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Historic First Playhouse Theater in Great Neck Estates targeted for new apartment building

Great Neck Estates resident and village historian, Isle

Great Neck Estates resident and village historian, Isle Kagan, stands outside the Great Neck Estates First Playhouse on June 16, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A developer has drafted a plan to raze the historic First Playhouse Theater in Great Neck Estates where the Marx Brothers, Oscar Hammerstein and Irving Berlin performed, and replace it with a five-floor apartment building.

The proposal by Cold Spring Hills-based Newman Design calls for a masonry and cast stone structure with 20 apartments: five one-bedroom and 15 two-bedroom units for the site at Maple Drive and Middle Neck Road. It would also have two retail spaces on the first floor and 28 on-site, ground-level and underground parking spaces.

Some original exterior limestone from the theater would be incorporated in the new design, but because the entire facade would not be kept, the plan already has at least one detractor.

Village historian Ilse Kagan said proceeding with any project that does not preserve most of the building's exterior would be "sad" because it would mean destroying a place that attracted legends from the Jazz Age.

"The glorious days of Great Neck Estates and Great Neck should be remembered -- this was a pre-Broadway stop," Kagan said of the theater built in 1925. "Everyone who was anyone came here. It's such a loss when these buildings come down and some ordinary apartment house follows it."

Brian E. Newman, director of architectural services for Newman design, said maintaining the original facade and gutting the inside is not feasible.

"We have a very detailed plan at this point," he said. "We had extensive studies for some time to try to make that work. It was an old frame structure, and it had a lot of issues."

Newman's firm became involved in the project about a year ago, after the death of another architect whom developer and building owner Jan Soleimani hired to transform the structure into apartments. That proposal included preserving the theater's facade.

But Kagan, who lives a block from the playhouse, said despite her reservations, it is time for some sort of viable project to give the site life.

"I don't think they had an alternative," she said. "It's been standing there 20 or 30 years decaying."

Great Neck Estates Mayor David A. Fox said at a board of trustees meeting earlier this month that he had grown tired of granting permits and extensions to developers who had yet to submit a firm proposal for the theater.

He threatened that if the entire proposal is not presented to village officials two weeks before an Aug. 6 hearing, the developer's application would be withdrawn.

Newman said the latest proposal should meet the mayor's criteria.

Fox said he wants something other than a vacant structure at the key downtown corner.

"We feel it's a worthwhile project for the village, a worthwhile project for you, and it's better than what we have now," Fox told Uniondale attorney, William Bonesso, who represented the developer at the meeting.

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