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Roslyn History Saved

The Roslyn area has many unique chara-cterisitics. At the top of the list has been its devotion to historic preservation. During the 1980s, for instance, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan singled out Roslyn as a model for such work. 

Last October, the Roslyn Landmark Society was set to celebrate its 50th anniversary until the ravages of Hurricane Sandy arrived. And so, last Wednesday night, March 27, the society was able to celebrate as it had originally planned, with a talk by Ellen Fletcher Russell, author of Roslyn Restored, a history that tells the story of Roger and Peggy Gerry, the husband and wife team who were the driving forces behind the successful preservation movements in the village.

Today, Roslyn, as Russell noted, remains a tranquil village surrounded by the usual suburban sprawl. But it wasn’t planned that way. By the mid-1950s, much of the old Roslyn was set to be obliterated, all in the name of Long Island Expressway Expansion. Dr. Gerry was a native of Far Rockaway and a World War II veteran. After the war, he remained in the service as an oral surgeon. Dr. Gerry and Peggy moved to Roslyn in the 1950s. However, Dr. Gerry was soon assigned to a naval post in Japan, which he feared would end his life in the village. However, Peggy Gerry, as Russell related, purchased property in Roslyn, making this a case of the husband now following the wife into a new life. But the happy couple soon found that their village was essentially being targeted for destruction.

Of the first battles Dr. Gerry and Peggy fought was saving Silver Lake from being paved over for a parking lot. Soon, there was the preservation of old houses on Main Street in the face of planned Long Island Expressway expansion. The Gerrys won these battles by mobilizing public opinion in the village against the wishes of Nassau County bureaucrats. Finally, in 1960, they decided to change life in the village itself. In time, the Village Planning Board, the Landmark Society, and the Historic District Board were created. As important, a Special Historic District was created to protect old homes on Main Street and East Broadway. By the mid-1960s, another important step was taken as the Roslyn Preservation Corporation came into being. sThis body began the process of purchasing historic homes, renovating them and protecting them from development. This strategy, as Russell noted, created a “revolving fund” used to save old houses. The most significant home that was saved was the Starkins Van Nostrand House, a structure that goes back to the late 17th century and whose purchase was a time-consuming process, one that lasted from the mid-1960s all the way up to 1976. In addition, a popular house tour of historic homes was inaugurated. 

In time, the honors began rolling in. In 1982, Dr. Gerry received the National Trust Honor Award from First Lady Nancy Reagan. In 1985, the couple received the Honor Award of the Victorian Society in America. The Preservation League of New York and The State Historic Preservation Office also recognized the couple and the organizations they helped to create. Dr. Gerry’s own career in preservation came to a troubled end in the mid-1990s when, as a member of the board of trustees, he supported the development of a Stop & Shop supermarket for the 11-acre landspace off Skillman Road. That proposal received a heated debate, one that met with an eventual defeat. However, it did spark the inauguration of a Master Plan for the village, with The Atria on Roslyn Harbor as the most prominent example of future development. By then, the battle to save historic Roslyn had already been won and it was the legacy of Roger and Peggy Gerry that members of the Landmark Society were once again celebrating at village hall.