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Long Island’s Secret History

Hidden in plain sight, from abandoned asylums to Einstein's couch


Neil mentions a mural in the basement of the building supposedly created by the famous “Skippy” cartoonist Percy Crosby who attempted suicide during his stay at the hospital.

“It’s a piece of history, hard to ignore,” he adds. “But it’s not safe. It really isn’t safe.”

Midgetville


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Exploring old buildings is no joke. There is asbestos falling out of the ceilings, chemicals mixing in the air, and one wrong step could kill you.

Back at the morgue, Leita points out an elevator. Just the shaft remains in a dark corner. It looks like a closet, but it has no floor, only a 10-story black hole. Urban explorers are well aware of the dangers. Leita stands to the side and pushes on a steel beam to make sure it’s sturdy before he leans into the shaft to take a look.

“Police have said to me, ‘Don’t you know this place is dangerous? Don’t you know about asbestos?’” he says. But to him, the risks are worth it if it means salvaging even a small piece of the past.

He points to a corner of an old autopsy room where organs were once weighed and metal gurneys still line the perimeter, a part of Long Island’s history some hope to forget, others hope to capture.

But Long Island has no shortage of history, and not all of it is off-limits.

SUMMERS WITH EINSTEIN, DRINKING WITH KEROUAC

Down Route 25A, practically every other town is a historical district. Living on Long Island, it is not uncommon to find a fort in your backyard, a town full of chicken coops-turned-houses, an Amagansett garage where Elie Wiesel did his writing—or even a couch where Albert Einstein crashed one summer.

Ron Rothman knows a thing or two about that. His grandfather, David, who started Rothman’s Department Store 90 years ago in Southold (a store now run by Ron), befriended Einstein when he came into the store nearly 70 years ago.

“They spent a lot of time together, they played music,” says Rothman. “Einstein told my grandfather it was one of the best summers of his life.”

It was the summer of 1939 and Einstein was spending it in Nassau Point. He came into Rothman’s looking for sandals—or “sundials,” as Einstein said through his heavy German accent.

Marconi's radio station

Marconi's radio station

“My grandfather mistook his asking for sundials and took him out to the backyard to show him the only sundial he had—his,” says Rothman. “Upon realizing his mistake, they proceeded to go back to the store where Einstein bought a pair of sandals that my grandfather had on the shelf.”

Einstein found the only pair left that would fit him were a women’s size 11.

“Between the combinations of Einstein’s embarrassment about the sundial incident and my grandfather’s enthusiasm to make a sale to the great scientist, Einstein bought these beach shoes with grace,” says Rothman. “He wore them gracefully as not to embarrass my grandfather for selling him the shoes.”

Rothman’s grandfather continued to send Einstein a new pair of sandals occasionally until Einstein’s death in 1955. Einstein would tell him that his old ones were “still so elegant.”

Rothman’s is still a family-run business on the North Fork. In passing, that is obvious. But its history is hidden—that is, until you walk through the front door.

And Rothman’s isn’t the only place on Long Island one can mingle with the ghosts of the past.

At the top of Jayne’s Hill in Huntington, the highest point on Long Island, Walt Whitman walked through the woods and wrote his poetry more than 100 years ago. It is only a three-minute walk from the car, maybe one if you run real fast. At Gunther’s Tap Room in Northport, Jack Kerouac would stop for drinks and play pool. The crazy architecture of the Ronjo Inn and Memory Motel in Montauk inspired Andy Warhol to buy a house in the town. Lee Radziwill, Jackie Onassis’ sister, once said in her biography, “He was almost allergic to fresh air, but once in a while felt obliged to leave the city and check in on the happenings at his place in Montauk.” All of these places still exist today. Part of Warhol’s property was donated to The Nature Conservancy.

Meudon

But the places that don’t have caretakers are not so fortunate.

ABANDONED

Across from Freeport High School is a now gated-off building with a caved-in roof. On one side, a sign that says “Brooklyn Water Works” is barely visible under heavy graffiti. In passing one might never know this was Brooklyn’s major water supplier in the 19th century. Rusty beer cans are piled up in its corners.

At the now-defunct Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, about 60 miles away, desk calendars stop at 1989, the year the plant was shut down. Old ketchup packets from 20 years ago sit here untouched. Down the block, behind a barbed wire fence, lies Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” says Rich Morano, an urban explorer who has spent summers photographing the property, admiring the building through a chain link fence with a “Land For Sale” sign on it. Wardenclyffe faces possible demolition.

But Morano, 26, shares the same vision as Leita. He sees beauty in the cracks. This isn’t just an old, rotting building. There is history here.

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