Long before cars scaled the heights of Sea Cliff from the shores of Hempstead Harbor, tourists, Methodist worshippers and residents clambered up via a series of walkways and staircases.
Last week, a jackhammer lay amid the rubble of one of Sea Cliff’s staircases as a multiyear project to restore and rebuild them is underway. Workers carted away the broken concrete on the staircase joining 8th and 7th avenues at the intersection of Central Avenue.
“We’re breaking these all out ... and rebuilding to code,” Village Administrator Bruce Kennedy said. “The railings were collapsing,” he noted as he pointed to a chain that held a railing in place where its concrete base had cracked loose.
The work is being undertaken one stairway at a time. The demolition and reconstruction of the 8th Avenue stairs is budgeted at $107,000 and is expected to be completed next month.
The village, working with the Sea Cliff Landmarks Association, is creating a map of the existing walkways and staircases — about a dozen of them — and working on creating signs to identify them. Kennedy said he wants to identify and reconstruct as many of the historic public access ways as possible. Not all of the stairways in the village need restoration — some were renovated in the 1980s.
“It’s a big part of our history and our heritage that this was a walking community,” Kennedy said.
A decayed wooden staircase that used to connect Bay Avenue to the waterfront at 18th Avenue has long been chained shut and now is being eyed for a $150,000 reconstruction. Two other public pathways that have been out of use have been identified and could be rebuilt in the future, Kennedy said.
The next part of the project is expected to be a $40,000 revamp to a path connecting Fairview Place to Summit Avenue. Last year volunteers wielding rakes, bags and machetes cleared out the path, revealing decayed railroad ties. Those would be replaced with wood decking and wood stairs, Kennedy said.
Sea Cliff began as a campground in 1871 where Methodists from New York City came for religious retreats in the summer. Worshippers arriving by steamboat could walk along a boardwalk before ambling up to the top of the bluff where the group had built a tabernacle. The village, which incorporated in 1883, began to attract a wide range of visitors as hotels sprung up to serve them.
“Sea Cliff is on a hill and they had to get from the bottom of the hill to where they were going,” said Leslie Guerci, president of the landmarks association. By car, the main route to the waterfront is a long switchback called Cliff Way.
The loss of one path — sold by the village to a homeowner on Fairview Place in 2006 — spurred the effort to preserve them.
“We don’t want to see that happen again,” Guerci said. “We’ve lost some of them, but many still remain.”