“Sea Cliff was probably the nicest place to be a child,” said Davis, 88, co-historian for the village. “I would get up in the morning, do some chores for my mother, pack my lunch and be down at the beach by 9 o’clock. We lived on that beach.”
Where she stood was once Battershall Inn, a large hotel at the western end of Sea Cliff Avenue, which invited New Yorkers to spend their summer nights dancing with their families. There were more than 20 hotels and boarding houses in Sea Cliff in the early 1900s.
“The village of Sea Cliff just sort of grew and solidified into a village as people built more and more houses and as they went further and further away from the water,” Davis said. “For a while, it wasn’t incorporated and then in the 1800s they decided they’d better incorporate.”
It started in 1871 when the Metropolitan Campground Association thought Sea Cliff would be an ideal place to hold religious summer camp meetings for New Yorkers. So they purchased 200 acres from the first family to settle there, the Carpenters, and established a new community.
The group eventually built a steamboat pier, a boardwalk and a tabernacle that seated 5,000.
Over the next 20 years, more and more people came to Sea Cliff for camp meetings, and in 1883, the village officially became incorporated. Sea Cliff’s first president was F.W. Geissenhainer, described by Davis as a good man who held extravagant dinner parties and did a lot for his community.
Later on, families that settled there frequently sold 40-by-60-foot plots to those who were looking to stay permanently.
“The population was working people from Brooklyn because they were the ones that could afford to build houses,” Davis said. Today, the population of Sea Cliff is close to 5,000.
Davis said the village had twice the population in the summer than in the winter because of the large number of summer cottages built.
She added that the village has a strong artistic background and is still involved in organizing musical performances, art shows and plays. The village recently built a stage near the pavilion at Sea Cliff Beach for Friday night performances.
“When the Methodists gave up the tabernacle, a drama group bought the tabernacle and made a theater out of it,” Davis said. “Every Saturday night, there was another show to go to. We had Edward Horton and all kinds of old movie people out of the ’20s and ’30s.”
Much like the family pharmacy Schoelles, which made its famous homemade ice cream from early in the 20th century until it closed in the 1990s, today’s Sea Cliff businessmen and women still wave out their doors at passersby, much of the time calling out names.
“People lose their hearts to Sea Cliff because it has stayed decent,” Davis said. “People are nice, they’re kind and they’re friendly. When someone moves in, someone will show up with bread, a pie or a bowl of soup. It’s still done here.”
Today, Sea Cliff has churches, a firehouse that was organized in 1884, more than 40 Victorian homes pending approval by the National Register of Historic Places, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks with staircases leading down to the beach, numerous parks, two libraries, a museum, post office and several businesses along the main strip.
“This is why they come, because they can sense this is a place they can raise their kids,” Davis said. “They want what’s here to rub off on their kids. I’m not saying other towns don’t do this. I’m just saying with Sea Cliff being 1 square mile it becomes obvious.”