Robert Fliegel said he still feels a twinge of enchantment every time he enters his home at 99 Fox Blvd. in Merrick, where he and his wife, Joyce, have lived for more than 40 years. When they first toured the house — a Spanish Mission-style ranch with 18-foot-high living room ceilings, stucco walls and stained-glass windows — in 1978, they bought it “on the spot.”
Last November, Fliegel, who sits on the Merrick Gables Association, submitted an application for the neighborhood to be recognized as one of Preservation Long Island’s Endangered Historic Places for 2019. The nonprofit works with Long Islanders to promote stewardship of local historic sites that are threatened by “demolition, inappropriate redevelopment” or other factors.
Merrick Gables was approved for the program in February. “As I was doing our application for them, I became more and more familiar with the laws and how the system works,” Fliegel said of the landmarking process.
In his research, he found a 2017 report by the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which determined that 212 properties in the Merrick Gables Historic District — “an area roughly bounded by Sunrise Highway, Wynsum Avenue, Arthur Street and Henry Street” — are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (see first box, left). Fliegel’s home was on the list.
In February, he submitted three applications to the town’s Landmark Preservation Commission for his home — as well as two of his neighbors’ homes — to be considered for landmark designation.
Under town law, “Each home has to be petitioned individually,” Fliegel said, “so I’ve been working with my neighbors, and for those that see the wisdom in going for landmark status, I fill out their application, get them to sign it and take it down to Town Hall.”
Michael Hartofilis, a liaison to the commission, said that applications must prove a property’s historical and architectural value. He added that Fliegel’s submissions “succeeded in doing that.” At a hearing on Sept. 17, the commission unanimously approved all three applications. The Town Board now has 90 days from the approval date to call a public hearing, at which it will either grant or deny landmark designation to the homes.
The law also dictates that once a home is landmarked, it cannot be “constructed, altered, repaired, moved or demolished unless there is compliance with the provisions” of Chapter 76 of the town code.
In June, Fliegel submitted landmark applications for seven other homes. His crusade grew out of a recent “slashing and burning” of houses in the neighborhood, he said, which he believes is detrimental to the community’s historic character. “I’ve been here for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen the houses being knocked down faster,” he said. “At the same time they’re knocking down houses, they’re filming movies here.”
Merrick Gables has long been a destination for location scouts from the television and film industries — the area was co-founded in the 1920s by William Fox, who founded Fox Film Corporation (see second box, left). The Gables’ residential streets and distinct home interiors provided a backdrop for the 2011 HBO mini-series “Mildred Pierce,” starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce, and the FX series “Fosse/Verdon,” starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams.
In his petition to the commission, Fliegel emphasized both the cultural and economic advantages of preserving the Gable homes. “When movie studios are filming, it’s money for the town and the county because they have to hire police and workers,” he said. “This is an economic engine and it’s being destroyed.”
Sal and Laura Bommarito live across the street from Fliegel; their two-story Colonial is also up for landmark designation. Stepping across the threshold is like traveling through time, because they’ve maintained the home as it was in its prime. A manual typewriter, wrought-iron railings, vintage mystery books and exposed timber are among its features.
Laura Bommarito shares Fliegel’s concerns, and designating her home as a landmark, she said, would require the next owner to maintain its timeless charm. “Everything now is being knocked down and built up again,” she said, adding that it was “integral” to preserve the Gable homes. “It’s a part of our past, of Long Island’s past.”
The Bellmore Memorial Library will host a presentation on the “Landmarks of Hempstead Town,” which will cover the complexities of the landmarking process, on Oct. 15. The discussion will be led by Dr. Paul van Wie, the acting chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Residents can register for the presentation by phone at (516) 785-2990, in person or online at www.bellmorelibrary.org.
Fliegel’s hope is that the town will amend the landmarks laws to include a provision for designating local historic districts such as the Gables. But for now, he will continue to preserve history, one home at a time. He encourages his neighbors to reach out to him at (516) 378-9370 if they would like help submit an application to the commission.