giraffe statues in the lobby, as well as an artist’s sketch of a giraffe donated to Mayor Jean Celender.
The Inn at Great Neck | 30 Cutter Mill Rd.
The restaurant inside the hotel was once called The Giraffe Room, but is now the Brasserie Americana.
Two benches on Cutter Mill Road and South Middle Neck Road were decorated by students from Great Neck South High School.