Standing on New Dorp Beach, among the sea glass, the tampon applicators, the Gatorade bottles, it is possible to see remnants of the St. John’s Guild Children’s Hospital. Built in the late 19th century as a stationary counterpart to the Floating Hospital that once docked just off-shore, the institution was also known by a more romantic name: Seaside Hospital. There are metal pipes, the bases of columns, cracked bits of foundation, bricks. There is the breeze, recalling the fresh-air initiative that sought to give sick city-dwelling children a respite from their crowded tenements. And there is the sea.
But, abandoned after a brief tenure housing Italian POWs after the Second World War, knocked down to make way for a never-realized Robert Moses highway, the hospital is more ghost than anything.
Trudging across its now-littered footprint onto adjacent Cedar Grove Beach, the sand brightens, the space widens and history draws closer. For nearly one hundred years, generations of families summered in the idyllic bungalows of the Cedar Grove Beach Club until, for the sake of that phantom highway, their property was seized by the city under eminent domain. Rather than return the homes when its plans didn’t materialize, the city turned the bungalows over to the Parks Department. Residents leased them back, caring for the beach and nurturing their summer community, until, for reasons unknown, they were evicted in 2010.
The historic homes languish behind a chain link fence, boarded up, just beyond reach. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire filmed in one, and the beach, untouched by any official parks maintenance, remains clean due only to the efforts of HBO. As the homes begin to be stripped, former residents worry that proper precautions aren’t being taken against asbestos and lead. They remember the sofas, bed-frames and wind-chimes they left behind, the cabins largely emptied of mementos accumulated over decades. They remember the families that had for generations made this place a home together each summer. The former residents of Cedar Grove Beach Club still gather elsewhere for events and celebrations, still hope to win back what’s left of these buildings and rebuild their homes. But it is not hard to imagine that, before long, the well-loved slats, shingles, and beams of these bungalows will follow Seaside Hospital into the Lower Bay, drifting out of time and into memory.
-adapted from information given by Jen Fitzgerald, David Young, Josh Jakob and Eleanor Dugan, Obscura Day 2012.