“Let Roslyn proclaim October 2nd as its greatest day!”
One century ago, on the evening of October 2, 1921, people of all ages from Roslyn and surrounding communities gathered at the imposing white building on East Broadway to dedicate the recently completed Roslyn War Memorial.
While it was certainly a celebratory event, they were here to remember the young men from Roslyn who had given their lives in service to their country during what was known as “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars.”
An announcement in the Roslyn News put it this way:
“While three years has elapsed since the last gun was fired, only a faint remembrance is held of the horrors of this war. Soon they shall be forgotten by the majority. But the Memorial Building in Roslyn will ever stand as a tribute to brave and dangerous deeds, heroic actions and as a living memorial of self sacrifice on the altar of warfare.”
Known locally as “Memorial Hall'', Roslyn’s War Memorial was designed to be a “practical and patriotic” memorial to the 146 men from Roslyn who served and the ten who died in the conflict. The residents who spearheaded the effort wanted the memorial to be more than a statue or monument, but a tangible way to commemorate “their boys.”
According to records in the Local History Collection, what they envisioned was a building that would be “a feature in the daily life of the people of Roslyn and vicinity and a living evidence of their appreciation of what has been secured to them by America’s part in the late war.”
Although communities across the country were building memorials to the young men who fought, the concept of a memorial building instead of a statue or freestanding memorial was somewhat novel. In fact, it appears that Roslyn’s War Memorial Building was the first such memorial constructed on Long Island.
The turn of the 20th century was the beginning of growth of what became the Gold Coast of Long Island. Individuals with great wealth purchased large swaths of land in the Wheatley Hills and constructed mansions and estates of various sizes. Building and keeping these estates running required workers, and there was an influx of immigrants to the community. The newcomers hailed from England, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland and other European countries. Less wealthy but affluent New Yorkers from Manhattan and Brooklyn also found the area attractive. They purchased or built country homes on smaller tracts of land. Like the estate owners, most divided their time between Roslyn and homes in New York City.
It was a time of civic-mindedness. Newcomers quickly became actively involved in the life of the community, giving both time and money to projects that improved life for all Roslyn residents. In 1913, a group of full and part-time residents founded the Roslyn Neighborhood Association. Officially incorporated in 1915, the board of the Roslyn Neighborhood Association was composed of representatives of all the local business, religious and fraternal groups.
The group’s earliest focus was on improving sanitary conditions in the Village, particularly in the area around what is now Gerry Park. The swampy land interspersed with ponds had recently been purchased by the Roslyn Board of Trade with plans to turn it into a public park. However, the swampy condition had to be addressed first.
The family of Brooklyn lawyer Ernest Cuyler Brower and his wife, Marion, was personally impacted by the swampy conditions right across from their Main Street home, Locust Hill. Marion Willets Brower later recalled:
“I found that I was suffering from malaria and which disease all my children contracted. My cook and all the men who were imported by the contractor building my home, and who were housed in the barn, were also similarly afflicted. Then I learned that most of my neighbors residing along Main Street and East Broadway were suffering from the same malady, and daily consumed large quantities of quinine to fight the disease.”
As a founding member of the RNA, Ernest Brower suggested that the community would be more beautiful and healthful if the swamp was drained, underbrush removed and the area generally beautified. He reached out to his father, George, who had been Commissioner of Parks for the City of NY for many years and had experience in mosquito extermination to fight malaria. In addition to draining the swamp and combating the mosquito infestation, the RNA also undertook a “Swat the Fly” campaign and instituted the first garbage collection program in the Village.
The RNA established their headquarters in the William Valentine house (the current Library Annex). It was known as the Neighborhood House. Local organizations used the building to hold meetings and entertainments. It was the site of many educational and recreational activities, including a kindergarten program, English and citizenship classes for immigrants, a vegetable canning and drying program, and other adult education classes. The Boy Scouts and Girl Pioneers used it as a clubhouse. Under Marion Brower’s leadership, the organization started a hot lunch program for school children.
In 1916, there was an epidemic of polio or infantile paralysis. It impacted everyone in the community, regardless of class. The RNA established a children’s hospital in the Neighborhood House to care for local children. They also purchased several ambulances and rented a house in Roslyn Estates for the use of Dr. George A. Draper, an expert in the treatment of the disease.
So, it was only natural that this civic-minded organization would take it upon itself to come up with a way to commemorate the 146 men from Roslyn who served in WWI and the ten who died. In early 1919, members of the Roslyn Neighborhood Association began to make plans for a community memorial. The board formed a Memorial Building Committee and began planning a Building Campaign. The goal was to raise $100,000. The initial pledge drive was held the week of June 22, 1919.
In late 1919, the committee initiated a design competition. They solicited proposals for a memorial building from 13 prominent New York architectural firms. Six firms submitted plans. The plan of Hoppin & Koen of NYC was ultimately chosen. Frederick Marquand Godwin, a great-grandson of William Cullen Bryant, was one of the firm’s architects.
