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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

A preservation skeptic sees an old grist mill worth saving

This is an exterior side view of

This is an exterior side view of the Robeson-Williams Grist Mill in Roslyn on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. The Mill is located on Old Northern Boulevard in Roslyn. John Robeson received a charter from Hempstead Town in 1698 to establish a mill which was completed in 1701. Preservation measures were undertaken in the 1900's. From 1916 to 1975 the mill was owned by a foundation which operated a museum and tea house on the premises. In 1986 the mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Robeson-Williams Roslyn Grist Mill. In 2014 The Roslyn Landmark Society was charged with reviving restoration plans and securing funding. The total cost of the mill restoration is in the vicinity of $1,730,000.00. Photo Credit: Steven Sunshine

Sooner or later, if the elements or the bulldozer don’t get them, every 7-Eleven on Jericho Turnpike will be more than 300 years old. So will every Apple store and McDonald’s. Will that make them worth preserving in the year 2316, to be turned into museums or gathering places? Maybe yes. Maybe our descendants will decide it’s worth saving one of each of these emblems of 21st century society. But maybe not.

When I set out for Roslyn yesterday to see the historic Roslyn Grist Mill, I was grumpily assuming that preserving the 315-year-old, badly weathered building was misguided. It is eroding, and has been for the four decades since it was deeded to Nassau County, and really, for three centuries. A Newsday story last week said that much (but not all) of the $1.73 million needed to do a first phase of restoration has been raised, and I felt I had to see it for myself before I passed judgment.

But it was nearly certain my judgment was going to be, “A moldering grist mill? Really? With a tree growing through the roof? It’s not even important. Unlike many historic buildings, no one even slept there except exhausted, potentially hungover gristers. Tear it down. Getting old isn’t special. It just takes a long time.”

But the sun was shining on Hempstead Harbor Creek when I got there, and the grist mill was nestled in between two other quaintbuildings, one a bank and the other featuring a florist and an arts and crafts store. In those rare moments when Old Northern Boulevard wasn’t choked with cars, you could almost see it: An agrarian, Colonial-era Long Island with the mill at the center of its economic and civic existence, with no televisions or automation or endless noise or confusions of modern society.

Such a past is particularly noteworthy on the Long Island of today, in Nassau County, which can often feel like the hubbub capital of the Western World. And such a historic vision probably is worthwhile when it can be evoked through preservation.

After 39 years of attempts to put together a workable, well-funded preservation plan, the Roslyn Landmarks Society seems to be nearly there, and it plans fundraisers to fill the gap. It has secured $500,000 from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, along with $500,000 in matching funds from a local foundation. And Nassau County is good for $250,000 from its Environmental Protection Fund.

It’s worth noting that if the county had not let the building suffer so badly since the mill was donated in 1976, the restoration likely wouldn’t be so arduous or expensive. But North Hempstead’s town historian, Howard Kroplick, a leader of the effort, says the building’s unique Dutch framing and heavy wooden structure are sturdier than its outside appearance might suggest. Challenged on why the mill ought to be saved, Kroplick said it was the main commercial building of that era in the community, it was closely linked to the history of the village, and, “We can’t keep destroying all the parts of our history.”

Fair enough.

Preservationists can sometimes be frustrating, with their automatic preference for old over new and seeming desire to celebrate anything bygone. But that doesn’t mean parts of the past aren’t worth preserving and celebrating.

So back to my original question: Three hundred years from now, will they need to preserve every McDonald’s, Apple store and 7-Eleven on Long Island to teach people how we lived today? No. But one of each might be appropriate . . . along with, if possible, at least one 600-year-old grist mill.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.