Home Sweet Home: The history of Port Washington


Caroline Katz, Eli Lefcowitz, Adi Levin, and Gillian Rush

Ah, Port Washington: the loving community of which we’re all proud to be part, lucky to have grown up in, and happy to call home.

On the surface, Port Washington is a beautiful waterfront dock town with some of the most prestigious homes and enriching schools in the country. But once you dig a little deeper, there is much more to this sailing town than what is seen by the naked eye.

The peninsula was settled by the Matinecock Indians, who eventually sold the land to eighteen English families from Connecticut in exchange for goods.

Among these families were the Willets and Sands families, each with distinctive areas in Port Washington today bearing their names. At this time, the peninsula was simply called Cow Neck, named after a cow pasture that all the town’s founding families used.

By the mid 1800s, Port Washington had become a full-fledged sand mining and shellfishing town. Where Harbor Links now resides was the location of the largest sandbank east of the Mississippi. This sand heavily contributed to the urbanization of New York and the building of its most famous skyscrapers.

Port Washington’s resources and economic potential influenced the population of the town, as did its convenient location; when the Long Island Railroad established a train station in Port in 1898, many New York City workers moved their families to the suburb and commuted to work.

The waterside town was also an important location for Pan Am flights, which departed from Manhasset Bay.

The town, in the midst of its growing population and development, became a hub for rich and famous individuals. This is largely due to the success of several businesses.

Bradley’s was a Port restaurant that attracted patrons such as the Vanderbilts, the Astors, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and many others.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, The Great Gatsby, Sands Point village was referred to as East Egg, and it was one of the major locations of the novel. The residents of East Egg were members of the upper class, rich by means of inheritance, whereas their western neighbors in West Egg were new money. The novel’s fictional family, the Buchanans, lived in the western part of Sands Point.

Many suspect that while Fitzgerald was a guest of a Sands Point resident, he used the house and its parties as a source of inspiration for the extravagances of his novel. The Beacon Towers, demolished in 1945, are also rumored to have inspired the book.

Of course, you can’t discuss the history of Port Washington without acknowledging the notable residents who have made our town what it is today. John Philip Sousa, one of the most famous American composers in history, resided at 14 Hicks Lane in Sands Point. The John Philip Sousa House, otherwise known as Wild Bank, is an official National Historic Landmark as of 1966. Dubbed “The March King,” Sousa is best known for his patriotic marches, such as “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Aside from directing the Marine Band and later forming his own, Sousa developed a brass instrument called the sousaphone.

Another influential Port resident was William Randolph Hearst, publisher of The New York Journal, among other newspaper publications nationwide. Hearst is widely acknowledged as a proponent of major changes in the world of journalism.

A pioneer of yellow journalism and sensationalism, Hearst led with a more emotional approach to eye-catching news. He was also a twice elected representative in the House of Representatives, and he even ran for president. Hearst was also well-known as an advocate for the working class in the progressive movement.

Among the several big-name figures who resided in the glamorous, gaudy Sands Point, were powerful families of Gilded Age millionaires, such as the Goulds, the Vanderbilts, and the Guggenheims.

Cornelius Vanderbilt became wealthy as a railroad magnate, and the family soon became successful industrialists and philanthropists. At one point, they were the wealthiest family in the United States.

Sands Point Village was originally owned by the Sands, the Vanderbilts, and the Cornwells. In 1917, Daniel Guggenheim bought Castle Gould, and his son Harry Guggenheim later bought the Falaise estate. Today, both mansions are maintained in the Sands Point Preserve.

The Beacon Towers were built for Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, ex-wife of William K. Vanderbilt. She also purchased the Sands Point Light property, the very estate that William Randolph Hearst bought three years later.

One of today’s most popular magazines is Condé Nast, a subsidiary of Advance Publications that has since spread to film and television in the Condé Nast Entertainment Group. The company’s founder, Condé Montrose Nast, was among the several celebrities to own a Sands Point mansion.

After working as advertising manager for Collier’s Weekly, Nast bought Vogue, transformed Vanity Fair into the publication we know and love today, and, of course, founded Condé Nast.

