You couldn’t miss the old wooden chest in the basement of 125 Church St., in Malverne.
“It was a big box, sitting in the middle of the floor,” said Roy Knoernschild, a contractor from Baldwin.
He noticed it when he first took over the maintenance of the building, which houses a day care center, a music school and a mail-order hardware store. The wooden chest — 4 feet long, 2 feet high and about 2 1⁄2 feet deep — had been sitting there, plain as day, near the 1950s-era boiler, for as long as anyone could remember.
It seemed to have a curious provenance: Markings on the crate indicated that it may at one point have contained airplane parts sent from Buffalo to Republic Aviation in Farmingdale. So what was it doing, crammed with what appeared to be surveyor’s drawings and maps, in a basement in Malverne?
The exact route of the box may never be known, but one thing is now certain: Its contents have shed new light on a significant chapter in Long Island’s history — the Long Island Motor Parkway, a toll road that once stretched 44 miles, from Fresh Meadows, Queens, to Lake Ronkonkoma, and was the world’s first highway built exclusively for automobiles.
The story of the box and its contents, however, unfolded as gradually as a leisurely 1920s drive on the old parkway, which was also known as the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway. From time to time, Knoernschild, who started doing work at the Church Street building in the mid-1990s, would rummage through the contents of the chest. He eventually realized that many of the documents were related to the Motor Parkway. The signature of their author was also evident: The drawings had been created by a surveyor from Hempstead named Arthur Archibald.
At one point, the building had housed the offices of another surveying firm, so Knoernschild figured the chest had been inherited.
“I would think this guy Archibald must have retired, sold his business to another surveyor or engineer, so they got whatever he had,” Knoernschild said. “That person worked for a bunch of years, retired, and everything he had shifted to the next guy, and so it moved along.”
Knoernschild and the building’s owners, the Weissbluth family, attempted without success to find some local historical organization that might be interested in inspecting the contents of the chest. Finally, this past February, Knoernschild decided to find out whether there were groups or individuals specifically interested in the Motor Parkway.
Through an internet search, he came up with the Long Island Motor Parkway Preservation Society, a 320-member group of parkway enthusiasts and historians that was organized in 2011. He called their president, Howard Kroplick, who is also the town historian of North Hempstead, and invited him to come inspect the contents of the old box himself.
“When he came down and saw all the stuff I had, his mouth dropped open,” Knoernschild recalled with a chuckle.
“Roy opened the box, and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Kroplick said.
Inside were more than 120 of the original plans for the Motor Parkway’s toll structures, underpasses and crossing bridges. There was also an assortment of maps, including the pièce de résistance, a detailed 11-foot-long map of Long Island from 1908, the year the parkway was open.
It was, Kroplick said, “a treasure chest.”
He posted some photos of the find in the Parkway Society’s weekly email newsletter, which reaches 1,412 subscribers.
“Amazing,” said Art Kleiner of Levittown, a founding member of the group, who said he has walked almost the entire route of the old parkway. “It was a great discovery.”
Group member Syd Lefkoe of Manhattan said her heart went “pitter-patter” when she heard about the find.
Kroplick plans to have the materials scanned by a specialist in digitization of historic documents and then put online for all to see. But his members couldn’t wait to see the finds for themselves, so on April 8, about 15 members of the Parkway Society gathered in Kroplick’s spacious commercial garage in Roslyn to inspect the documents.
About 25 of the documents were carefully unrolled on a long table set up in the center of the garage, to a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs.”
“I’m ecstatic,” proclaimed Ellyn Okvist of Lake Ronkonkoma, who, like others, said she is happy the box found its way into the hands of someone who sensed the importance of its contents.
Al Velocci, of Manhasset Hills, said the discovery was fascinating. “We’ve seen copies of some of these, but never the originals,” said Velocci, co-author with Kroplick of a history on the Motor Parkway, “Images of America: The Long Island Motor Parkway” (Arcadia Publishing, 2008).
Arthur Archibald, the man whose skilled hand drew most of the documents in the chest, was a familiar name to members of the Motor Parkway Preservation Society. He was one of a half-dozen surveyors involved in the original mapping of the road, and once it was built, became chief surveyor. While reproductions of some of the documents found in Malverne are known to exist, the originals have not been seen since the Motor Parkway — rendered obsolete with the debut of the new, toll-free Northern State Parkway — closed on Easter Sunday in 1938.
Archibald’s expertise was clear, especially to Dan Jedlicka, a professional land surveyor who was invited to attend the recent unveiling of the documents.
“Amazing quality,” said Jedlicka, a vice president at L.K. McLean Associates, Consulting Engineers and Surveyors, in Brookhaven. “The edges are worn, but the images are crystal clear. Many of the bridge plans showed a great deal of detail, even down to how much tonnage each structural beam could hold.”
Today, he said, these kinds of surveys and maps would be done with computers. “These were done by hand, in ink, on vellum,” Jedlicka added, referring to the parchment paper made of calfskin that is used for writing. “It must have taken weeks or months to create each one.”
As impressive as the draftsmanship of Archibald and his peers is the condition of the documents. “You hear ‘stored in the basement,’ you get concerned,” said Velocci. “But these are in great condition.”
The original drawings would have been used by the builders to construct the toll bridges, the underpasses, the road itself and to determine its route, Jedlicka said. For Motor Parkway enthusiasts, the documents in the chest have already changed their understanding of some aspects of the roadway’s history.
“We learned that they were planning to build a pedestrian bridge or underpass on the parkway in Williston Park,” Kroplick said. (Neither was ever built.) “Nobody had ever seen any reference to that, or knew any plans about this.”
But the importance of the documents extends beyond a long-vanished road. “This is more than Motor Parkway history, it’s Long Island history,” said former Nassau County historian Gary Hammond, a Wantagh resident who attended the unveiling.
Indeed, this was apparent with the 11-foot-long map of Long Island, which Kroplick and Velocci believe may have been created for promotional purposes. In the months leading up to the groundbreaking, the parkway’s general manager, A.R. Pardington — a close friend of the parkway’s primary patron, race car enthusiast and multimillionaire William K. Vanderbilt — went from village to village on Long Island, seeking approval of the new parkway that they wanted to build through their communities.
“Very likely he brought this with him to help show them the scope of the project,” Kroplick said.
The map is also interesting for what it shows about Long Island, nearly 110 years ago. For example: There are four Long Island Sound ferry lines indicated. In addition to the two existing ones (Port Jefferson to Bridgeport, and Orient Point to New London), ferries from Sea Cliff to Rye, in Westchester County, and Huntington to Stamford, Connecticut, also ran regularly, according to the map. Also, the then-obscure-and little-visited Jones Beach is labeled as a geographical feature, even though it was still 21 years away from becoming the site of the iconic waterfront state park.
After more than two hours of inspecting less than a quarter of the documents, the parkway enthusiasts were enthused. “It’s fantastic,” said Pat Sharik, of Wantagh. “They really are a treasure.”
Knoernschild made a good choice avoiding the trash bin. The originals were donated to Kroplick and will be part of his Motor Parkway collection, an assemblage of thousands of photos, maps and other materials related to the parkway.
“It’s not in my nature to throw something like this out,” Knoernschild said. “I figured they were important to someone.”
When & where
Many of the Motor Parkway documents found in the Malverne “treasure chest” will be on display at the spring meeting of the Long Island Motor Parkway Preservation Society.
The meeting is April 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bethpage Public Library. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. For more information, call 516-625-0123