The original plan included a central structure framed by a Memorial Rotunda on the north end and a Library on the south end of the building. The main building was to include an auditorium/gymnasium with a stage and various meeting rooms. Recreational facilities such as a bowling alley and rifle range were planned for the basement level. The new building was to be connected to the existing Neighborhood House.
Clarence H. Mackay was designated Chairman of the General Committee of the War Memorial Building Campaign. His $10,000 pledge was the largest received. Other affluent North Shore residents also pledged significant sums. Residents and business owners throughout greater Roslyn pledged or donated smaller amounts to the building fund.
Unfortunately, they didn’t come anywhere close to raising $100,000 in pledges, and had to ask the architects to scale back the project. The decision was made to eliminate foundations for the memorial rotunda and library. The committee remained hopeful that they’d be able to raise the funds and the contractor agreed to proceed in stages as funds became available. Unfortunately, these sections were never built.
The War Memorial building was constructed east of the Neighborhood House, up a slight incline and fronting on East Broadway. At the time, East Broadway was a major thoroughfare through Roslyn, connecting the Roslyn Depot and more sparsely populated Heights section with the bustling commercial center of the Village. It was lined with homes and businesses as well as the Presbyterian Church and the Roslyn Hotel. Clearly, it was a prime location for such an important structure.
Excavation and construction of the main Auditorium section began in the fall of 1920 and, with great fanfare, the cornerstone was laid on October 24, 1920. Even though work on the exterior was suspended during the winter months and there were problems with underground water when it resumed in the Spring, by the summer of 1921, the building still needed finishing touches but was ready to be used.
A number of names were considered, including Victory Hall, Roslyn Memorial Building, Memorial Neighborhood House, and War Community House. “ROSLYN WAR MEMORIAL” was the name selected. That inscription remains on the building’s East Broadway facade.
The first public event held in “Memorial Hall” took place in September 1921 when the recently returned body of Pvt. James A. Lyons laid in state in the newly constructed auditorium. Lyons was 23 when he was killed in action in France in 1918. A Roslyn News article describes the event, stating that he “rested in state under a continuous military guard of his ex-comrades of the [James A. Lyons American Legion] post”.
After months of intense planning and almost one full year from the groundbreaking, Dedication Exercises for the Roslyn War Memorial building were held on Sunday, October 2, 1921. It was a full day of celebration, with an afternoon concert held at Clarence Mackay’s Harbor Hill estate, and an evening program at the War Memorial. Both programs included speeches as well as musical selections by the United States Marine Band and soloists from the Metropolitan Opera Company.
At the time of its dedication, the building was envisioned as a community center that would fulfill the educational, recreational and social needs of all Roslyn residents. Early cultural events held at Memorial Hall included a Shakespearean Play and a lecture on the National Parks. The gymnasium was rented by the Roslyn Board of Education for physical education classes. A basement bowling alley was constructed and outfitted with a $3,000 gift from Mrs. Childs Frick. There was also a rifle range and ping pong tables.
However, it doesn’t appear that the building ever fully met the lofty goals set out by members of the Memorial Committee in 1919. From the very beginning, not everyone saw the need for a new community center. Many felt that the Neighborhood House provided adequate space for community activities. There were financial struggles as people failed to keep up their pledges, and local groups failed to use the space as often as anticipated. Minutes from Roslyn Neighborhood Association board meetings indicate that identifying ways to raise funds to maintain the building was an ongoing concern.
The RNA board also discovered that some segments of the community wanted to exclude other segments of the population. In July 1922, members of the James A. Lyons American Legion post sent a letter protesting the use of the Memorial Building by African American residents. In the letter, members express the fear that the building would be “spoiled” and “shunned by the better class of people.” The RNA board backed its decision, stating that it met the board’s “unanimous sense of fairness and propriety,” and that there had been no problems with events previously held by Black organizations.
The Association provided many useful services to the community throughout the 1920s and during the Great Depression. However, by the early 1930s there was a lag in interest in the work of the Association and a drop in financial support for the upkeep of the Memorial Building. Many organizations no longer appointed a representative to serve on the RNA board and many of their successful social service programs related to public health and employment had been taken over by the Town of North Hempstead or Nassau County. By 1935 the Roslyn Neighborhood Association board had voted to disband and to cease operation of the group’s properties, including the War Memorial Building. A Liquidation Committee was formed with the goal of investigating options to dispose of the land and buildings owned by the group.
In late 1935, the Association entered a three year lease with theatrical producer Charles Hopkins. An actor, director and theater manager, Hopkins had built the Punch and Judy Theatre on West 49th Street in 1914, renaming it the Charles Hopkins Theatre in 1925. He was forced to close the theater during the Depression and was looking for a new venture. Under the name Theatre of the Four Seasons, Hopkins set about renovating the War Memorial building into a 200-seat playhouse. He enlarged the existing stage and redesigned seating in the auditorium. An article in the Roslyn News stated that the enlarged stage was “as large as the average Broadway proscenium.”
The new playhouse opened with much acclaim on November 12, 1935. The first performance was a production of the play “The Rag-Picker of Paris, or the Modest Modiste.” This French melodrama, originally produced at London’s Royal Surrey Theatre in 1847, was adapted by local novelist and playwright Christopher Morley.
