Quintessential Bungalow Colony Sees End Of An Era
They might have looked like hell from the street, but if you journeyed beyond the rusty cyclone fence and treaded over a few weatherworn concrete squares you could have found yourself in one of the last places still rich with the flavor that years ago made Rockaway one of the sweetest summer spots in the city.
This was the kind of place where American flags and the aroma of barbecues would float in the summer breeze. A place where children could play without a parent’s worry. Where wooden pins pinched sandy bathing suits to sagging gray clotheslines, and 35-cent latches and 12" coil springs held wobbly screen doors closed.
To the untrained eye they might ap pear to be in despair – almost deserving of the fate that awaits them. After all, they looked like the next July thunderstorm could down them with one loud rumble. They were never winterized or combined and, in true fashion, they were vacant during the cold months. Sheets of tin nailed over the windows to keep squatters out.
The only major improvement was when water heaters were stuffed into the tiny toilet closets decades ago. Since then it was mostly a thumbtack here, a nail there, a new piece of rope for the window in the peak of the roof, maybe a ceiling fan. Perhaps a few extra shingles were added to the roof where a leak had sprung, or a new plastic curtain hung in the outdoor shower. There were no air conditioners.
But their disintegration added to their charm and value as a relatively untouched historical reference, and ultimately sealed their fate as well.
A colony of 39 bungalows – owned by Levittown developers – is set to fall in Rockaway Beach this month. The demolition should be quick work; the paper-thin walls and pane glass windows will quickly succumb to sledgehammers, crowbars and bulldozers.
As the splintered wood, rusted nails and linoleum is scraped into dumpsters to make way for modern housing, renters in one of the last true bungalow communities will be displaced, leaving only stories and photographs for future generations curious to know more about these peculiar summer homes and the characters who inhabited them.
The summer residents of 168-190 Beach 101 Street were told the bad news about four weeks ago. They were told to clear out their belongings – demolition would commence in March.
"We had no inkling," said Kitty McShane, a 27-year resident of the court who raised her children there. She expected to be back enjoying visits with her grandchildren this summer. "We all had a great time. It’s very sad," she said.
Residents of the court reminisced last weekend as they gathered their things and held an impromptu yard sale/swap. Most of them didn’t have much to take – the bungalows had become the final resting place for old televisions, lamps, mirrors, slow clocks, scratched frying pans and other items that had been deemed unsuitable for their winter homes.
McShane, Anna Mae Mulligan and Barbara Hofmann, also longtime residents, recalled how for many years the court celebrated Labor Day by holding their annual "Matt-a-thon" to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in honor of a young resident, Matthew Hacker, who had the disease.
One year, the ladies said, the court produced their own version of "The Gong Show" staged in the area left vacant when one bungalow burned down. Neighbors gathered around, some seeking "balcony" seats on the roof of the bungalow across the court, and enjoyed the show tremendously, they said. The mood was not quite as jovial last weekend.
A teenage boy from Wappinger’s Falls sat on the trunk of a car parked out side the court offering his family’s coffee table, empty wall unit and a framed painting for sale.
Families from upstate, the Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and other parts of Queens came to these summertime shelters to be just a few steps from the Atlantic Ocean. They lived together, intimately, in these tiny places with floors that sloped in all directions. They took turns in the outdoors shower – even in the rain, and cooked on 24" wide Hardwick gas stoves. They brushed their teeth at the kitchen sink, the only sink, and kept their belongings in old dressers and on painted plywood shelves.
They were part of a community that endured for generations.
"So many friendships grew from here," said Janet Frering, who lived in the court for the last 33 years. Four generations of her family, including her mother, Gloria Page, a prominent resident of the court for more than 30 years, also shared the experience. The news that they would not spend another Fourth of July or Labor Day weekend in their familiar setting was "devastating," she said.
Yet on Saturday the mood was not entirely mournful. Happy songs of yesteryear played from an old wood-case radio, and the mild temperature and sunny sky seemed to help keep residents upbeat. They talked of a re union.
The older kids drifted up to the beach for another look; a young boy set up colored plastic pins and rolled a grapefruit sized bowling ball down the court by himself.
The bungalows were built back to back somewhere between 1912 and 1917, and may have housed World War I military men, according to residents and Wave historian Emil Lucev. One row of 10 faced the street, two faced the inner court, and one more formed a rear court that faced St. Camillus Church. During the warmer months the trees would gain leaves and give shade, and resilient flowering plants adorned the court. Children would play. They could run up and down and between the courts – each alleyway not just a place to store bicycles once the court lights came on and kids had to stop riding, but a great hiding place too.
Mister Softee made a nightly stop sending kids dashing inside for a dollar or two.
"This was a safe place for kids to play85.everyone was family here," Frering said. Page put it another way – she called it "heaven for children."
"Everyone says ‘watch out for your children’ – well, this was the place for children," said Page, 87, who managed the summer rentals for the property owners. "I’ve seen these girls here graduate, get married and have children," Page said.
Some of those girls recalled their frequent trips to Playland, which was almost next door. They’d ride to the top of the Atom Smasher roller coaster and scream out "mom!" as loud as they could. Their mothers could hear them from the court, they said.
But Playland met its demise, and it seems these bungalows will too. The property on which they sit is potentially more valuable than the bungalows net themselves. One of the bungalows could be had last year for about $2,500 for the season, up from about $450 in the 1950s, but the property was sold to the B & G Partnership for $2.2 million back in 1988, according to records filed with the city’s Department of Build ings. Residents said the owner’s, who couldn’t be reached for comment, are ready to develop.
While some of the colony residents dreamed of winning the lottery and fixing up the bungalows, the issue of buying the property and subdividing it never came up. In fact, some said they never knew who owned the property and dealt exclusively with Page from year to year.
On Saturday, Page sat at the table in her bungalow next to a cookie tin filled with hundreds of keys, her purse hung over the front doorknob. A woman came in to see if she could buy some of the bungalows’ water heaters.
"No, no, those stay," Page said.