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EDITORIAL: Save our Island's landmarks

It was called a tragedy of errors: the 185-year-old Mott House in Coram collapsing in September, after contractors undermined the building they had been hired to clean up. Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko vowed to rebuild it, and he declared a state of emergency for the endangered 1750s Davis House nearby. Lesko also called for an investigation and an assessment of the 147 other historic structures under town care - all good steps.

The lessons to be learned from the Mott House have broad implications for many threatened landmarks on Long Island.

Reuse them, or lose them.

First, they must be kept structurally sound until funds can be found, despite these tough times, to restore and adapt them to new uses. Protect them, where possible, by drawing historic districts around them. And acquire the land surrounding them.

Suffolk is heeding these lessons as it plans to acquire Nicola Tesla's fabled Wardenclyffe laboratory in Rocky Point. It never became fully operational, but its goals, wireless communication and energy transmission, are in line with the Island's high-tech future. A local group, Friends of Science East, is working to create a science and technology center and museum at the lab, which is listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a "place that matters." Recently, Suffolk legislators took an initial step toward acquiring the 16-acre site surrounding the laboratory.

In East Hampton, the fate of the town's most innovative preservation plan - a new town hall complex using eight historic structures relocated from a nearby estate - is uncertain. Supervisor-elect Bill Wilkinson questions the concept and its spiraling costs, now approaching $7.5 million. What does the future hold for these newly joined landmarks?

In Nassau, the routine but careful maintenance of Roslyn's ancient Grist Mill finally paid off, when the county and the Roslyn Landmarks Society split the $4.3-million cost of funding its full restoration, with an assist from the Gerry Foundation. Some of the funds will be used to restore poet-editor William Cullen Bryant's "Cedarmere," overlooking Roslyn Harbor.

Nassau County also deserves praise for restoring its long neglected historic courthouse, now the splendid Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building. Credit Nassau Executive Thomas Suozzi for spearheading this public-private effort.

Not far away, though, a Garden City landmark, the historic St. Paul's School, is on the road to demolition. In a nonbinding vote late last year, residents favored a proposal to demolish it, but they overwhelmingly rejected a plan to convert much of it into an upscale condo development.

For 15 years, the village, which owns St. Paul's and 47 surrounding acres, has considered and rejected proposals for reuse of the 19th-century structure. This winter, the village plans to hold hearings to weigh the environmental effects of a $6-million demolition plan. That review must consider the impact on St. Paul's as a cultural environment requiring protection. The Garden City Historical Society and the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities strongly oppose demolition. May their voices be heard loud and clear.

Imagine the marvelous stonework of St. Paul's in some dump. That's the kind of fate facing this gem, and others all over the Island, unless we preserve and protect them. hN