While taking a drive in North Merrick to soothe her infant daughter to sleep 26 years ago, Denise Desanto found herself lost in a series of narrow circular roads that hug small cottages, some no more than 12 feet wide.
Desanto, 50, found herself returning to the area and falling in love with it. She told her husband, Robert, that she wanted to move there.
When a cape house on Wesley Avenue was advertised in 1997, Desanto called and negotiated a price the same day.
Desanto says the neighborhood is like one big family, which in part is thanks to the proximity of the homes.
“I can walk to the corner of my backyard and see all of the other yards,” said Desanto. “My home is one of 10 that have yards that go into the center like a pizza pie.”
As a result, everyone knows everyone. “We are all great friends,” she said. “It’s just so special here.”
The neighborhood, known as Campgrounds or Tiny Town, arose from Methodist summer revival camp meetings held by the Long Island Camp Meeting Association beginning in 1869.
Larry Garfinkel, president of the Historical Society of the Merricks, says the 60-acre location for the campsite was purchased by the Methodist Church due to its accessibility from the city by way of a stop on the Southside Railroad, a competitor of the Long Island Rail Road that later merged with the LIRR.
“There was a large population of Methodists in Brooklyn and Queens, but not a lot of land there,” said Garfinkel, 81. “They had other locations in New York, but they needed something in the suburbs for the people from the city.”
During the first summers, the campground consisted of the tabernacle in the open field in the center encircled by two rows where tents were pitched and carriages parked for 10 days of services. In 1870, cottages were built around the tents set up around the Campgrounds’ layout.
There were 12 cottages by 1873 and 60 by 1900, Garfinkel said. The cottages, which would rent from $30 to $50 a summer, became year-round homes after the meetings were discontinued in the early 1900s due to declining interest. But the meetings “helped put Merrick on the map,” he said.
About 20 of the original Tiny Town homes remain, but with varying degrees of remodeling. Only two houses are recognized as historical landmarks by the Town of Hempstead. One is the former chapel on Peck Avenue. The other is the Wesley Avenue Victorian-style home owned by Janet and Henry Kessin.
The Town of Hempstead recognizes the Kessins’ property as originally the minister’s home, but the couple says the two-story white house, built in 1870, may actually be the former charterhouse, based on the original deed they dug up while applying for town landmark status.
The house, which has its original wood siding, has had two additions: a kitchen built in 1887 and two upstairs bedrooms that the Kessins added in 1987.
Henry Kessin, 64, said he and Janet applied for landmark status to keep its historical character. Many of his neighbors, however, won’t follow suit because of remodeling restrictions that come with historical status. As a result, the Campgrounds is far different from the one the Kessins were first drawn to 31 years ago.
“With the price of housing going up, people tore down the cottages to put up your typical suburban home,” said Henry Kessin. “The flavor of the neighborhood changed from a unique neighborhood to a more common one.”
The couple said the area has lost many of its old oak trees that lined the neighborhood streets when the town expanded and modernized the narrow roads that weave throughout the campgrounds.
The town is currently undergoing a road improvement project in the area slated to be finished in October. Hempstead Town spokesman Michael Deery said the $750,000 project will repave roads and construct new curbs, but it will not expand of any of the roads, in keeping with the community’s original character.
Desanto, who lives on a lot that was vacant prior to the post-war building boom, said one neighbor petitioned around five years ago to declare the entire Campgrounds a historic site, but some residents resisted and it never happened.
Desanto says the town could find other ways to celebrate the area’s historical importance, such as erecting a welcome sign or installing new street lamps that fit the style of the neighborhood.
“It’s kind of forgotten in that respect,” she said.