Along with important figures of the past are the famous celebrities who have lived, or currently live, in Port Washington. Carlos Beltran, outfielder for the Houston Astros and 1999 American League Rookie of the Year, lived in Port Washington during his professional career.

Burt Young, beloved actor from the Rocky franchise, still lives in Port today, and he continues to work as an accomplished painter in his Main Street studio. Port Washington’s past is certainly interesting, but do you ever wonder about the events leading to the construction of the very building you’re standing in?

Before the US was even a country, in 1757, there was just one school in the entire town. In fact, that one school had just one room. All students, no matter what age, were taught in that room, with boys on one side and girls on the other. As the population grew, so did the schools. Every few decades, a slightly larger school would be built.

One of these schools was the Flower Hill School, which is at the current site of the Police Headquarters. The principal of this school was notorious for his strict leadership, and known for his use of a rubber hose to discipline students.

Nevertheless, there was never a true high school until 1908. The Main Street School, as it was called, was located where the Landmark Building is now. The decision to build a high school was far from unanimous.

The bond to construct the building passed by just 9 votes, 55 to 46. The total cost was $110,000 (nearly $3 million in 2017 dollars). The completion of the school was considered such a great achievement that a parade was held with thousands in attendance.

Just 24 years later, Port needed an even bigger high school, so Port Washington High School was built. Even this school proved too small, so it was converted into Weber Middle School, which it remains today.

And that all brings us to Paul D. Schreiber High School. Built in 1953, it was named after a former superintendent of the school district.

In 2003, there were large renovations which created what we still call the “new” wing. Some things still haven’t changed since the building opened, however. The math office has been in the same place since the beginning.

When people walk down Main Street or take a stroll along Shore Road, they often overlook the history behind the buildings they pass. Port Washington boasts dozens of historic buildings, many of which can be traced to the nineteenth century or even earlier.

While Port Washington has changed dramatically in the past hundred years or so, many of its most recognizable buildings have stayed the same.

Louie’s is one of Port’s most iconic locations, and it has hardly changed since it was built in 1932. The seafood restaurant was originally owned by Louis Zwerlein, a German immigrant who came to Port during the 1800s.

According to the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, the Louie’s we know and love was originally called the “Kare Killer.” The name was unusual, but even more unusual is the fact that it was a floating restaurant.

Because the boat was anchored in the middle of Manhasset Bay, people would have to take smaller boats to reach the restaurant, which, like today’s Louie’s, specialized in seafood and drinks. However, the Kare Killer’s success was short-lived, and it closed during the Prohibition era.

The building above Arena Sports and Rosso Uptown contains an inscription that reads “Stannards Bros., Inc.” Captain Elbert Stannard made a living by salvaging old wooden boats from the Civil War and earlier. One of the crown jewels of his collection, which was one of the largest shipyards in the country at the time, was Commodore Matthew Perry’s ship, the first to open up trade with Japan.

Stannard opened up a shipyard, now the Manhasset Bay Shipyard on Shore Road, in 1887. Although his collection of ships was destroyed in a fire, the Stannards Brook Park behind the Landmark still bears his name.

Many of Port Washington’s most familiar roads—Reid, Mitchell, and Murray, to name a few—are named after influential figures who helped to shape the town’s history.

The Mitchells came to Port in the late 1600s, and they continued to make their mark on Port Washington for centuries to follow.

John Mitchell, Jr. fought in the Revolutionary War, and Samuel Latham Mitchell became a U.S. senator in 1801. Decades later, Wilhelmina Mitchell became one of the founders and the first librarian of the Public Library.

The current Stannards Brook Park used to be part of the Mitchell property, as were Carlton Avenue and the surrounding smaller streets.

John Murray and Edwin Reid were sand mining partners in the early 1900s, and they bought properties adjacent to one another. Today we know their properties as Murray and Reid Avenues.

Port Washington is packed with rich history, influential figures, and hidden gems—if you know where to look. From the sand mining days and Gilded Age riches to the Port Washington we know today, our town is a living relic of days gone by. So the next time you walk past the train station or crack open a copy of The Great Gatsby, take a second to appreciate our beautiful town’s illustrious history.