At the time there were also several other small theaters on the North Shore, including the Great Neck Playhouse and the Red Barn Theatre in Locust Valley.
Newspapers of the day described the Theatre of the Four Seasons as “a theatre of charming proportions, appointments and surroundings” with “commodious quarters” to house a potential acting school. Between 1937 and 1939, the Theatre of the Four Seasons operated as a Federal Theater Playhouse, one of several playhouses throughout the state that were part of the New York State Federal Theater Project, a program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
In June 1940 the building was leased to another theater organization, a group known as the Cabal Players. Under the leadership of producer David Lowe, the playhouse was renamed the Millpond Playhouse. Novelist, essayist and playwright Christopher Morley, who lived in Roslyn Estates and had been previously involved with the Rialto Theatre in Hoboken, NJ, was closely involved with the new theater group. The Millpond Playhouse opened a season of summer theater with a production of Christopher Morley’s comedy, “Soft Shoulders.”
The Millpond Playhouse remained in operation through the early 1940s. A major production of the Cabal Players was Christopher Morley’s Trojan Horse. Life Magazine published a spread on the production in 1943 that showed the actors at work, living in the Neighborhood House, and cavorting on the tennis courts and in Roslyn Park.
With no new tenant in the wings when the Millpond Playhouse closed, the War Memorial Building languished on East Broadway. Community groups used it occasionally for meetings or other gatherings and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars did their best to keep up with repairs.
In 1944, the building was renovated for use as the Roslyn Youth Center, open to young people ages 14-18. The students performed minor repairs. With the help of groups like the Kiwanis Club, money was raised to repaint the interior, sand the floors and repair and stock the bowling alleys. On the lower level were bowling alleys, ping pong and pool tables, shuffleboard courts and sufficient room for dancing. The Youth Center officially opened on July 4, 1944. According to the Roslyn News, “The young people completed the evening by dancing to the music of a “juke” box which had been installed the day before, and refreshments in the form of Coca Cola were available at the “coke” bar.”
In the years following World War II, the building once again stood empty. Newspaper articles from the time indicate that the building was increasingly viewed as an eyesore and even “a menace to the community.” For the remaining RNA board members, it seemed the only option was to board up the building and place it, the Neighborhood House, and the entire 2-acre property on the market.
It was during this time that the Bryant Library was looking for a new home. Since its official establishment as the Bryant Circulating Library in 1878, the library had been housed in Bryant Hall on Bryant Avenue. Built by WCB in 1874 as a Reading Room and Lecture Hall for the people of Roslyn, “The Hall” stood in the path of the Roslyn Viaduct and had been demolished in 1946, leaving the library without a permanent home. The Library Association put most of the books in storage and rented space in a storefront on Garden Street in Roslyn Heights.
Recognizing that the library needed a new home, the Roslyn Neighborhood Association trustees approached the Bryant Library Association Board about taking over the War Memorial Building for library purposes. However, for five years, while it waited for the Court to determine the value of the demolished building, the library board went back and forth over whether to build a brand new building, renovate a former blacksmith shop on Main Street, or renovate the War Memorial building. Finally, in 1951, the Library Association accepted the RNA’s offer. Ownership of the War Memorial building, Neighborhood House and surrounding land was transferred to the Bryant Library. The space was remodeled and the new library opened to the public in early 1952.
The book stacks and reading room were on the main floor of the building, entered through double doors from East Broadway. Today, that space is occupied by the Helen Glannon Community Room and the Bryant Room, home to the library’s Local History Collection. In 1956, structural work to the foundation required the removal of the terrace and balustrade fronting East Broadway but allowed for a new Children’s Room on the basement level.
The 1950s were years of tremendous population growth in Roslyn. By the mid 1960s, the library was bursting at the seams. Patrons complained of “crowded aisles and insufficient seating.” There wasn’t enough parking. In 1966, the board presented a proposal to demolish the War Memorial Building and construct a new building on the opposite side of Paper Mill Road. Residents took sides, some preferring a new building, some in favor of preserving the existing building. A new proposal was presented to the public that involved moving the Valentine House across the street and constructing a two-story 10,000 square foot addition on the west side of the building.
In 1968, the Valentine House, which had served as the Neighborhood House, and, from 1962, as Roslyn Village Hall, was moved to the spot where community tennis courts once stood. Construction of the addition on the west side of the War Memorial building began later that year.
The expanded building opened in January 1970, with what had been the basement level of the building becoming the main floor of the library. Further renovations to the library building have occurred over the years. The Children’s Room was renovated in the 1990s and the main floor later reconfigured to support computer usage.
One hundred years later, the role of this building as a War Memorial and “a living evidence” of appreciation for what the soldiers fought for in WWI is largely forgotten. The plaque commemorating those who fought is no longer mounted over this fireplace. These men are now honored on a monument in Gerry Park.
However, as the Bryant Library, the building continues to perform the role ascribed to it by those members of the Roslyn Neighborhood Association back in 1921. It remains a center of the community and continues to be “a feature in the daily life of the people of Roslyn.”